Do kids with dyslexia have trouble following directions?

By Ellen Braaten, PhD

Do kids with dyslexia have trouble following directions?, kid cooking with parent

Question:

My 10-year-old grandson has dyslexia and often doesn’t follow directions. Is that a common symptom of dyslexia, or is it unrelated?

Answer:

This is an interesting question — with a complex answer.

All learning disorders are defined by their main challenge. The challenge is universal, meaning that everyone with the disorder has it. The challenge also lasts longer than a few weeks or months.

The main challenge of dyslexia is trouble learning phonics. People struggle to match letters to sounds. That affects learning to read and spell words, which can lead to problems understanding what we read. That alone wouldn’t cause someone to not follow directions unless they are written directions.

However, learning disorders like dyslexia are more complicated than their main symptom. Some people also have what are called associated symptoms. These symptoms don’t affect everyone with the disorder. But they happen in more than just a few people.

Many kids with dyslexia have problems with general language processing. Some also struggle with long- and short-term memory. Experts think there are two reasons for this. 

The first reason has to do with how the brain functions. With dyslexia, the system in the brain that connects what we see and what we say when we sound out words is disrupted. That can disrupt other brain systems, like memory or language.

The second reason has to do with problems with verbal language. Remembering a direction means remembering a series of sounds. Sounds in general are hard for kids with dyslexia to process. And anything that is hard to process is hard to understand and remember.

Then, there are disorders that can co-occur with dyslexia. Dyslexia and ADHD are two disorders that often go together. If you have one, you’re at an increased risk of having the other. 

A child who also has ADHD will have trouble with executive function. This is a set of skills that includes working memory. But trouble with working memory isn’t always about memory. It’s often about attention.

If you have trouble paying attention to what someone is saying, you can’t remember it. We can’t follow directions if we never really heard them in the first place (even if we nodded “yes” the whole time someone was giving instructions).

So, to answer your question, there are a few reasons why kids with dyslexia might struggle with directions. But they’re not usually related to the main challenge of dyslexia — matching letters to sounds. 


Learn more about why kids don’t follow directions. And watch an expert explain the connection between dyslexia and ADHD

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    About the author

    About the author

    Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.