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Straight talk for busy teachers

Debate on the precise definition of the term ‘dyslexia’ has occupied academics around the world for some years. This often seems to engender an attitude that until you can define dyslexia, you can’t begin to address it – a stalemate which international dyslexia expert Neil Mackay refers to as “paralysis by analysis”.

DFNZ’s 4D approach takes an alternative view, identifying constructive action that can be taken based on the significant body of research and experiential evidence that already exists on dyslexia. After-all, for the estimated 70,000 dyslexic schoolchildren in our Kiwi classrooms, actions speak much louder than words. 

4D is built around a simple but highly effective philosophy of ‘notice and adjust’. For the classroom, the 4D Schools programme is about noticing which students are having difficulty, and making simple adjustments to the way in which they are taught and assessed so that they can flourish. This means adopting personalised learning strategies, and accepting alternative evidence of achievement, perhaps oral and visual based rather than written. Central to this approach is recognition of dyslexia as a learning preference. Put simply, this means understanding that dyslexics think differently, and so naturally prefer to receive, process and present information in the way that makes more sense to them.

In the ‘notice and adjust’ teaching paradigm, dyslexia is defined as “A specific learning difference 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.”

Constitutional in origin refers to the fact that dyslexia has a substantive neurobiological basis. 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.

World dyslexia authority Sally Shaywitz, founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity ( is a pioneer in this area. Her laboratory was one of the first in the world to image the dyslexic brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The data obtained from several thousand children and adults, combined with fMRI data from around the world, revealed a distinctive neural signature for dyslexia, with disruption in the neural systems used for reading with a fundamental difference in the way the brain is organised.

Dyslexics tend to be top-down rather than bottom-up thinkers, meaning they learn from getting the big picture or the overall idea or meaning first, and then fill in the specific details. These observations have critical importance in terms of how information is presented to dyslexic students, and how long they are given to understand it. More on her research can be found on the 4D Edge site.


In defining dyslexia, we can note that difficulties with literacy and numeracy are a common feature of dyslexia. The most immediate attribute is a problem in decoding words and their meanings, when compared to their ability appropriate skills in other areas. However, this is still only one aspect of a broader spectrum of difficulties. Skills that may be affected can include 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 certain tasks on time. Dyslexia is perhaps best thought of as a continuum of abilities and difficulties, rather than a distinct category, as there are no clear cut-off points

For more information on defining and addressing dyslexia, download the latest version of our handbook for teachers click here.

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