Compensating dyslexia | Dyslexia UK

Compensating dyslexia

February 26, 2024 Keir Williams Comments Off

Dyslexia is sometimes referred to as the ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ disability. Because dyslexia does not affect intelligence, it is often hard to detect. Whilst difficulties with reading, writing and spelling skills are typically the first indicators that people consider when looking for dyslexia, often the signs exhibited can be more subtle. This is particularly true in people with compensating dyslexia. In this two part blog we will discuss what compensating is, why it is hard to identify, how it can impact upon reading and also provide advice on what you can do if you think your child has compensating dyslexia.

Compensating dyslexia is a condition where a person with dyslexia has developed coping strategies to manage their difficulties. While they may appear to be able to read fluently, this is often due to their use of compensatory neural mechanisms and pathways, which can mask their underlying problems. As a result, these individuals may slip through the cracks of the school system and underachieve compared to their true potential.

Neuro-research has shown that students with compensating dyslexia tend to use other parts of their brain, when compared to people without dyslexia (

One of the key characteristics of compensating dyslexia is a disparity between verbal abilities and academic performance. These individuals may appear bright and clever but struggle with written work, messy or unclear handwriting, and spelling difficulties. Furthermore, they may have a wide disparity between their intellectual ability and academic results, which can lead to frustration, anger, or depression.

Identifying compensating dyslexia can be challenging because these individuals tend to do well in comprehension assessments, which can mask their difficulties with decoding and phonics. Some signs to look out for include inconsistent performance at school, spending hours completing work, frequently making silly mistakes in tests or exams, and struggling with easy questions despite achieving marks in more difficult questions.

Ultimately, it is important for teachers, parents, and caregivers to be aware of the signs of compensating dyslexia and to seek appropriate support and intervention. By understanding and addressing the unique needs of these individuals, we can help them to achieve their full potential and overcome the challenges of dyslexia.

Common characteristics of a child with compensating dyslexia

Although every child is different, and dyslexia affects people in different ways, there are some common characteristics of someone with compensating dyslexia:

  • Their verbal abilities are much higher than their written / academic abilities
  • They appear clever and bright, but continuously appear to underachieve
  • They have messy or unclear handwriting (such as muddling letters)
  • They have difficulty with spelling, frequently forgetting words that they have been taught how to spell (such as “which” as “wich” and “they” as “thay”)

In addition, children with compensating dyslexia tend to have a wide disparity between the intellectual ability and their academic results and performance. Despite having good thinking skills and verbally bright, they tend to struggle later in their school life when the pace and difficulty increases. This can mean that despite having to work hard to keep up, teachers can perceive them as not trying, lazy or unmotivated. This can lead to the child, aware that they have an issue but without a diagnosis, feeling frustrated, angry or depressed.

On occasion students with compensating dyslexia show their difficulties in other ways. These could include: increased anxiety, avoidance of school, or behavioural disruptions. This can mean that in some instances, compensating dyslexia is mistaken for other difficulties such as attention deficit disorders (ADHD/ADD), visual or auditory processing delays or even just a lack of effort or engagement.

Why is compensating dyslexia hard to identify?

Identifying compensating dyslexia is challenging, but there are several signs to look out for. Firstly, children with compensating dyslexia tend to have high verbal abilities but average school grades. They are bright but struggle with their undiagnosed dyslexia, which affects their school results.

The second sign is that compensating dyslexia often becomes apparent when individuals are older, typically in secondary school or university. Individuals with compensating dyslexia use coping strategies to mask their difficulties, and only when the content becomes complex do these strategies begin to fail.

Thirdly a compensating dyslexia child may have inconsistent performance at school. They tend to have a mixed profile of areas of strength and difficulty, meaning they can be top of the class in certain subjects but struggle in others.

The fourth sign is that children with compensating dyslexia tend to spend hours completing work. They use this strategy to compensate for their difficulties, but it can be time-consuming.

Children with compensating dyslexia frequently make silly mistakes in tests or exams. This is because, under pressure, their working memory becomes overloaded, and they may have word retrieval problems. Consequently, they may write a different number of letters than they intended, resulting in errors. They may also make mistakes in easy questions without support. They may have gaps in their knowledge, resulting in errors in seemingly easy questions, despite achieving marks in more difficult questions.

See next week’s post for advice on what you can do if you think your child might have compensating dyslexia.

For more information on essay writing tips for people with dyslexia, read this post:

Also read our 12 tips to perfect sentence starters here:

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