If a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, it can be challenging to know where to seek help. Parents may worry that they will struggle at school, or that they will be unable to fulfil their true potential. Nonetheless, there are a range of strategies and support systems available for dyslexic students. Living with dyslexia can be difficult, yet it is certainly not a barrier to success. As our interviews and section on famous dyslexics show, people with dyslexia flourish in all walks of life. In fact, people with dyslexia often have specific strengths, such as critical thinking, seeing the ‘bigger picture’ and puzzle solving.
So what is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which can make processing written texts very challenging. However, you may think that dyslexia only involves difficulties with reading, but the Dyslexia Association states that it is part of a family of Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) including dyspraxia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. People with dyslexia can therefore struggle with memory, organisation and time management. They also may be less able to cope with busy and chaotic environments (sensory distraction) as they cannot ‘screen out’ background noise (sensory overload).
However, whilst dyslexia does not only involve struggles with reading, it is true that dyslexics find it difficult to manipulate phonemes, the building blocks of language (known as phonemic awareness). This can make it difficult for them to understand how sounds merge to form words, leading to problems when learning to read and spell.
Dyslexia around the world
Rates of dyslexia vary according to country, and the way sounds are transcribed in a language can affect levels of dyslexia across the population. English-speaking countries have statistically higher incidences of dyslexia, as there are simply so many different ways of spelling the same sound – a famous example would be how it is technically possible to spell the word ‘potato’ as ‘ghoughphtheightteau’ given the whimsical nature of English orthography. Without delving too deeply into linguistics, languages such as Spanish, German and Italian are thought to be more ‘dyslexia friendly’ in that they have a higher level of spelling-sound correspondence, whereas languages such as English and French are ‘opaque’; they have a much wider variation of spelling patterns. Nonetheless, the research that suggests this dates from 2001, while a more recent study from 2015 argues that differences across countries have been overstated, with levels of dyslexia across all countries much higher than previously thought. Dyslexia used to be considered very rare in languages with hieroglyphic scripts, such as Japanese or Mandarin, yet as a neurological, heritable condition it occurs in equal rates across populations. Some bloggers have suggested that its perceived ‘rarity’ in Japan is due to cultural silence around the condition, and this may also help to explain lower reported levels in Spain where it is poorly understood.
There are also variations in how dyslexia is diagnosed in different countries, which might be why estimates for different countries vary. In Britain, 10% of people have dyslexia, with 4% suffering from a severe form of the condition.
Dyslexia and other learning difficulties
Dyslexia is one of the most common types of SpLD. While 10% of the UK population have dyslexia, 5% have dyspraxia and approximately 3 – 6% of people are thought to have some form of dyscalculia. Interestingly, dyslexia often co-occurs with ADHD; 20-40% of children with ADHD also have dyslexia, although there are no definitive answers about why this might be the case.
How is dyslexia identified?
There are some common patterns to look out for if you suspect a child has dyslexia. Nonetheless, the condition manifests in different ways depending on age. Older children in particular may have learned coping mechanisms to mask their difficulties in reading, making dyslexia harder to diagnose. Below are some signs to look out for, from early years to young adulthood. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity also has a more detailed list of indicators.
You may notice that the child:
- Has delayed speech development compared with other children of their age
- Finds learning nursery rhymes difficult (people with dyslexia find it hard to identify rhyme patterns)
- Mispronounces or jumbles up words and phrases
- Finds it hard to carry out more than one instruction at the same time, and needs tasks to be broken down into smaller steps
- Has difficulty with motor skills such as catching and throwing
As the child starts school, you may find that they:
- Substitute similar words for what is written on the page, for instance saying ‘kitten’ instead of ‘cat’ when reading an illustrated page
- Find it hard to read simple words, such as map, napand bat
- Find it hard to associate letters with sounds
- May be surprisingly mature for their age with a strong understanding of new concepts
- Have strong comprehension of stories that are read to them while finding it hard to read for themselves
Upper primary/lower secondary
The child may:
- Have a low standard of written work compared to their verbal ability
- Read slowly and find it hard to make progress in reading
- Spell a word inconsistently in the same piece of writing
- Use phonetic spelling
- Find it difficult to read aloud
- Have trouble remembering details such as specific dates or telephone numbers
- Mispronounce unfamiliar words
- Seem dreamy or easily distracted
- Have a sophisticated level of verbal comprehension
- Avoid written work
Upper secondary/young adult
Older children and young adults may:
- Have developed reading skills over time, yet still read slowly and with difficulty
- Avoid reading aloud
- Become tired from reading
- Have difficulty meeting deadlines for extended written work
- Suffer from low self-esteem or perceive themselves as unintelligent
- Avoid saying words they fear they will mispronounce
- Demonstrate originality of thought and sophisticated analytical skills
- Demonstrate strong understanding of a specialised area of interest, such as medicine or architecture
Ultimately, if you think a child may have dyslexia, it is important to seek a diagnosis, as people with dyslexia will flourish best when given the right support. You could start with a diagnostic test online, although it is also beneficial to see a specialist for a more detailed assessment.
Chapter 1 – Tech that can help children with dyslexia
If a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, there are now a wide range of apps and software programs that can help them with school and homework, from speech recognition software to scanning pens, capable of reading unfamiliar texts aloud. These can be brilliant tools at your child’s disposal, helping to make extensive written tasks much less daunting.
Speech Recognition Software
Speech recognition software allows you to dictate ideas directly to a computer, so that they appear as written text. This can be invaluable in helping dyslexic children to express themselves; they often have a sophisticated verbal vocabulary, yet struggle with putting their thoughts on paper. One of the best models on the market is Dragon Naturally Speaking; it enables users to conduct internet searches using voice commands, as well as adapting to the user’s natural vocabulary. Students at the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity found the program very beneficial. You can effectively train the program to respond to your individual voice and manner of speaking, so it can be incredibly helpful for both essay-writing and navigating the internet.
Students with dyslexia can find reading long passages particularly arduous, as they often need to decode the passage slowly first before rereading it. This makes reading a laborious process, so text-to-speech software can help with reading Word, PDF files or emails in a natural voice. It can also be used to proof-read homework to check for spelling errors or grammatical mistakes. Some of the programs on the market include ClaroRead (which has the option of reading with coloured overlays) read&write (which involves picture dictionaries to help with comprehension) Kurzweil3000 and Penfriend.
Scanning pens, such as the C-Pen Reader, can display definitions of unfamiliar words, as well as reading texts aloud. Dyslexic users can also listen to the pronunciation of words, or even store vocabulary for future use. The pens are also approved by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) and can be used in exams, allowing students to access questions with ease.
With the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, various apps have been developed to help dyslexic users, with many geared especially towards children. Dyslexia Quest, for example, includes interactive games that test learning abilities associated with dyslexia. The app takes the form of a quest based on quick-fire short-term memory tests; the faster you identify a word or number that has flashed across the screen, the better your progress through a range of ‘kingdoms’. Such apps are perfect for younger children with dyslexia as a fun way of honing memory skills.
Another fun app for young users is Sound Literacy. This does need to be used with a parent or instructor, as there is no autocorrect function to check for mistakes. Nonetheless, the app’s brilliance lies in how it breaks up words into ‘tiles’ which can be used to manipulate or reorder the graphemes in any word.
One app that might prove useful for older learners is Ginger Page, which proofreads as you write to correct any spelling or grammatical mistakes. It also includes tools for rephrasing sentences and giving word definitions, allowing users to produce flawless written work that accurately reflects their thoughts.
Grammarly, an online writing assistant and spell-checker, is a similar resource, drawing on feedback from users to ensure a high level of accuracy in replacement spellings.
As children with dyslexia can struggle with reading, audiobooks can be an effective tool for improving comprehension of class novels or exam set texts. Google Play Books offers talk-back technology so that dyslexic students can hear pages read aloud. Whispersync is another useful (free) app that gives students the option of turning Kindle books into audio files, which would be perfect for children who are engaged in a story yet struggling with its written format.
Children with dyslexia often find lengthy written notes confusing, so mind maps and more visual forms of note-taking can be a useful way to record key information. Mindmeister, for example, allows users to create visual, personalised mind maps that are stored in the cloud, which can also be shared with friends and colleagues. They can be accessed with any device, including smartphones, so could be a fun way for older children to break down their revision without feeling daunted by reams of paper.
With the proliferation of different kinds of software available, there are a variety of ways dyslexics can overcome the challenges of reading and writing fluently. One writer has even described how technology has allowed her to ‘cheat’ dyslexia. With the range of new tech on offer as the world shifts to an online culture, it is possible that dyslexics will find the written word increasingly easy to navigate. Whilst the education system still relies heavily on nineteenth century style written exams, the working world has moved on and it seems only a matter of time before classrooms follow suit. Many schools now use i-pads and other tablets as part of their lessons, enabling dyslexic students to modify content through learner-friendly apps or speech recognition. This should reassure parents who are worried about their child’s progress if they struggle to read – given the increasingly screen-based nature of how we consume the written word, the dyslexic’s struggle to decode print may become a thing of the past.
Chapter 2 – Gaining confidence with reading
One of the most significant challenges faced by dyslexic students is reading fluently. Children with dyslexia often struggle with written text, and this can damage their self-confidence. For dyslexic children, reading each word in a text takes a lot of time and effort, and they may be frustrated by slow progress in comparison to their peers.
Victor Widell has even developed a simulation of how dyslexics experience text – it’s a useful tool for parents and teachers to see why a child with dyslexia would feel put off by reading.
Thankfully, with more visibility of fantastic dyslexic role models (see our section on Famous Dyslexics for more) and some brilliant books for dyslexic children, there are lots of ways to build a child’s confidence with reading.
Suggest books with dyslexic characters
Children with dyslexia may come to feel that reading is so tricky it is ‘not for them.’ Fortunately, there are now some fantastic YA and children’s titles featuring dyslexic characters.
One popular series is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson. In the first book, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, twelve-year-old Percy keeps being thrown out of school. Nonetheless, he gains a new sense of self-confidence when he discovers he is no ordinary boy – he is, in fact, a demi-god with some incredible powers.
A quirky take on the Greek myths, these books were inspired by Riordan’s son, who has ADHD and dyslexia – they are a brilliant way of giving younger dyslexic readers a confidence boost.
Equally, Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver is an engaging series following Hank, a young dyslexic boy, based on Winkler’s own experiences at school. The books have now been dramatized as a CBBC series, starring Winkler as Mr Rock, Hank’s favourite teacher.
For older readers, Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers is a teen romance novel featuring a dyslexic boy called Karl. Karl is in love with Fiorella, who asks him to write her a series of letters answering her questions about love. Fearing his struggles with the written word will not impress her, he enlists the help of Fiorella’s favourite author, and they develop an unlikely friendship.
A wider range of titles is available here– these could be great as recommended reads for dyslexic children who want to see their reality reflected in what they read.
- Encourage the child to read books featuring dyslexic characters
- Chat to them about what they are reading to build their confidence
Another way to build dyslexic children’s confidence in reading is to introduce them to accessible reads, specifically written for dyslexics. Barrington Stoke now have a range of titles with tinted pages to avoid words becoming blurry for dyslexic readers, and they offer some helpful strategies for building children’s confidence too. The Dyslexia Shop also sells a variety of titles designed for dyslexic readers
- Investigate accessible books to give the child more independence in their reading
Whether as a parent or teacher of a dyslexic student, you should be aware that dyslexic children can suffer from low self-esteem. Children may come to feel that they lack ability due to their struggles with reading, so it is very important to give children positive feedback and encouragement when they read. If they read aloud, avoid picking up on mistakes or mispronunciations, as this is likely to make them self-conscious. Reward them for their efforts, and acknowledge their bravery and determination in persevering with something they find difficult.
- Be positive and encourage the child as much as possible. Give them a choice over what they read, and avoid pointing out mistakes.
Read to them, or investigate audiobooks
If a child is struggling to read by themselves, try reading aloud to them. Focus less on the written word and more on the story itself – which characters do they like? What do they think might happen? Dyslexic children are often incredibly insightful, and engaging with the story verbally can be a brilliant way of boosting their self-esteem. Older children may enjoy listening to audiobooks on a smartphone – this could be especially useful for covering set texts for exams.
- Make sure you take time to read to the child, or suggest audiobooks they might enjoy.
Highlight dyslexic role models
As our section on ‘Famous Dyslexics’ shows, there are many highly successful people with dyslexia, and some even credit the condition for their creativity. The poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah has spoken of how not being able to find a word has led him to write in a more fresh and original way. Dav Pilkey, the author of the humorous Captain Underpantsseries, is also dyslexic. Point out these role models to your child or student – use them as examples of how dyslexic people can achieve their dreams.
- Point out dyslexic role models as examples of all that can be achieved with dyslexia!
Ultimately, the most important way you can support a dyslexic child with their reading is to demonstrate your faith in them and their abilities. Our key recommendations are:
- Suggest a wide range of books and genres to the child, including titles featuring dyslexic characters
- Investigate accessible books designed for dyslexic readers
- Use praise and encouragement to motivate the child to read
- For younger children, ensure you read to them to make stories fun and engaging. You could even practice using silly voices or actions to bring the story to life. For older children, recommend audiobooks on subjects they are passionate about.
- Use dyslexic role models as examples of how much they can achieve!
If you think a child has dyslexia, they may have shown some of the following symptoms in the table below.
|Early years||¨ Delayed speech development
¨ Difficulty pronouncing long words, or jumbling up phrases
¨ Difficulty with learning the alphabet
¨ Finding it hard to learn nursery rhymes or recognise rhyming patterns
|School Age||¨ Difficulty with identifying the sounds of letters
¨ Highly articulate yet unable to read confidently
¨ Inconsistent spelling
¨ Enjoys being read to but reluctant to read themselves
¨ Feels unintelligent or has low self-esteem
¨ Needs instructions to be broken down into smaller steps
¨ Struggles with personal organisation; may seem dreamy or forgetful
¨ Poor hand-writing and presentation of written work
¨ Struggles to remember sequences of information such as telephone numbers
|Teenagers/Young Adult||¨ Difficulties with planning longer written tasks, such as essays
¨ Exam results may not reflect their verbal ability
¨ Difficulties with time management
¨ Finding it hard to meet deadlines
¨ Finding it hard to take notes or organise revision materials
¨ Avoids reading aloud
¨ Enjoys lateral/abstract thinking – can see ‘the bigger picture’
¨ Needs more time to complete written work
¨ Struggles with self-esteem
¨ Flourishes when discussing an area of specific interest, such as architecture or a period of history they enjoy
Chapter 3 – School Support with Dyslexia
How can dyslexic students be supported in the classroom?
Dyslexic students can best access support if their needs are identified early, and this often happens in the first years of schooling. Once students have a diagnosis of dyslexia, teachers can give them more targeted support, yet parents may be unsure about how the condition is identified.
How is the child assessed?
We spoke to Holly Denchfield, a Learning Support teacher who has completed the SpLD (Specific Learning Difficulties) course with OCR, about how children are assessed as needing support. She says that usually concerns are raised by the class teacher; she will then go into class to observe the child and read with them. This is an informal assessment rather than a diagnostic test (which is done through an Educational Psychologist).
“I might look at how they decode letters and test high frequency words in their reading and spelling,” she says. Phonological awareness testing is important, and can be done through seeing how the child reads nonsense words, which can highlight any difficulties they have with phonics.
At this point, Holly draws up an IEP (Individual Education Plan) for the child, which is used as a working document to set targets in spelling and reading. Both independent and state schools use IEPs to monitor progress through termly assessments.
- The class teacher usually raises concerns
- A Learning Support teacher will observe the child in class and use this to set targets for them
What teaching styles best support dyslexic students?
Holly notes that dyslexic children often have working memory or processing difficulties, although this varies for each child. In support lessons, she says the learning must be “as multi-sensory as possible” to embed phonological awareness in the child’s long-term memory.
“I use practical methods – magnetic letters can help, as they are moving the letters and pronouncing the phonic at the same time. Lessons should be fun and ideally incorporate all the senses – movement, smell or taste. For high-frequency words, we might use a mnemonic, or visuals to support learning particular words. You want to create a ‘hook’ for the child.”
- Teaching should be multi-sensory to aid long-term memory
Which activities work best?
Holly describes lessons involving writing particular phonics using sand or foam as an example of this. She also stresses the need for repetition when teaching dyslexic students; “You always need to review previous learning – there almost needs to be overlearning.”
Traditional teaching styles can be especially difficult for dyslexic students. A vast amount of notes written on the board will be hard to process, as will lots of ‘teacher talk’, as dyslexic students struggle with auditory memory, so lengthy dialogue from the teacher can be problematic. However, most schools now incorporate creative, hands-on strategies in class to support all learners.
- Practical, hands-on activities work best
- Lengthy discussion or written notes on the board are harder to process for dyslexic students
How fast should the pace of learning be?
Dyslexic students may need a slower pace of learning, with lots of reinforcement of previous lessons built into long-term teaching plans. Holly says that retention of spelling patterns, for example, is very good if the “pace of learning is slowed down – each spelling needs to be practised over a period of weeks.”
It is also important for lessons to be very structured, yet also confidence-boosting. “By the time students see someone from Learning Support they may be feeling under-confident. The lessons are structured so that the child can be successful. It’s nice for them to know that there are ways around dyslexia, and that it’s simply a different way of learning.”
A wider variety of teaching approaches can be found here.
- Lots of reinforcement is important
- The focus should be on reinforcement of previous lessons
What support can be given at home?
Parents are very keen to help, and can use homework activities to reinforce learning at school. However, they must understand that the pace of retention may not be a quick process; this is especially true for children at independent schools where learning tends to be pitched one year beyond the state sector.
Dyslexic children also often have associated difficulties with concentration and personal organisation, so parents can support them in helping them to collect what they need for the next day, as well as helping them to file papers and tests in order. For older children, assistance with study skills may be especially important – parents or tutors could work with the child to develop a structured revision plan. They might also show the child how to use mind-maps and other visual revision aids, which will be more helpful and digestible than lengthy note-taking.
- Parents can help children practice spelling and reading through homework activities
- Older children may need help with study skills and personal organisation
Apps and technological support
One useful programme recommended by Holly is Nessy, which is a specialist app that includes syllable games and assessments to support reading confidence. Children are given a character and different word patterns to focus on, so it makes phonics practice fun and more memorable.
Educational psychologists also recommend that older children with dyslexia use laptops. They can follow the Touch-type Read & Spell (TTRS) programme which incorporates spelling practice into learning to touch-type.
For children studying for official exams, this is especially useful, as alternative requirements are only accepted by exam boards if they follow the student’s ‘usual way of working’; it is important that dyslexic students use a lap-top in ordinary lessons if they wish to access one in exam conditions.
- Fun apps such as Nessy can help build the child’s confidence
- Older children may benefit from using a lap-top during lessons
The best way to support dyslexic students is to embed support strategies early. “I do think early intervention is key,” says Holly. “Getting support in primary education is hugely positive. If approached in the right way, it can have a significant impact and make learning more manageable.”
Lessons and support strategies also need to support children’s confidence. Teachers now receive training on differentiation for dyslexic pupils, and have a much better understanding of how to support children with learning difficulties than they did in the past. Nonetheless, dyslexic children can feel less confident in their abilities, which is why early intervention and support is so crucial.
- Early intervention is very important
- Lessons must develop the child’s confidence in their abilities
Chapter 4 – Famous Dyslexics
Many dyslexics are highly successful in their field, which some attribute to their gifts in lateral, creative thinking. The charity Made by Dyslexia suggests that most education systems are not designed for dyslexic thought processes, as they “typically measure success by how accurately students regurgitate facts in an exam or test.” However, developments in neuroscience have recently revealed that differences in dyslexic brains, such as longer connections between certain neural networks, allow dyslexics to excel in “seeing the bigger picture.” Below are some examples of famous dyslexics, and how they see the condition as having helped them to succeed and achieve their dreams.
Richard Branson, who dropped out of school at sixteen, has credited his dyslexia with his abilities as an entrepreneur. The founder of the Virgin group, who has a net worth of £4.525 billion, has said that he thinks being dyslexic helps people. He describes how “the great thing about being a dyslexic is that you concentrate on the things that you’re good at, and you often excel at those things.” Branson has said his dyslexia has been especially useful in a business context, as it has made him a good delegator, as well as helping him “to think creatively and laterally, and see solutions where others saw problems.”
Known for his cheeky-chappie demeanour and accessible recipes, Jamie Oliver is a highly successful TV chef who has published several best-selling cookbooks. He has also campaigned for healthier school meals through his 2005 “Feed Me Better” campaign, as well as founding the Fifteen restaurants, which employ and train disadvantaged young adults in the restaurant business. He says he was happy at school but did not achieve academically owing to a lack of support for his dyslexia.
“There are different types of intelligence – everyone has the ability to be brilliant,” he says. He has criticised the rigidity of traditional education systems, arguing that young people should be encouraged to believe they “could be good at something very simple, and turn it into a life’s work,” rather than have their potential measured solely by formal exams. He says he sees problems differently because of his dyslexia, and credits the condition for his success.
The award-winning director Steven Spielberg was diagnosed with dyslexia in later life at the age of 60 – at school, he was simply viewed as a “slow reader.” He was bullied by his peers and describes feeling too embarrassed to read in front of the class, but has said that making films was a form of escapism for him, as “movies made me feel inside my own skillset,” in an interview with the website Friends of Quinn.
Whilst he reads slowly because of his dyslexia, he says this gives him better comprehension skills: “I retain almost everything I read. I don’t just skip over things, and I’m able to savour really good writing, because I really take my time going through a book or a script.” Although he dropped out of college to become a director, he went back to graduate from California State University in 2002, partly to demonstrate to his children that education is a life-long process.
Best known for playing “The Fonz” in 80s sitcom Happy Days, the actor Henry Winkler has spoken extensively about his experiences with dyslexia. He has said that he found reading so difficult as a young actor that “I learned to memorize as much as I could from any page and then improvise.” He had a tricky time at school, as his parents and teachers assumed he was simply lazy, and he was 31 when he read his first book.
Nonetheless, Winkler overcame his difficulties and was accepted into Yale School of Drama before landing his role in Happy Days. He says his resilience and patience have enabled him to succeed, and he has since written the Hank Zipzer series for children, based on his own experiences at school. When children write to him about Hank, he writes back to tell them, “your learning challenge will not stop you from meeting your dream. Only you will stop yourself from meeting your dream.”
Although he has struggled with dyslexia, Winkler says the condition has made him more empathetic and aware of the world around him, allowing him to help friends with social problems. “If you are able to communicate your feelings you can speak an international, very articulate language,” he told a dyslexia conference.
The Academy Award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg also struggled with dyslexia at school. She did not have a diagnosis until adulthood, and her school assumed she was “dumb”, but her mother had faith in her, and “understood there was something different about the way I learned things.” She found refuge in acting and story-telling, which she loved from an early age, pretending to be a host of characters from “the Queen of Mars” to “Daniel Boone.”
As a young actress, Whoopi would ask people to read her lines to her so she could memorise them. She won fame through her role as Celie Harris in The Color Purple, and has since written several books by dictating them to a court reporter, before tweaking them afterwards so that they accurately reflect her voice. She says that dyslexia may have made her more “introspective”, which has allowed her to observe human nature in her job as an actress. She also argues that the amount of dyslexic public figures who have achieved phenomenal success, from Tom Cruise to Cher, are proof that dyslexia “is not the end of anything – you just learn differently.”
Clearly, there are many dyslexic role models in public life who have achieved in diverse ways, inspiring future generations of dyslexic students. Dyslexia can enable people to think more creatively so that they solve problems in interesting and original ways. Nonetheless, Whoopi Goldberg argues that schools also need to play their part in recognising how every child learns differently, whilst also emphasising that supportive, encouraging parents are the best asset a child with dyslexia can have.
Chapter 5 – Current Research on Dyslexia
There are now a range of support systems for dyslexic students and their families. GroOops, a North London-based counselling service, offers specialised emotional support for dyslexic adults and children. Their programme includes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Mindfulness and creative activities to boost their clients’ self-esteem. Equally, the global charity Made By Dyslexia works to help the public support dyslexia. However, dyslexia still remains widely misunderstood, so it is useful to explore what current research tells us about the condition. Below is an overview of the latest reports and research on neurodiversity.
Connecting the Dots (2017)
A “sea of strengths”
Produced by Made By Dyslexia, Connecting the Dots is a body of research exploring the advantages of being dyslexic. Dr Sally Shaywitz at the Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity has described the “sea of strengths” that come with dyslexia, and this is echoed in Dr Manuel Casanova’s work studying neurobiological differences in dyslexic brains. Dr Casanova has found that the wide mini-columns (connected networks of neurons considered important for processing information) in dyslexic brains predispose dyslexics to excel in “big-picture thinking”, as “wide columns facilitate generalization” (the opposite is true for autistic people, who have narrow mini-columns, which facilitate focusing on small details).
Made By Dyslexiahas also developed a dyslexic thinking skills test, based on qualitative and quantitative research. Their research has found that dyslexics have above average strengths in thinking skills such as Visualising, Imagining and Communicating, as well as excelling in general skills such as Reasoning, Connecting and Exploring. Despite these cognitive strengths, a 2017 YouGov poll revealed that only 3% of the public view dyslexia as a positive trait. Dyslexia is a “hidden difficulty”, which is why it remains poorly understood as a condition, so the charity works to improve public awareness.
The impact of UK exam system changes
The report suggests that changes to the UK exams system may make it harder for dyslexic students to demonstrate their potential, which is why Made By Dyslexia is campaigning for change within the education system. Certainly, the increased focus on exams as the only measure of learning could leave dyslexic students at a disadvantage; previously, GCSE exams included coursework and verbal assessments, which allowed students to plan their work without the time constraints of an exam.
The report states that dyslexic students “excel in the reasoning and exploring skills applied in coursework”, as well as having “excellent verbal reasoning and communicating skills”, yet the removal of these components from exams may prevent dyslexic students from fulfilling their true potential. Made By Dyslexia emphasises the importance of extra time in exams for dyslexic students – research at US universities has found this can have a significant impact on the grades and final outcomes of dyslexics.
Research at the University of Oxford: Helping to Dispel the Misery of Dyslexia
At the University of Oxford, Professor John Stein has found that the use of yellow and blue filters have a significant impact in helping dyslexic students read more fluently. Whilst other strategies can be expensive, the use of yellow-tinted glasses can “improve magnocellular function, leading to better visual motion sensitivity and eye control” which makes reading much easier for dyslexics.
In a study of over 10,000 children with reading problems, conducted with the help of Dr Sue Fowler from the University of Reading, clinics found that the majority of children benefitted from using either blue or yellow filters, enabling them to make rapid progress in their reading. The filters can work to prevent the visual disturbances suffered by dyslexic students, as they have a lower sensitivity to image movements. Filters stop words seeming to blur or move around on the page, making the reading process far more manageable.
The Cognitive Neuroscience of Dyslexia (2018)
Dr Anila D’Mello and Dr John Gabrieli of the University of Massachusetts have researched the cognitive neuroscience behind dyslexia. They found that reading is usually associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, which includes a network of language regions important for phonological processing and visual word recognition. D’Mello and Gabrieli found that for dyslexic adults and children, regions in the left hemisphere were consistently “underactivated” in reading tasks.
D’Mello and Gabrieli conclude that the use of neuro-imaging could be beneficial in providing more individualised, differentiated instruction for dyslexic students. They cite a 2011 study of dyslexic children where none of the 17 conventional reading tests could accurately predict which children would make progress in their reading over the next 2 and a half years. Despite this, neuro-imaging predicted future progress with remarkable accuracy. They note that currently remedial education is only effective for approximately 50% of dyslexic children, yet “whether or not a form of instruction is effective […] is only known after a period of prolonged failure in the children who do not respond.” Neuro-imaging could be used to predict the likely effectiveness of different types of instruction for each child, allowing teachers to differentiate in more detail for individual students.
Research on hearing skills and dyslexia (2017)
One 2017 study by the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL) found that there is a relationship between children’s auditory processing and the development of dyslexia. BCBL researchers found that children who had difficulties processing low-frequency sounds (such as accent, rhythm or intonation) were more likely to find decoding words and phonemes more difficult, which could be a risk factor for the development of dyslexia. They suggested that specific training on rhythm, such as playing on a drum, could help young children develop their skills in language perception.
A further study by BCBL this year also found that the brain can be “trained” to avoid dyslexia through therapeutic interventions. Researcher Nicola Molinaro stated that repeated training could help dyslexic children to synchronize parts of the brain needed to process low-frequency sounds. This kind of research could be particularly helpful in identifying dyslexia at an early age, so that children with language delay may “recover the mechanisms of attention,” facilitating progress in literacy.
The wide range of studies published on dyslexia can assist parents and teachers in providing the best support possible for dyslexic children. Developments in neuro-imaging could also allow teachers to differentiate for students in highly personalised and effective ways. Equally, the BCBL research on children’s auditory processing will help with the development of more specialist therapeutic training during early years education.
The research also demonstrates that there are underlying neurological differences that cause dyslexia, and whilst this can make reading acquisition more challenging, it can also give dyslexics particular strengths, as shown by the Made By Dyslexia report.
Chapter 6- What is it like to live with dyslexia?
Francesca Fletcher-Williams, 29, is a PhD student in international law at the London School of Economics. Previously she worked as a Policy Advisor at the Mission of Ireland to the United Nations.
Francesca was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 12. She spoke to Hampstead & Frognal Tutors about the impact dyslexia has had on her life and educational experiences.
Diagnosis in Education
Francesca says she was diagnosed “relatively late – usually it’s picked up on a bit earlier.” Her mother was an English teacher, and “she noticed how I was really struggling with spelling, to the point where I was in tears. I was bewildered by the fact I couldn’t do it. My brain just didn’t compute what I was being asked to do.”
As an academically able child, there was a disparity between her written work and verbal abilities, a common trait of dyslexia. When she was tested for dyslexia, she had the spelling age of a nine-year-old, while her reading age was that of an 18-year-old – this difference was a key indicator that she was dyslexic. Francesca notes that dyslexia can manifest in various ways. For students who have more serious difficulties with reading, school is likely to be a very frustrating experience, whereas she largely enjoyed school.
As a student, she was fortunate in that most of her experiences were in the private sector, where there tends to be more targeted support for learning difficulties. She was first diagnosed in Scotland, where her school provided weekly spelling sessions, as well as specialist one-to-one support. Despite this, at the time she did not find the assistance particularly useful: “They were just teaching me how to spell, and when all you’re trying to do is communicate your ideas, then spelling is not that important – especially if I won’t remember it.”
In Year 9, she transferred to a private all-girls’ school in London, and does not recall the school providing specific support, although she had extra time in exams. The exams did not allocate many marks for spelling, and she had a note on any test papers to ask markers to disregard SPAG (spelling and grammar), so she could achieve good marks based on her content and ideas.
Transition to University
After the structured nature of secondary school, Francesca says the transition to university was somewhat difficult. She had an adult test for dyslexia at university, and applied for a Disabled Students’ Allowance, which involved a lengthy application form. “If you haven’t done it before, it’s quite daunting,” she says. Furthermore, it became harder to use coping mechanisms for reading at higher levels of study (for example predicting what the next word might be or tracing the letters of a word with her fingers). Whilst she could use these strategies at school, as she progressed through her degree the content became more complex, and “your brain doesn’t have the resources to do both [decode and understand] at the same time, so it’s more taxing.”
Francesca also notes it is harder to be diagnosed as an adult, although she strongly encourages anyone who suspects they have dyslexia to get tested. “My experience was straightforward, as I was diagnosed as a child. The process is much more difficult as an adult – there are few free tests, and the waiting lists are very long.” However, she says that adult diagnosis is still worth it. “It helps you understand yourself. Diagnosis is like a key to open the door and access all the stuff you need. But getting that key isn’t easy.”
“School is very unforgiving if you haven’t been diagnosed,” she says. “If you think that you have dyslexia, get tested. You’ll see what your specific weaknesses are, for example with reading. It’s very empowering and enabling.”
Whilst the more challenging content of university study can exacerbate problems with reading, Francesca notes that the personalised nature of university courses, especially at post-graduate level, can be helpful for dyslexic students in other ways. In her PhD course, she has found her supervisors to be incredibly supportive, and the smaller cohorts at post-graduate study allow for more individualised learning.
“School almost magnifies learning difficulties,” she says. “Adult life allows you more flexibility than you have at school – you can make your own way.” The rigid nature of the national curriculum at secondary level may not facilitate this: “I can see why in a nationalised school system you just have to give 25% extra time for each dyslexic kid. It’s not the same dynamic, it’s not the same environment.”
Equally, Francesca has found dyslexia to be less of a barrier in the workplace than it was at school. “I used to write documents all the time, and I’d just say to the person I was sending it to, ‘If you see a spelling mistake, just flag it.’ I think the person who feels worst about my mistakes is me.” She is critical of the focus on spelling and grammar in primary and secondary education, something which may prevent dyslexic students from attempting to express more complex ideas. During her dyslexia test for university, the educational psychologist observed that her written vocabulary was weaker than her spoken vocabulary. She explains that “dyslexics often only use words they know how to spell in their writing, because we have this snobbery around spelling as a society. They will try to minimise the signs.” The psychologist pointed out that while she knew more sophisticated vocabulary, she was not writing it down. “Essentially, you’re dumbing down your own writing,” he said.
In her view, schools and universities need to move away from an overt focus on written accuracy, which penalises dyslexic students. “As long as [what you’ve written] is comprehensible and people know what you mean, they tend to be fine. In my philosophy of language, language has served its purpose if you’ve communicated what you wanted to say.”
Technological support and strategies
Francesca uses a range of strategies to overcome her dyslexia, and she has found that dyslexic traits she did not notice as a child, for example visual disturbances, have become more pronounced as she gets older. Before beginning to use a coloured overlay to read, she did not even realise she had visual disturbances: “You don’t have a bar of comparison to know whether what you have is the norm or not.” She has only realised she was suffering from disturbances during the last year, and now uses “a pair of amazing coloured glasses,” adapted to how the dyslexic brain interacts with words on the page. Visual disturbances can also vary significantly from person to person, so getting tested early can help dyslexics access the right support.
As an undergraduate, her disabled student allowance (DSA) provided a computer with additional software, which assisted in correcting her work, although she notes that computers will not pick up on all grammatical errors. “Computers are incredibly useful in that they can spell things for you, but you can’t self-correct your own work because you won’t recognise there’s a mistake.” However, dictation software has dramatically improved since she began studying in 2007, and certain fonts have been developed that can make proof-reading easier for dyslexics.
“There’s a specific font I use that I think is absolutely fantastic,” she says. “Staring at a screen is very fatiguing, because it’s so stark, and you can’t use an overlay – my visual disturbances can be worse when looking at a computer.”
The font, Dyslexie font, designed by dyslexic graphic designer Christian Boer, was developed to avoid mirroring or swapping letters, which can exacerbate visual disturbances for dyslexic readers.
“This font is incredible. It has features to prevent the inversion of p’s and b’s – what they do to prevent letter flipping is to weight the stem of the letter with a slightly thicker line, to prevent your brain from inverting it.”
The font also has free individual licenses. “One of the reasons I love it so much is that it’s free for individuals,” says Francesca. “So often, the costs for dyslexic resources and software are very high.”
She points out that her specialised glasses cost a few hundred pounds, which included the cost of the test. “That’s not astronomical. But it’s also very much not affordable for a lot of people.”
“It’s frustrating that these things are not more widely available. Children can get glasses on the NHS, but not dyslexia glasses, so that puts dyslexic children at a disadvantage.” The cost of colorimetry assessments (which examine individual responses to text under controlled coloured light conditions), and coloured overlays, are not covered by the NHS. Francesca argues that the amount of support dyslexic students receive depends too much on family income.
Her younger brother, for example, was academically able but struggled with reading at his state primary school. The school’s SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) said that his IQ was too high for him to have dyslexia (there is no relationship between dyslexia and IQ). His mother got him privately tested, and when he was diagnosed with dyslexia, the school refused to accept the test results. He subsequently transferred to a private school with specialist facilities for dyslexia.
“I can understand why strapped education authorities may wish to downplay dyslexia, or only focus on the most serious cases,” says Francesca. “With budget cuts, schools are struggling to afford books, let alone the provision needed for dyslexic pupils. But that experience wasn’t particularly positive. It highlights the social disparity in terms of how dyslexia is recognised – that if you have a parent with experience of the education sector to fight your corner, you’ll be ok.”
Nonetheless, despite some of these difficulties, Francesca feels that the range of support offered to dyslexic students is improving, and she urges families to seek a diagnosis for their children. With the diagnosis, she experienced much more understanding and patience. “The pressure reduced once I had the diagnosis. I understand why some people don’t like labels, but sometimes they can be extraordinarily helpful.”
Positive attitudes towards Dyslexia
Francesca welcomes the change in attitudes towards dyslexia in the recent past, although the rigidity of the current education system may not enable dyslexic students to demonstrate their potential. She is sceptical about the move towards more standardised testing and exams at GCSE and A Level. The lack of coursework could also disadvantage girls, who tend to perform better in modular courses.
“I’m not convinced exams test you in anything useful,” says Francesca. “Doing exams is a specific skill, and if you have dyslexia, you’re done a huge disservice. It accentuates your limitations, and it doesn’t allow you to show what you know.”
“We shouldn’t construct an education system that puts people off education. For people who don’t fit a specific mould, it puts them off, even though they might be brilliant as a post-graduate student.”
She argues that even the post-graduate system needs to adjust, as funding often depends on gaining a first-class degree. Undergraduate courses predominantly assess students through exams, which may prevent dyslexic students from gaining the highest marks. Nonetheless, she welcomes the societal change in attitudes towards dyslexia, as the condition is increasingly viewed in a positive way.
“There’s some great research out there about how dyslexics connect ideas differently. It’s very cool, but also frustrating in a standardised education system. At least there’s a movement now to think about dyslexia positively. It shouldn’t be seen as some kind of weird deficiency – it gives you all these other abilities.”
She points out that there are now many prominent famous dyslexics (see our section on ‘Famous Dyslexics’ for more details). Charities such as Made By Dyslexia are also doing some brilliant work to highlight the achievements of famous people with dyslexia, as well as how dyslexics can be especially gifted in ‘big-picture’ thinking.
“It’s really good to celebrate the diversity of effects dyslexia can have, and not just the difficulties,” says Francesca. Whilst dyslexia undoubtedly presents challenges, her achievements in work and education demonstrate how the condition does not need to be a barrier to success.