Dyslexia in Preschoolers


Research shows that the earlier we identify and support children with dyslexia, the better their outcome. So what are the first signs, and what can we do to help?

Dyslexia isn’t often diagnosed until after seven years of age. However, the warning bells can be apparent during early childhood. While children develop at different rates, it is important that whānau and educators can spot those tell-tale signs so that children continue to be inspired by learning and go on to enjoy educational success.

Early signs to watch out for:

Delayed speech – By three years of age, ‘typically developing’ children can be understood by an unfamiliar adult most of the time. Delayed speech sounds can be an early indicator of dyslexia. These children may have lots to say but their speech development is slow and they may muddle certain sounds or words, particularly longer words.

Struggles to learn rhymes and songs – Like most children, they enjoy listening to stories, but may struggle to sit still and maintain attention, and show little interest in the text. They may have trouble remembering simple rhymes and song or rhyming sequences such as ‘the cat sat on the mat’.

Memory difficulties – A child with dyslexia can find it difficult to remember sequences of information: they might struggle with instructions that have more than two parts, and have trouble recalling names of people or objects.

Phonological awareness and sequencing difficulties – Research indicates that between the ages of three and five, children develop the ability to identify rhyme and syllables, and begin to recognise speech sounds and match them to letters. A child with dyslexia may be slow to reach these milestones. Sequencing words in sentences, and learning the days of the week and numbers may also be tricky for them. 

Co-ordination difficulties – A child with dyslexia may demonstrate poor coordination: they may struggle with gross motor actions such as kicking, throwing, hopping or skipping, and have difficulties with fine motor activities such as threading beads, using scissors, pencil control and doing up buttons. They may also struggle to coordinate the sequences of routines, such as getting dressed.

Family History – Dyslexia has a strong genetic link. If a family member has dyslexia this can be a factor too.

In addition to the above difficulties, a child with dyslexia may also demonstrate particular strengths, such as:

Creative talents – This could be in the quality and imagination of their art work, their ability to build fantastic structures, or their flair for telling great stories or performing skits etc.

Enhanced Cognitive skills – Children with dyslexia may be quick thinkers and problem solvers. They might grasp new concepts quickly and be skilled in sharing knowledge verbally.

The more time you spend with a preschooler, playing games, singing songs, reading, repetition, miming and moving, the more you will understand how and what your child is learning. The best way to identify learning delays is to intentionally engage in activities with a child so you can observe their skills in a natural, informal context. During play, an adult can demonstrate some of the skills and then watch to see if the child develops these easily once exposed to them.


  • For all children, focus on developing oral language skills through rich conversation, story-telling, songs and rhymes in order to build the vital skills for learning and socialising.
  • In early childhood settings, educators can introduce children to phonological awareness through play. Point out the sounds in words, have fun with rhyming and syllables and show children how sentences break down into words. Help children to understand how to listen – not just to adults, but also to their friends. Group learning situations give children opportunities to learn to interact with their friends, to show empathy for others and to work and play together.
  • Outside play is also very important for helping children develop core strength and accuracy with large movements. Encourage activities that involve coordinating both sides of the body and crossing the midline to support children in developing the fine motor skills they need to write.
  • From as early as six months of age, children can be exposed to opportunities to interact with writing and drawing. They can start using large crayons or chalks, paintbrushes with water on the floor or wall, water or spray bottles to spray water on to concrete or a fence. These can be a fun first foray into mark-making. These positive experiences help children feel empowered and motivated by literacy. If a child goes on to have a diagnosis of dyslexia, that motivation will help them face the inevitable challenges.

As a parent, you know your own child best. If you have concerns, follow your instincts. It’s important in the first instance to speak to your child’s teacher or your family doctor.

If a child is exhibiting a significant number of these early signs, you may also wish to seek further support from specialist assessors, educators, speech language therapists and occupational therapists.

Our thanks to Auckland Kindergarten Association

The Woodcock Johnson assessment used by SPELD NZ can test for dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities in pre-schoolers. Research shows many benefits of early identification and intervention but parents/caregivers of children younger than 7 or 8 should note that a definitive diagnosis of dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities is difficult to make for this age group. However, the assessment can identify where difficulties are likely and the Assessor can make suggestions to help future learning. Individual lessons can still help a child under this age who is significantly behind in reading. A firm diagnosis can usually be made for children once they turn 9.