Dyslexia: What is it? Awareness of what it means for dyslexics; its impact on life and learning & how to help
Definition of Dyslexia
The word comes from the Greek:
‘dys’ meaning difficult and
‘lexia’ meaning written words or reading
Hence: ‘Difficultly with, or a non-working of, words’.
What is Dyslexia?
Much has been written about dyslexia from the viewpoint of research and education. Multi-sensory teaching is advocated along with a phonic approach. Discussion stimulates progress, innovative ideas abound and good practice spreads daily.
However, here we’re going to look at what dyslexia means for the dyslexics themselves and for their families, the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life.
- What practicalities have to be overcome?
- What problems can it cause?
- What impact does it have on daily life and on learning?
- What are the positive aspects?
- What help is available and what can relatives do to help?
How many of these people are dyslexic?
How can we Understand?
Look at it this way: a dyslexic’s brain processes written language in a different way, causing difficulties with reading and writing, as well as with sequencing (of instructions, of spelling, of time....), with memory, with word retrieval and with comprehension.
Think of it as a circuit in the brain which is like a journey of information from A to B; instead of traveling as the crow flies, the information goes down country roads, gets stuck in fields and can emerge muddy and confused. It takes a few journeys to find B more quickly and to remember the quickest route but, once in long-term memory, the route can be recalled.
As explained by the BDA, dyslexia is ‘a life long, usually genetic, inherited condition and affects around 10% of the population. [It] occurs in people of all races, backgrounds and abilities, and varies from person to person: no two people will have the same set of strengths and weaknesses. Dyslexia occurs independently of intelligence.’
Specific Learning Difficulties
An alternative ‘label’ is ‘Specific Learning Difficulty’, of which there are a few and which often overlap with dyslexia, such as
- dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers),
- dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination),
- attention deficit disorders
What Practicalities have to be Overcome?
On a day-to-day basis the dyslexic has to think about
- what to take to school or work;
- what time to wake up, get the bus, be ready for or meet a lift;
- where to go on the first day of a new school or new job;
- meeting new people, making new friends;
- what lesson or meeting is first, second.....;
- where to go for break, lunch, to meet someone;
- what to put on for sports lessons;
- listening to and remembering information;
- taking notes;
- planning and writing essays or reports;
- standing up and talking about something;
- how to work in a group or team;
- reading out loud in class or in the office;
- organising - files, a day, a week, your own belongings or people around you.
There are many other things but that will do for now.
Ok, so that’s a list about which most of us would say ‘So what? We all have to deal with that.’ Consider how different it is for someone who
- has a short-term working memory;
- has difficulty organising things (keeping things in sequence);
- has difficulty telling the time or even recognising numbers;
- can’t follow directions well, let alone remember them;
- has poor spatial awareness and difficulty with directions;
- has difficulty reading and difficulty understanding and remembering what is read;
- has coordination difficulties, causing difficulties with tying laces, doing up buttons;
- sometimes has poor social skills;
- doesn’t want others to know s/he can’t read;
- can be afraid of speaking to a group due to poor recall of, or order of, content
Now try to imagine what it’s like dealing with an average day, as well as coping with the usual stresses of learning and living.
Classroom, Office or Anywhere in the World
What Problems can it Cause?
Potential problems are
- low self-esteem, thinking you’ll never achieve your potential;
- lack of confidence;
- being labelled ‘thick’, ‘lazy’ or worse (yes, even in schools, when dyslexia is now well-recognised!);
- falling behind in lessons;
- being late finishing work to a deadline;
- getting lost and therefore being late for lessons/meetings;
- low exam results if no help is offered (e.g. reader and/or scribe);
- being ostracized by peer groups (because you’re ‘different’);
- behavioural problems, outlined below.
How does it Impact on Behaviour?
All these issues can have an impact on behaviour. Well, would you behave well in a class full of children if you were way behind through no fault of your own, if you didn’t know why you couldn’t read or remember instructions, if you were laughed at by others, if you were frustrated and worried by the whole situation? I know I wouldn’t.
Many dyslexics are within or above average intelligence which means they perform well in other subjects, can do many practical tasks with ease and enjoy sports. There is an obvious discrepancy between all those abilities indicating potential success and a low performance in literacy skills. When you are expected to succeed and then you are unable to prove your competence in our traditional way, that is in writing, in exams, in our literacy-based society, it can be a terrible and potentially disastrous blow.
A high percentage of prisoners are dyslexic. The following is taken from the summary of ‘Linking Of Dyslexia with Crime’ by Lisa Seeman (www.etni.org.il/dyslexia2.htm):
'Evidence is reviewed that there is a higher percentage of dyslexics in jails and borstals. The high level of dyslexic delinquency is attributed to an emotional shift in a student's personality in cases when his/her dyslexia is undiagnosed or untreated, and he finds himself subject to repeated failures in the school environment.'
Worry, depression, stress and all the resultant factors manifest themselves; the root situation must be addressed if that student is going to reach his or her potential, is going to be happy and is going to succeed in life. It can be addressed with knowledge, help and a lot of perseverance.
What Impact does it have on Daily Life & Learning?
It takes longer to read, longer to write, longer to plan, longer to assimilate information.
It means not being able to rely on your memory to get somewhere or to be on time, so you have to carry a schedule around with you and make sure you understand it.
It means having help with planning ahead.
It means difficulties with copying from the board or from notes (visually swapping from one set of words to another and retaining the form of what you see in your head and then having to reproduce the text in writing, is a huge demand, almost impossible).
It means forgetting what a parent asks you to do, such as
‘Go upstairs and get a towel from the cupboard and while you’re up there ask your sister to brush her teeth and tell Dad his dinner’s ready.’
If you’re lucky you’ll manage one of those, most likely telling Dad about dinner as this was the most recent instruction.
It means having to ask someone else in the supermarket what is written on the label of a tin.
It can mean not knowing right from left, not being able to read traffic directions or information, let alone dreading being faced with the highway code (you have to read it and remember it!).
It means seeing your classmates making progress and getting high marks for history when you don’t, even though you know more about the Tudors than most of them and can discuss the subject with ease.
It means trying to produce answers for exams when ordering a sequence of information in your head or on paper is far from easy.
What are the Positive Aspects?
Dyslexics often view and think about things from a different angle.
They have different, often better, solutions to problems.
Some can see a finished object in 3D from a 2D drawing.
Dyslexics are often strong visually, are creative and have problem-solving skills. They are prominent among
often finding a niche in the arts and in entertainment.
They have a refreshing outlook on life and take you by surprise, often shaming you!
Here's an example from my own experience:
I once asked a student to try to write on the lines of an exercise book; he looked at me and said, ‘Oh, is that what they’re for?!’ It was a genuine question as he’d always thought the spaces were for writing in. The awful thing is that not one teacher had picked up on that and he was 15! My reaction was to tell myself never to assume.
A Secret Weapon!
A Positive Viewpoint
In fact, it helps a dyslexic (anyone actually!) to approach the subject from a positive point of view and ignore the negative language of ‘difficulties’, ‘problems’, struggle’, ‘impairment’. Many people I know say things like ‘oh, that must be awful for them’, ‘they get their letters the wrong way round, don’t they?’, or ‘that’s word-blindness, isn’t it?’.
Far better is an approach which celebrates the ‘differences’ in dyslexics, the fact that they are often gifted in many ways, that they have a different perspective on many things, that they can offer answers to problems when others just can’t see it.
My opinion is that if teaching embraced the multi-sensory, multi-method, ‘get down and muck in’ approach which we use for dyslexics, then we’d have schools where children would learn in a far more enriched environment, they’d all learn together with no stigma and far fewer would feel left out or penalised or ‘different’. That might sound idealistic but it would work!
There are many; if they can succeed then so can others. Here are a few:
- Albert Einstein,
- Leonardo da Vinci,
- Richard Branson,
- Muhammad Ali,
- Fred Astaire,
- Orlando Bloom,
- Alexander Graham Bell,
- Harry Belafonte,
- Agatha Christie,
- Walt Disney,
- Erin Pizzey,
- Whoopi Goldberg....
You can see the full list for yourselves at
What Help is Available?
In Britain it is possible to obtain
- individual assistants
- individual tuition
- exam concessions of 25% extra time, a reader (depending on reading age), a scribe (depending on writing legibility and speed): in fact, exam concessions have recently included use of text-to-speech as a non-human reader, enabling a student to work independently
- assessments done by qualified professionals, private or supplied by local education authority
What can Relatives & Friends do to Help?
Relatives and/or friends can
- offer practice with games to improve reading, memory, organisation,
- read aloud a text and ask questions to check comprehension,
- read aloud together,
- find books which suit not only the level of reading but also the level of interest,
- praise progress,
- use strengths, emphasise achievement and abilities,
- keep worry or stress hidden as they can rub off and exacerbate the situation.
What does it Feel like to be Dyslexic?
Here are some quotes on how it feels to be dyslexic:
‘I see things from a different perspective.’
‘I can come up with solutions no one else has thought of and I think fast on my feet.’
‘When I am reading, occasionally a passage will get all jumbled up, but when it happens I have to read and re-read the passage over again.
‘I know what I want to say, but I can never find the right words.’
‘In formal situations, although I know what I want to say, I struggle, lose focus and then my mind goes blank and I panic.'
‘I have the right ideas, but I can’t get them down on paper.’
‘It’s like my computer crashing with too much information!’
‘Sometimes when I am being told what to do, the words I hear get all jumbled up in my mind and I just can’t take in what is being said to me.’
‘In general conversation with family, friends and colleagues they usually accept that I tend to ramble, forget and repeat,…. because that’s part of me’.
I’ve heard so many similar to these from students of mine. If you are dyslexic, I invite you to add your own thoughts in the comments section below; I’d love to see what you have to contribute.
Making People Aware
If you are, or if you know, a dyslexic then I don’t need to tell you the following.
When you realise that most classes in school contain at least 2 or 3 dyslexics (varying from mildly to severely dyslexic), it puts the problem into perspective.
I guarantee that several of your acquaintances are dyslexic; they might not have told you but then it’s often the case that it's not talked about for many reasons.
The next time you come across someone who has difficulty reading or refuses to read or makes excuses to avoid reading, take a step back and consider that dyslexia might be the reason. Don’t come to any hasty conclusions that a person is ‘stupid’ or ‘slow’.
Even many teachers are still not aware of what dyslexia is or means to those who have it. It can be a blessing but it can also be a curse. Many use it as a strength and find ways round it, though they usually need help to do so.
How You Can Help
You can help by
- offering to read with pupils at your local school
- raising funds to go towards research (contact your local association)
- helping adults at your local higher education establishment
- offering to help a relative or neighbour with forms, applications etc.
If you are a teacher (and I know you're pushed for time and funding, so this is not a criticism; some of you will know this already):
- find out more about dyslexia, preferably by going on a course (your school might fund it)
- check any in your class who find ways to avoid reading aloud or starting written work, who 'play up' when any spotlight is put upon them, who are extremely disorganised or really clumsy,
- listen to the concerns of parents; they know their children best
- try lots of multi-sensory teaching for the whole class
- present notes or instructions in a clear, brief manner, with illustrations and in colour, preferably on a cream (instead of white) background.
If you are a parent:
- read, read, read to and with your child
- have as many books as possible around the house, aimed at the appropriate age group, preferably high interest but at the reading age level
- do lots of word games or make flash cards (see my other hubs on dyslexia)
'Parents know their children best.'
This is an article taken from the SDA (Somerset Dyslexia Association) Newsletter October 2013.
'Parents are key to spotting dyslexia in their children because they know their children best. Problems may escape teachers and some children simply learn strategies to cope.
Parents should be aware that dyslexia often runs in families, it is usually present from birth and 1 in 10 children are affected.
Early diagnosis and support is vital so that specialist teaching can be implemented which means children can reach their potential.
The important thing to remember is that dyslexia can affect people in different ways. Some dyslexics are good readers, while others are great at maths. Apart from reading, writing and spelling dyslexia can also affect other areas such as short-term memory, organisational skills and time management.'
If you have concerns about your child then please contact their class teacher and the school’s SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator).
Discuss why you think your child has dyslexia.
Ask whether your child learns at the same rate as other children their age.
Ask what the school can do to help.
Ask what you can do to help.
Air your views and any worries, make sure they are aware of the child’s strengths and particular interests.
Ask for an assessment if you think it’s appropriate or if it’s needed to obtain extra help for your child.
To help an adult dyslexic family member or friend:
- ask them if they need help with anything but don't make a big deal out of it, treat it as an ordinary occurrence,
- ask them what their interests are and find information on those,
- if appropriate, use games which help reading, writing and memory (doesn't have to be pen & paper), llike Scrabble, Lexicon, Happy Families, Uno - lots of these can be played with family children, so involving the adults in helping the children.
Now that you know dyslexia is not just a problem with letters or words being in the wrong order, you'll be able to understand and help any dyslexics who come your way.
They'll be glad you understand. They might not need or want your help but if you offer it at least they'll know they have access to some support.
Next time you write a report, enjoy a story, make out your shopping list or follow a recipe, think about how many senses and actions the process involves. Then think about the dyslexic trying to do the same.
Information and Sources
British Dyslexia Association (BDA )site: www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/
Whether for younger pupils or adults, there is a wealth of detailed information.
They have book suggestions, free and confidential helplines and lists of professionals who can help with assessments and tuition.
There are local associations for most counties.
They have a magazine, ‘Dyslexia Contact’, distributed to members and member schools.
Somerset Dyslexia Association (local branch of the BDA) www.somersetdyslexia.co.uk
Dyslexia Action is another organisation which works with all those involved in the field of dyslexia. They have a magazine entitled 'Dyslexia Review' www.dyslexiaaction.org.uk
Whilst dyslexia has the same impact worldwide, the above references apply mostly to Britain (though the information available is relevant to all). However, there is the International Dyslexia Association who can give information on associations, access arrangements and assessment availability elsewhere. They offer 10 questions as a self-assessment for adults (see below).
The American Dyslexia Association www.american-dyslexia-association.com/
A range of books aimed at specific reading age levels and offering high interest subjects and stories, can be found on the website of Barrington Stoke publishers, www.barringtonstoke.co.uk
Dyslexia Self-Assessment for Adults
(from International Dyslexia Association)
- Do you read slowly?
- Did you have trouble learning how to read when you were in school?
- Do you often have to read something two or three times before it makes sense?
- Are you uncomfortable reading out loud?
- Do you omit, transpose or add letters when you are reading or writing?
- Do you find you still have spelling mistakes in your writing even after Spell Check?
- Do you find it difficult to pronounce uncommon multi-syllable words when you are reading?
- Do you choose to read magazines or short articles rather than longer books or novels?
- When you were in school, did you find it extremely difficult to learn a foreign language?
- Do you avoid work projects or courses that require extensive reading?
Each Question checked “yes” = 1 point Score
If you answer “yes” to 7 or more of these questions, you may have signs that indicate dyslexia. You may want to consider seeking consultation from a specialist or a formal diagnostic assessment from a qualified examiner.
How Many Dyslexics do you Know?
Have a look at these for Further Help
- DYSLEXIC CHILD? How to HELP & HAVE FUN! Part 2 - th ...
Further help and advice for parents of dyslexic children. Information about dyslexic associations and where to find support and advice, support procedures within the education system and more practical suggestions to support reading progress.
- DYSLEXIC CHILD? How Parents Can Help & Have Fun: Par...
Help and advice for parents of dyslexic children. Background information and practical suggestions to support reading practice. Designed to reassure and provide an upbeat approach.
- DYSLEXIC CHILD? How to HELP & HAVE FUN! Part 3 Long ...
Further to Parts 1 & 2, this deals with letter pattern choices for the long vowel 'a' sound. Further contact suggestions and practical ways to help a child read and spell.
- ADULT DYSLEXIA: Difficulties, Professional Assessmen...
Help for Adult Dyslexics; encouragement, contacts for advice & professional assessment plus ideas for self-help regarding reading, improving memory. There are links to find further help.
© 2013 Ann Carr