The Secret Disability: Dyslexia
Dyslexia creates suffering for many students but you rarely hear of teachers admitting to having it. Are teachers really still required, in the 21st Century, to be models of perfect, marble-made fonts of knowledge and effectiveness? I have tutored a small number of dyslexic trainee teachers but that was an exception to the norm. By sheer statistics alone, I must have worked and be working with colleagues who are struggling in secret. Why don’t they speak out?
It’s Time to Talk About Dyslexia
I always make a point of telling my students and colleagues about my dyslexia. On occasions I have been told, in hushed tones, not to tell too many people I am dyslexic, as if dyslexia is an infectious disease or a badge of stupidity or a barrier to being a good teacher. Quite the reverse. I have also had many beneficial meetings with parents in which they reflect on their own struggles with learning and gain a better understanding of what is happening with their child.
Certainly, having dyslexia makes you feel stupid at times, especially children as they struggle to read and write – the two fundamental definitions of achievement in our education system. Every dyslexic sufferer with have tales of being emotionally tortured at school – being made fun off by peers, the embarrassment of reading aloud; insensitive teachers, etc. (I will share my own later.) All the more reason to have teachers with dyslexia talk openly about it, to share coping strategies and to reveal the other bigger secret of dyslexia: it is a gift!
Dyslexia Means a Different Brain
People with dyslexia have different brain structures. Impairment with development in the logical-language left cerebrum hemisphere results in a strengthening of the creative-visual-imaginative right hemisphere. Hence dyslexic people are so often artists, musicians, writers, designers, etc. They literally ‘see’ the world differently.
One of the first things I do with a dyslexic student new to me is tell them about all the exceptional people from history with dyslexia: Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein are two amazing examples, but there are many other modern day actors, architects, athletes (a lot a’s!), singers, chefs and entrepreneurs who have dyslexia. Yes, dyslexia makes you different. But it also means you can be brilliant.
Watch What is Dyslexia from TED-Ed for an in-depth explanation of Dyslexia.
Before we go any further, let’s understand what dyslexia is. Here is a step-by-step definition* of dyslexia:
- The word ‘dyslexia’ is Greek and means ‘difficulties with words’. That generalized definition is actually helpful because there are numerous difficulties and not all dyslexic people have the same difficulties.
- Dyslexia is a “spectrum disorder” meaning that there is a range or spectrum of symptoms. Dyslexia is different for different people.
- People with dyslexia commonly have difficulty with all or some of: phonological awareness, verbal memory, rapid serial naming and verbal processing speed; coordinating left, right, up, down, east and west directions.
- Dyslexia has no link to intelligence though many people feel “stupid” and ashamed at school because they struggle with literacy skills. Low-self esteem and anxiety are common psychological side-effects.
- Dyslexia is one of the most common learning difficulties. It is estimated that 1 in 10 people in the UK have dyslexia. Of that amount, around 40% are severely dyslexia while 60% are mild or moderate.
- While language has a role in prevalence, dyslexia affects people all of ethnicities. It is a myth that people who use radically different alphabet systems are immune.
- It is a common problem amongst many non-dyslexic people that they cannot see their own mistakes. Numerous tests have shown that a person’s brain reviews what it thinks was written not necessarily what is on the paper. Dyslexic people find noticing this difference much harder.
- Commonality in families has led scientists to identify six genes that may cause dyslexia. My brother was diagnosed with severe dyslexia as a child and my father has all the symptoms, though in 1950’s schooling there was no diagnosis or even awareness of the condition.
- The cerebellum is thought to have some role in dyslexia. It controls movement and balance in learning and could link to why some people struggle with organization and co-ordination, which in turns links dyslexia to dyspraxia;
- The equivalent learning difficulty with mathematics, in particular arithmetic, is called Dyscalculia.
My Dyslexia Story
At primary school I could pass a spelling test but make frequent mistakes in my extended writing. I mixed up letters and numbers and reversed letters – an indicator but also very common in young children’s development. My school reports featured the same comments: “Matthew enjoys writing but he rushes and makes many mistakes.” I could never see my own mistakes in my writing. I was not ‘rushing’. I had so much to say.
I loved writing almost as I loved reading. I was the first student to read the entire (admittedly tiny) school library. But I dreaded reading aloud. I literally trembled with fear. The black words would blur on the white page. I waited nervously for my turn and tried to read aloud slowly without loosing my place. I always made mistakes. I was always snickered at. My comprehension of the text was low so I had to work doubly hard at home to catch up. I was also easily distracted, drifting into a vivid imaginary world. It was not boredom or disrespect. Quite the opposite. I was so easily visually stimulated that my imagination would rush ahead with lively pictures.
At secondary school I was either an ‘A’ grade essay writer or have the paper rejected by frustrated teachers, as confused as me as to why I should be so inconsistent and unable to see my own errors. The worst moment was when my beloved secondary school English teacher declared me “stupid” in front of the whole class for repeatedly misspelling “Anthony” in an essay about a Shakespeare play. He retracted his earlier declaration that I was on track for a scholarship for Oxford University.
Diagnosis Happiness: Mild Auditory Dyslexia
I was twenty years old and I had started college study after a few gap years. The first essay I had written was returned splattered with red ink and harsh comments about mistakes. The familiar feeling of shame and frustration rushed back.
Luckily, a leaflet about dyslexia in the university library directed me to an educational psychologist and an assessment process that resulted in the diagnosis I had suspected for years: mild auditory dyslexia. With my dyslexia, I can hear what is said but I instantly feel the information flittering away in my mind. It is like having leaking holes in my brain. It was a huge relief to know what was wrong with me. I was different, not stupid.
The Gift to Teaching with Dyslexia
Leaping ahead fifteen years, I now find that having dyslexia is a gift to me as teacher. It gives me:
- valuable insights into the challenges students face with literacy;
- the motivation to pay particular attention to the children who find paying attention difficult, who are “day-dreaming” or distracted;
- the desire to devise special strategies and activities for students, which I can pass onto parents;
- the impetus to educate parents and even deal with their own learning needs. Most of the dyslexic students I have taught have at least one parent who admits to having similar problems;
- the opportunity to act as a role model for students struggling with confidence, emphasizing the increased capacity for imagination, visual learning and creativity that comes with dyslexic brains;
- the urge to make sure my lessons have a visual element, which is useful for all learners, especially English As An Additional Language students;
- the ability to prove that, like me, you can have dyslexia and still be a prolific reader and writer.
The Challenges of Having Dyslexia Continue
There are of course challenges that come with dyslexia. I have difficulties with:
1. Remembering facts, sequences, dates and lists. Three tasks or facts is about my limit;
2. Being easily distracted, which can appear rude or inattentive;
3. My short-term memory can be poor and I can easily forget what people tell me, especially instructions.
4. Anxiety when overloaded by instructions;
5. When I feel overloaded, my brain feels physically weighed down and fuzzy with too many images and thoughts buzzing around;
6. My dyslexia is not constant. Some months or weeks it is worse, others better. It seems to rise and fall in line with my moods and is exaggerated by stress.
Coping with Dyslexia, Not Curing
Dyslexia is not a disease, so it cannot be cured, only coped with. Some of my copying strategies are:
- Using spell-checkers and proof readers. When I get lazy and avoid this, the mistakes creep back, giggling with delight;
- Writing EVERTHING in a notebook before it is forgotten and I get anxious. I make lots of lists and invent my own short-hand, which is a combination of barely legible handwriting and pictograms;
- Layering my lessons with prompts so I can remember the sequence and content.
- Using colour backgrounds to text rather than white which reduces the glare;
- Using ‘mind maps’ and visual planning structures for personal projects and in teaching;
- Using electronic thesauruses and electronic dictionaries as paper words can be especially difficult;
- During the worst months or weeks, reminding people around me (including students) that I have dyslexia and I am not being lazy or forgetful or inattentive, etc;
- On the other hand, not using dyslexia as an excuse and remembering that many, many people cope better with much worse situations;
- When I feel mentally overloaded, anxious, over-stimulated, etc, going for a walk in the countryside or visiting an art gallery to reboot my fuzzy mind.
- Remembering the gifts of dyslexia: I would never change myself and, though I am no Da Vinci, I am proud to have something in common with incredible people in history.
Read about features in k3000+firefly developed for coping with dyslexia.
Time to Inspire
Dyslexia has not stopped me reading avidly and, alongside teaching, being a professional writer and storyteller for children. I am a widely published poet and I tell stories at international festivals around the world. Dyslexia should not stop you doing what you love, learning new skills and surprising yourself.
As teachers, it’s our job to inspire, encourage and empower all out students, why aren’t we doing it with each other? I urge secret sufferers to be declare their dyslexia – your students will be inspired. I challenge colleagues to support teachers with learning needs and celebrate their bravery. I challenge you, the reader, to think differently and better about yourself. Your dyslexia makes you different, undoubtedly, but it also has the capacity to be brilliant. You see the world differently and the world is much, much better for it.
What challenges does dyslexia create for you, or you students? Share your story.
2. Nicola Edwards (2004) My Friend Has Dyslexia, London: Chrysalis Children’s Books.