Children learn to read at different paces, with some mastering the concepts in kindergarten and others showing little interest until well into 1st grade. But some kids, even those who seem eager to learn, can’t catch on. When their classmates are reading books by themselves, they’re stuck on the first page, unable to make sense of the words.

If this describes your child, he may have dyslexia, a neurological-based learning disability that makes learning to read difficult. Children with dyslexia are not less intelligent than their peers. They are often exceptionally bright and creative. But their brains process language differently, and a different approach to reading instruction is needed.

Some characteristics of dyslexia in children include difficulty learning the alphabet and nursery rhymes, confusion with opposites such as “before” and “after” or “left” and “right,” difficulty distinguishing different sounds in words, and transposition of the order of letters when reading or spelling.

Getting Tested for Dyslexia

It’s not unusual for preschoolers to display some of these traits, which can be a normal developmental delay. If a child has not outgrown these difficulties by age 6, she can be tested to determine whether she has dyslexia.

Yet in some school districts, teachers can’t refer a child for testing until 3rd grade, a practice based on the belief that some kids may still catch up on their own. In other districts, teachers cannot test until a child is already far behind in academic subjects. Delaying testing could have consequences for your child. She might learn to hide her disability and pretend she can read by memorizing. Or she might act out in class, lose confidence, or withdraw socially. Meanwhile, she’ll fall farther behind in school.

It’s important for parents to push hard for testing so their child can get the services needed to learn to read, says Abigail Marshall, coauthor of When Your Child Has Dyslexia and The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children With Dyslexia.

Working With the School

Marshall, who is also the parent of a dyslexic child, offers these insights on getting help for your child:

Put it in writing. Request an evaluation in writing, noting why you think your child should be tested immediately. The letter doesn’t need to go into great detail, but should list the basic areas of concern, Marshall says.

Don’t use the word. School administrators often react negatively to the word “dyslexia.” “It is better for the parent to simply ask for testing for a learning disability,” Marshall says. “The school officials might try to tell the parent that there is no test for dyslexia or that dyslexia is a medical diagnosis, so using the phrase ‘learning disability’ avoids setting off that resistance.”

Watch for other labels. Your school might try to label your child as having ADHD, and then recommend medication instead of services, Marshall says. “ADHD does not cause reading difficulties, and medication for ADHD will not help a child who is struggling with academics,” she says. “If a child seems to have behavioral issues associated with ADHD and also is struggling with reading, math, or other academic issues, then the parent should press to have appropriate interventions and support for the academic issues included in any individual education plan.”

Think accommodation as well as remediation. If your child is managing to keep up in school, he might not qualify for remediation services, which reach back to the point where the child got lost and reteach the material. Remediation often involves a tutor or small-group instruction. But he might qualify for accommodation—small, immediate changes that give him a greater chance of success on a daily basis. Accommodations include additional time on tests, a seat at the front of the class, and permission to type assignments on a computer instead of writing by hand. “Accommodations can often be arranged informally with a supportive teacher,” Marshall says. “I was always able to get these easily for my son, and as he progressed through school he arranged them on his own.”

Learn what the school offers. Schools differ in their approach. Some may offer in-depth tutoring, helping your child get around her learning disability by becoming an expert in decoding words and using context clues. Others may offer additional reading instruction in a small group setting. Different strategies work differently for each student. A lot depends on the teacher’s dedication, training, and teaching skills.

Consider private services. Some parents want a specific program such as Orton-Gillingham, which offers intense instruction in how to break down words by sound, or Davis Dyslexia, which teaches children to use their creativity to address the root cause of their learning disability. Schools are often reluctant to promise adherence to such a program, citing cost or the belief that their current methods are effective. Pursuing private services is sometimes a better option than a drawn-out battle with the school. Private services can be expensive, but children often only need in-depth instruction for a limited time. Once they learn the strategies they need to read, they may be able to excel in a traditional classroom with or without accommodations.

Help your child enjoy reading. At school, reading may continue to be a struggle, even once intervention has begun. At home, you can help your child by reading aloud to her or getting her books on tape. Freed from the struggle to decode the words, she can learn to appreciate story elements such as plot twists, dialogue, humor, and suspense.

Watching your child struggle with reading can be devastating, but dyslexia can be overcome. Many successful men and women have done so, including Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia and now head of the College Board, which oversees the SAT and the Advanced Placement program, and Charles Schwab, founder of the financial services firm and investment bank.

Finding the right approach for your child can take time and patience, but once she gets on the right path, she’ll have the opportunity to read for learning and even for fun.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.