Read Between the Lines

By School House

6 years ago

SEN Specialist Jessica Narowlansky on Undetected Learning Difficulties

Undetected learning difficulties can undermine a girl’s confidence, says SEN specialist Jessica Narowlansky, head of The Independent School in London

St Mary's Calne

Pictured: St Mary’s Calne has excellent provisions for those pupils with dyslexia

I have often asked myself why it is in this dyslexia-aware age that girls tend to be brought to see me, on average, three to four years later than boys. And I believe the answer lies in our understanding of how dyslexia presents itself in our children.

In her landmark longitudinal study in Connecticut schools, Dr Sally Shaywitz, Professor of Paediatric Neurology at Yale University and the founder of The Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity, found that while testing revealed no significant difference in the prevalence of reading difficulties between sexes, there was a clear pattern of schools referring many more boys for assessment.

A startling example of this referral bias was illustrated in the difference between the numbers of children identified by researchers as having a diagnosable reading difficulty and those identified by schools. Shaywitz analysed this trend throughout the study, and found one clear issue consistently arose: within schools behavioural difficulties were a primary reason for referral. Many girls were slipping by as they were literally not making enough noise to be noticed. Further to this point, a recent Georgetown University study exploring dyslexia in male and female brain anatomy, asks if methods of testing may be gender skewed as ‘models on the brain basis of dyslexia, primarily developed through the study of males, may not be appropriate for females, and suggest a need for more sex-specific investigations.’

Similarly, in recent years under diagnosis of girls has jumped to the top of the Autism agenda. It is now accepted that gender biased expectations allow many Autism spectrum girls to go undetected due to their drive to mirror socially acceptable behaviours while, in truth, feeling completely isolated. As a society, we hold to the idea that girls mature more quickly than boys, are more likely to adapt themselves to conventional behavioural expectations; are less likely to demonstrate disruptive behaviours when angry or frustrated. In essence, what studies have shown time and again is not necessarily a higher incidence of dyslexia in boys, but that dyslexia is far more likely to be detected and identified in boys. The unfortunate consequence of this is that girls with dyslexia are more likely to struggle with depression and/or anxiety which can result in more serious mental health issues.


Commonly accepted warning signs include: Reading and writing problems, apparent laziness, daydreaming, organisational difficulties. Girls may overcompensate for these difficulties in their desire to cope.


Perfectionism: A lovely looking piece of homework the teacher thinks took 30 minutes was painstakingly laboured over all evening.

Inconsistency: Presentation doesn’t reflect content. Despite looking perfect, work content seems weak or disjointed; likely due to overemphasis on tidy handwriting and spelling.

Hyper-organisation: Over-organising compensates for internal chaos. Self-inflicted pressure creates anxiety and consumes hours of unseen, tiring work.

Jessica Narowlansky is head of The Independent School in London and a Specialist Educational Consultant for The Child Development Centre (CDC).

READ MORE: The School House Guide to Dyslexia / Learning Difficulties: What are the Signs and Symptoms?