The Undiagnosed Teenager with Dyslexia

by Abigail Marshall.  Excerpted with permission from Chapters 2 and 3 of The Everything Parent’s Guide To Children With Dyslexia
© 2004 F+W Publications, Inc., a division of Adams Media.

teenage girl studyingOften, very bright children are able to compensate for their dyslexia in the early school years, but cannot cope with the greater intellectual demands of secondary level schooling.

Some common signs that your teenager may have dyslexia are:

  • Your child must repeatedly read and reread material in order to understand it.
  • Your child has extreme difficulty managing and keeping track of homework assignments and deadlines for his various classes.
  • Your child repeatedly reports that he was unaware of assignments and deadlines because the teacher “never told” him what was required.
  • Your child has unexpected difficulty with learning a foreign language.
  • Your child struggles with higher math, such as algebra.
  • There is a significant discrepancy between your child’s school performance and scores on standardized tests, including college board tests such as the PSAT.

If your child shows significant problems in any one of the above areas, it is a sign that he may have a previously undiagnosed learning disability. You should discuss these issues with him and also talk to parents of his classmates to find out whether their children are also having problems with the same subjects. Sometimes a problem with a math class or the first year of a foreign language can simply be the result of a poor teacher; poor grades in any subject can also occur with a teacher who is unusually strict in grading practices. If it is a “teacher” problem, usually other students and parents will have similar complaints.

However, if the problems seem to be unusual or persistent, you should seek an evaluation for dyslexia or other learning barriers. The guidance counselor at school may be able to help arrange such testing, as well as to help plan your child’s course schedule to better meet his needs.

When an Older Child Asks for Help

In some cases, your older child or teenager may be the one who asks for testing. Your child may find the academic demands in middle school and high school overwhelming, at least in some subject areas. He may have learned about dyslexia on his own, through Internet web sites or by talking to other kids. In any case, he knows that he is struggling with material that seems easy for his peers.

Your teenager may be afraid to bring up the subject of dyslexia at home. He may be embarrassed to let you know just how poorly he is doing at school, or he may be afraid that you will be angry or upset.

It is important that you listen to your child and try to understand the reasons he feels he needs extra help. You might want to take a list of common dyslexia symptoms and ask your child to show you which problems on the list he feels apply to him.

You may be surprised to learn that your child has been struggling for years, but has managed in the past to hide his problems through sheer determination and hard work. Your support and understanding is crucial; for a child who has previously done well academically, an appropriate diagnosis can be the boost he needs to excel in high school and gain admittance into the college of his choice.

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  • Mia

    Hi. My name is Mia and I’m a fifteen year old in south Africa.

    I never have problems with lots of words, simply because of my writing talent. But when it comes down to math in words, it seems like a trick question. I hardly understand math in numbers!!

    It does take me quite a while to fully comprehend an easy sentence. But as far as it goes with spelling and words, I do make mistakes similar to those of dyslexic patients, but it’s not on a daily basis.

    I’ve always been one of those students who read at an excellent level in front of people. And I also understand it. When I’m on my own, though, it takes quite a while.

    I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and it has influenced my personal relationships with friends and family and when my report card comes…’I’m not living up to mt full potential’
    It also interferes with daily things like homework or just talking…

    I’ve asked my mom whether she thinks I could be dyslexic or not. She just laughed and said no. Should I try to reason with her? Should I try on my own?

    • Mia

      I also have trouble with words like ‘this’ ‘and’ etc. But my brain quickly realises the mistake.

      • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

        Mia, I think you are focusing too much on the word (dyslexia) — which really is simply a description of a learning pattern or style. So rather than debating your mother about what to call your problem, I think it’s better to recognize that you have a problem, figure out what it is, and move toward solving it.

        We believe that the trouble with the small words like “this” or “and” happens when someone who thinks mostly in pictures doesn’t have a mental picture to go along with the word. You know what a “dog” or a “spoon” is… but what is a “this”? That’s why we use clay modeling – along with a dictionary -to learn the meanings of all those small words.

        Written math problems tend to use a lot of those small words — and, or, from, into, is, are — but they are used differently than in ordinary speech. If I say I have an apple and a banana, it is easy to picture the fruits, and you understand “and” to simply mean that I have both. But if I use “and” in math problem — how many are 10 apples and five bananas — now I am using “and” to represent the mathematical function of addition. So now here is a word that you usually skip right over in a sentence that is the core to understanding the math problem.

        With a math program, we would encourage individuals to model the math-meaning of all those small words. You wrote that your brain realizes your mistake — the key is to master the word thoroughly, so you don’t make the mistake in the first place.

  • Ruby

    Hi, I’m Ruby. And I’m here to make sure if I really had LD. First of all, I atopped college due to all failing grades, I studied so hard and people around me assumed that I’m not studying enough or just plain lazy. But i tried all styles of learning and comprehension, I happen to forget what I’ve learn at the day of the exam. Especially when I have to study too many topics in one subject. When I was in my elementary times and High School, not even a tutor helped, I end up disappointing them by still failing the subjects they tried to help me through. I cried a lot, I felt like the dumbest person ever. But I can create unique imaginations, unique story plots and can direct films as well without learning them from somewhere. Also as a result of trying to study and understand the topics more the more it gets worst and fail more.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Ruby, we can’t offer a diagnosis based on an internet posting, but I can tell you that your experience of difficulties with school and exams in combination with imaginative talents and ability with film directing definitely suggest a dyslexic thinking style. If you think mostly in pictures, then it can be hard to make sense of and remember words.

  • Megan L

    I need some advice. I am in highschool in 4th year (from Scotland) I have done a lot of reaserch on dylexia and have spoke to people with it. I tried speaking to my Mum about the chances of me having it and she was convinced they would have found it st a young age but currently I have found myself stuggling with a lot.

    All through my life I always struggled with worded maths problems as I just cannot seem to understand them, I get overloaded with the amount of words, I can get extreamly stressed and end up giving up.

    When I am writing I often miss out letters, mix up letters or out them in the wrong place. Quite a lot through life I have found myself writing words twice or missing them out. I thought this was normal for a long timr. I am not sure if this has anyhting to do with it but I find myself sometimes stuttering on words when I am speaking but that might be something different.

    When it comes to my French classes in school I cant learn the vovab for the life of me, it is sooo challenging. When it comes to large ammounts of text I struggle a great deal. I can never seem to hand an essay in on time or is it just me being me. Is this a sign of dyslexia or is it just normal? Do I go to a doctor about it ir what? I find it hard talking to psrents about it

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      All of the symptoms you describe are very consistent with dyslexia. I am not sure that I fully understand the Scottish educational system, but if you still have several years of high school ahead of you, you may be able to get help through your school. This web page from Dyslexia Scotland has some suggestions:

      You can also find out how Davis providers approach the various problems you have listed from the book, The Gift of Dyslexia.

      Here are some suggestions that I would offer for the specific problems you list:

      “miss out” or “mix up letters”: This is usually a sign of disorientation, a mental state when your perceptions are not accurate. We use orientation training to help correct perceptions. Try to keep calm and relaxed as you write; if you feel frustrated, take a short break. You can try the “Release” technique described in The Gift of Dyslexia or use other stress release or calming techniques from other sources to try to keep your mind as calm and centered as possible.

      “worded math problems”: Dyslexics often think mainly in pictures, and tend to skip over or ignore small words of written language, like “into” and “from”, because there is no mental picture to go along with them. Many of these words have different meanings in math than they do in ordinary speech, and often are very important to understanding the problem. We call these “trigger words” and have students master all words by modeling both the letters of the word and what the word means in clay. This web page has examples of math words –

      French vocabulary — like the math words, it is important for you to have a mental picture of what the word means in order to learn it. So make clay models or at least draw little pictures when trying to learn vocabulary. I personally find French very challenging because French words often sound very different than they are spelled. So I would encourage you to learn spoken words first, and always listen to and say the words you are learning. As you learn, you want to be able to mentally connect the three parts of each word — what it means, what it looks like when written, and how it sounds.

  • Jessica V

    Im a junior in high school. I honestly am wondering if you think I have dyslexia. I don’t really mix up letters, but i mix up words occasionally such as was and saw. I read pretty fast but don’t understand anything so i have to keep rereading. I have a photographic memory so the way I do well i most tests is by thinking in pictures. I struggled in Spanish for a very long time. I get very good grades though, 3.5-4.0 GPA. Although I have to study five times as long as everyone else and lose focus easily when I’m reading because the words sometimes jumble a bit. I find that I’m very decent at writing, but have awkward sentence structure and word choice. Im not a very good speller and often have to use a different word to compensate .

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Jessica, your traits are very consistent with dyslexia — especially the fact that you do best by thinking in pictures. All of the problems you describe can be corrected. The methods we use teach you to be able to reorient yourself when you lose focus, and we use tools for building reading comprehension skills geared to picture thinkers.

      I’d suggest that you check your school library to see if they have a copy of the book, The Gift of Dyslexia, so you can understand more about dyslexia and the approach we use. I hope you will be able to discuss this with your parents or another trusted adult. The book explains how to learn the key tools we use, so it is possible to work successfully just using the book if you have someone willing to help guide you through learning the Davis techniques.

  • Leah

    I’m a junior in high school and when I was in elementary school I needed extra assistance on my reading. When I read I wouldn’t understand what I was reading and had to reread a section multiple times. When I read aloud I would mispronounce commonly known words and still do, which makes reading aloud a fear of mine. I am also terrible at spelling, I get bs and ds mixed up and forget how to spell commonly known words. I also skip a lot of words that I can’t pronounce or know the meaning while reading. Although I now love reading and have pretty good grades, the thought that Dyslexia is a possibility for my slow reading, needing to reread material, not being able to pronounce words, etc. is something I’ve always pushed away because I know an answer wouldn’t change anything.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Leah, having a label – or diagnosis – by itself wouldn’t change things, though it could make you eligible for extra support and accommodations at school if you want them.

      However, understanding more about dyslexia and your own learning strengths will help you improve and overcome barriers, simply because you can learn about strategies that are more effective for dyslexics. Certainly there are effective strategies to help with reading comprehension and building spelling skills.

      One suggestion I can make is that when you come to a word that you don’t know the meaning of, or don’t know how to pronounce — check a dictionary. We teach students how to use the pronunciation key in a dictionary, but nowadays there are many apps and online dictionaries that will read the word out loud to you. Read the definition and think how you would use the word in a sentence. Don’t worry about trying to memorize the word – just make sure you can understand what it means in the passage that you are reading at the time. I think that even though it seems inconvenient to stop to look up the word, you will find that your enjoyment of reading and your ability to remember what you have read will improve when you aren’t trying to fill in a lot of blanks because of your habit of skipping over the words you don’t know

  • Matthew

    Hi, I am in the 8th grade currently and have been noticing many of these issues in my school life ever since I entered middle school. When typing and writing I tend to mix up Bs and Ds. I am a fast reader but have trouble understanding the meanings of some phrases until they are explained to me. Now that I have been applying to high schools I have noticed that my standardized tests scores are significantly better than something I would do in school. When talking to my mom about school I do use the phrase “teacher never told me that” honestly. I have always had the worst grades in Spanish class my entire life. I know it is not a teacher issue because my classmates do just fine on the tests and quizzes. In lower school, I was always one of the best in the class when it came to math. Now I have been taking more complex math like Algebra and Geometry and have been performing very poorly. I was wondering what your opinion would be on what is the problem and what is next for me to do. Thanks.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Matthew, I think you fit the profile of being a high achieving dyslexic. Some might call this “stealth dyslexia” — it is dyslexia that becomes more apparent as you get older, because you are also very bright and were able to easily compensate when you were younger and school work was easy.

      Dyslexia is the result of a difference in the way that your brain processes language. It is not a bad thing — it is likely that your brain is very efficient in processing visual, real world input. Most dyslexics think mostly in pictures, though sometimes the thought process is too fast to be consciously aware of it. But it can take a while to sort out the meanings of words when there is no mental picture to go along with the word.

      You might want to try completing the screening test at This will not give you a formal diagnosis, but it will give you a picture of your learning strengths and areas of weakness. It is also something you can print out and share with your parents as a starting point for discussion. (The online assessment is totally confidential – you don’t have to log in or provide any personal information and our system does not store any of the information you provide. It is just meant as an educational tool to help people learn more about dyslexia and their own learning styles).

  • Zhenya

    I’m an exchange student. It’s my third month in America. I’m a Senior. Back in my country I used to struggle in school a lot. I’m very good at math, but in school I was always convinced by everybody that I’m too slow and stupid. And actually I was. I couldn’t solve any simple problems at school, in the case when my peers were solving the same at a very high speed. But at home when I was calm and had unlimited time I was able to solve the most difficult ones. I was a fast reader, but for understanding a page sometimes I wasted the whole night. I was failing all the exams at school which were based on memorizing things. Seems like I don’t have a short term memory.

    If I don’t imagine things in my head and analyze them and make some logic for me and then understand, I will never be able to remember anything.I had difficulty to learn poems by heart. Meantime I can remember the things “by my eyes”..I started learning poems seeing the first letters of lines in my mind … I don’t know how to explain… My eyes always study everything…I know every single item’s place at classroom..when a poster is missing from the classroom I immediately notice it. I can’t understand when I’m reading loudly, or when they are reading loudly. But when they are speaking to me and explaining, my mind starts shining. I had and have a huge difficulty to concentrate. It can take from me more than 6 hours to prepare for studying and only an hour to finish all my homework and school stuff.

    I have very strong imagination and creativity. I have daydreams 24 hours. Also I see about 6 different dreams each night.And remember all of them.I’m talented in many things and surprisingly equally. Seems like both right side of my brain and left side they work equally. I’m very good at maths and sciences, meantime I have strong art talents, painting and dancing talents got from nature…It could take me more than a week to write an essay for school, but suddenly it can occur to me a perfect poem. Also I never feel the time. It’s not constant for me. Never. I’m always late. I’m not doing that on purpose. It’s just I really can’t feel the time as many people do. School was always the place which I hated…both in my country and here. It’s a black box for me with a cruel standards, which kill every natural abilities you have. I don’t know why I’m this way. People always say I’m just stubborn and “opposite” when I tell that something is wrong with school system. But it’s the way I’m feeling every single day.Though I succeed it doesn’t bring me happiness, because I waste all my health and feelings on the stupid thing I guess.I don’t know….. Is this dyslexia or what?

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Zhenya, you write extremely well. Your description of your experience is an excellent account of the ways that the gifts and talents associated with dyslexia also combine to give rise to the difficulties. It is common for dyslexics to be highly imaginative and to think in pictures.

      I hope that while you are here in Americas studying that you will be able to find the book The Gift of Dyslexia in a library. I think the book was written with people like you in mind.

      I think it is also very courageous of you to choose to come to a different country to study when school is so frustrating for you. I hope that you are able to find ways to express your creativity both in and out of school.

  • Allegra

    I have never had trouble with spelling or reading (I am a fast reader) , but I do process things slowly, and I take much longer to write than my peers. I also find it hard to concentrate in lessons, and daydream a lot. My dad and brother are dyslexic, also one of my grandparents. I also am very disorganised and never finish exams, and also frequently do worse in exams than I do in class, apart from English and history (ones I don’t revise for). I don’t want to spend money on getting tested because I am probably not but I don’t know….

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Allegra, you don’t need to get testing or a formal diagnosis to get help; you just need to figure out the root of the problem. Sometimes a person can be very capable at recognizing words in print and read quickly, but find that they have a hard time comprehending what they read. For example, the person might find their mind wandering as they read, and then have to go back to read and reread pages in order to try to make sense of them.

      Do you feel that you think in pictures? Are your daydreams filled with rich visual imagery? You might be disorienting as you read, because even though you can easily decode all the words, it might not be natural for you to think with words. So while your eyes are scanning the print, your brain may be forming pictures that don’t always match what you read.

      As you are a quick reader, I’d suggest reading the book The Gift of Dyslexia to get a sense of how we see dyslexia and what you can do about it.

  • Allyson T

    I am a Junior in high school and have had trouble reading in the past, I remember my teachers used to give me a colored cover to put over my books to help me read better, my mother never knew of this back then because she is not that in tune with my school work. Anyways, The past year I have been noticing that I mix up letters like B and D, Beautiful and P, M and W. And I am having a really tough time pronouncing most words. And aside from absolutely hating the classes English and History, I’m not doing bad in them, I’m only failing chemistry, and I’m fairly good at algebra. I talked to my mom about getting tested for dyslexia because I have noticed some symptoms and my friends have noticed my symptoms as well. But I wanted to clarify with a professional before I did to learn more about it..

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      It sounds like you are on the right track to take control of your own learning! I hope this article is helpful to you when talking to your mom.

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