What is this dyslexia thing?

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Disability, difficulty, difference or learning preference – there are many views of what dyslexia is. So let’s be clear from the outset: dyslexia is widespread and for life. It is therefore an insult to talk about cures. And it is an insult to regard it as a disability per se. In fact, where there is ‘disability’ it is often the education system that is the cause, fostering difficulties by not properly accommodating these students.

Dyslexia is a learning difference or, more accurately, a learning preference. For more on the paradigm shift to viewing dyslexia as a learning preference, Neil Mackay has contributed a chapter on this new thinking to the influential Routledge Companion to Dyslexia. Click here for more information on this publication, edited by respected dyslexia expert Dr Gavin Reid. To read an extract from Neil Mackay’s chapter, click here.

In essence, understanding dyslexia as a learning preference means understanding that dyslexics not only have a right to be dyslexic, they have a right to be taught in the way they prefer to learn. Radical though this may sound, it is quite simple. Brain research, including studies from Yale and Auckland universities, has shown that while it is common to use the ‘verbal’ left side of our brain to understand words, dyslexic people use the ‘pictorial’ right side – making them slower to process and understand language, but stronger in creative areas like problem solving, empathy and lateral thinking.

Generally, the left brain controls linguistic functioning, and the right brain controls visual processing. However, MRI technology, including research from acclaimed US dyslexia expert Sally Shaywitz shows these aspects may be disrupted or located differently in the dyslexic brain. This type of brain works atypically, with some parts of the modules for phonological awareness appearing in the right brain, and some visual processing modules located in the left brain.

Accessing stored information involves routing information through the corpus callosum, which links the two halves of the brain. If you need to reroute the information because you have elements and modules in atypical places that naturally slows the response time down. However, these different “journeys around the brain” often result in many more links and connections which may, in turn, result in enhanced creativity and problem solving ability.

Dyslexia is a continuum, not a distinct category, as it occurs across a range of intellectual abilities with no clear cut-off points. It is also arguably part of the normal diversity of brain organisation amongst humans which is necessary for effective solution focussed creativity. Though currently coming at the expense of weaker basic skills such as reading and spelling, ICT will shortly empower dyslexic learners to access and produce information as effectively as non-dyslexic learners currently do via the written and printed word.

The big D’s – defining dyslexia and distinguishing it in the classroom


Difficulties with literacy and numeracy are a common feature of dyslexia, and the most immediate attribute is a problem in decoding words and their meanings.

However, this is still only one aspect of a broader spectrum of difficulties. And while it is important that literacy, and numeracy, are addressed, if that is all that is addressed then interventions will fail more often than succeed – because not only do dyslexics have the need for literacy intervention, they also learn differently, and this must be understood.

The broad spectrum view acknowledges that dyslexia can cause issues with a much wider range of skills such as auditory and information processing, planning and organising, motor skills, short-term memory and concentration. Some of these can make it especially challenging for individuals to follow instructions, turn thoughts into words and finish work on time.

Under the new teaching paradigm, we define dyslexia as: “A specific learning preference which is constitutional in origin and which, for a given level of ability, may cause unexpected difficulties in the acquisition of certain literacy and numeracy skills.” Click here for more on defining dyslexia.

Constitutionally, we are talking about a brain that works in an atypical way. As teachers, our responsibility is to understand that – and to teach appropriately. And how do we spot a dyslexic student? This is about noticing students who are ‘stuck’ and not attaining in areas where their peers are, despite clearly understanding what is being taught and being able to contribute to discussions at an ability appropriate level. Importantly it is also about noticing dyslexic-like learning differences and preferences, rather than labelling students as dyslexic per se. Parents should be approached early on, just as they are when sight or hearing concerns are noted.

Some initial indicators to watch out for are:

  • Family history

  • Difficulties with dressing

  • Problems with label, rhymes, sequences

  • Spells/reads on one line, but not on the next

  • Quick thinker/doer, but not when given instructions

  • Enhanced creativity

  • Aptitude for constructional/technical toys

  • Can appear on the ball, but is a bit of an enigma in terms of how their thought processes work

It is also worth noting here that dyslexic girls can escape detection far more readily than boys, especially if they are well-behaved, work hard and have a supportive group of friends. Often it is only as they get older that they hit the wall, typically around 6th form and into university when they simply cannot work any harder and other strategies no longer work as their environment changes.

Click here for more detail on noticing dyslexic learning tendencies. Another valuable resource is the Dyslexia Foundation’s revolutionary 4D | 4 Dyslexia programme for New Zealand schools, which provides access to a national and international framework of learnings, insights and advice in this area. Information on this can be found on the 4D Schools website and in the 4D Guide for Schools. The guide also includes useful information on screening tests.

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