It is believed that dyslexia affects 10% of the population, 4% being severely dyslexic.
Dyslexia comes from the Greek 'dys' meaning difficult and 'lexus' meaning language. This is however a very basic description of what dyslexia is. The Collins Dictionary describes dyslexia as 'impaired ability to read'. Dr Beve Hornsby (1984) provides a more helpful description:
Perhaps the simplest modern definition... is that it is difficulty in learning to read and write - practically in learning to spell correctly and to express your thoughts on paper - which affects those who have a normal schooling and do not show backwardness in other subjects.
This description makes some important points. Being dyslexic is completely unrelated to general intelligence. Dyslexic people have a problem dealing with the mechanical aspects of written language, which leads in all cases to problems with spelling and often to problems with reading and mathematics.
In most cases dyslexia reveals itself as problems with written work, where a student will submit work that looks poorly written, badly spelled and out of step with the oral abilities of the student. The most profound symptom of dyslexia is a gap between what a person knows and understands and how that knowledge appears on paper. It can also lead to clumsiness and poor organizational skills.
It's Not A Brain Defect!
Dyslexia is not a brain defect or a brain disease. Instead, it should be seen as a difference in the brain, or arising from a different arrangement of brain cells which result in particular patterns of strengths and weaknesses in a dyslexic individual. The dyslexic brain is characterized by having a marked reduction in the difference of size between the left and right hemispheres. In other words the two sides of the brain are almost the same size, unlike a non-dyslexic's brain which has one side larger than the other.
Another explanation is that the nerve connections in the brain are not set in the way that they are in a 'normal' brain. When something is learned, let's say, eating with chopsticks, you first see the chopsticks but have an idea of how to use them. So, you try to use them and you'll probably fail. Then you try again and maybe this time get it right. As you continue to use chopsticks over the months the nerve paths in your brain develop to allow you to use chopsticks without thinking about it. However, in the dyslexic's brain this does not happen, the nerve paths do not develop as quickly, if they develop at all. This means that the dyslexic person has to effectively relearn how to use the chopsticks each time they use them. While a dyslexic person may not be too concerned about using chopsticks, this example is true of all learning. This is the reason why techniques using repetitive exercises, and learning to spell words by writing them 50 times or more, are used in teaching dyslexic folk. This very repetitive form of teaching can, as it were, somehow 'force' knowledge into the brain.
Dyslexia is a genetic occurrence and research has shown that it is passed down along the mother's side of the family. This means that a male dyslexic cannot pass dyslexia on to his children. However, there does not need to be any history of dyslexia on the mother's side for it to occur. Remember that it is really only in the last 20 years that dyslexia has been diagnosed properly, so even if there exists a genetic history, it may simply never have been diagnosed before.
So It's All Bad News?
Quite simply, no. Being dyslexic is not all bad news. What dyslexia takes away it gives back in different ways. Dyslexics have problems with left hemisphere skills like reading and writing, but have excellent right hemisphere abilities such as interpreting pictures and graphics. They can also have superior spatial awareness.
However, do not forget, that it is true that many dyslexics are advantaged in areas such as art, architecture and engineering, it is also true that many dyslexics are not, and have no enhanced skills to make up for all the disadvantages. At the same time though, it is also true that some dyslexic people with good verbal language skills shy away from activities and jobs that require these skills because of a lack of confidence.
Another example of a disadvantage turned into an advantage is the fact that dyslexics are never restricted to one way of thinking about a subject. In the same way that dyslexics cannot remember learned information because nerve routes do not become set, ways of thinking around a problem never become set. This means that dyslexics can often be seen to show high problem-solving abilities or excellent logical thinking.
In the context of academic study a survey of dyslexics at an English university unanimously said that dyslexia is, however, not a gift.
Can I Avoid School Work?
No, dyslexia is not a general learning difficulty and is no excuse for finding work generally hard. That said, teaching practices and techniques should be different for a dyslexic compared to those of a non-dyslexic.
Dyslexic people are often very intelligent and can easily find ways of covering up learning difficulties. This can make recognising dyslexia a little hard at times, but if you suspect a person of being dyslexic, particularly a child, all efforts should be made to have them undergo tests. The difference a properly targeted education can make to a dyslexic’s life is indescribable, and the knowledge that they are not stupid but have a problem that with work can be overcome, will be a huge source of relief.
What Does It Feel Like?
The following are quotes given by dyslexic students at Coventry University (UK):
My family just rejected me. I was not acceptable. I was thick - being dyslexic was not a thing the family would ever accept.
My parents did recognise the problems very early in my life, though the whole way through it, it has just been a fight with them against the bureaucracy of schools and everybody else.
Something I do, is I cannot remember phone numbers, names and things. I can't even remember the full alphabet. I get to about F and it gets a bit vague after that. So I wear a Casio watch which stores telephone numbers; at least I haven’t got to look up in a book. It also has a little key pad on it with the full alphabet on. It reminds me which is my left hand.
I was treated as an intelligent person. I was bright, so what the dickens couldn't I write or spell? And of course, it was never accepted that there could have been something wrong. I was in fact sent to a 'cramming school' as they referred to it in Birmingham. I skived off continually and it cost my parents an absolute fortune. Because, of course cramming school was telling you to do things I couldn't even comprehend.
I found out when I was at school. I had a very nice English teacher and we had to write an essay describing what we did in the holiday and I put down something like 'I was wearing a blue skirt and a white shit' because I’d left out the 'r' in the word, he immediately recognised by that that I was dyslexic. His wife was dyslexic, so he immediately picked that out. When I was called out to the front of the class, I was absolutely mortified. I thought, here we go, what have I done now? He pointed it out very quietly to me and said that he thought what I had written was hilarious, and then said 'come and see me after and I'll explain what's wrong'. He explained exactly what it was. The fog lifted... and all the frustration that you'd experienced over the years is finally given a name.
What Can I Do?
There are many things that dyslexic people can do to help themselves. Investing in an electronic spell-checker that can be carried around is an invaluable tool. Finding a good voice recognition program that allows dictation of work onto a computer can also help with school work. There is however no substitute for hard work to overcome problems; with time and effort, ways of coping with dyslexia will begin to make life easier.
Think You May be Dyslexic?
The following questions, devised at Goldsmith's College, London, UK are also common indicators for dyslexia in adults. The first twelve, in order of importance are used in diagnosis. If you tick the majority of these items there is a strong indication of dyslexia. Nine or more ticks to all questions is also an indicator of difficulty.
When writing cheques, do you frequently find yourself making mistakes?
When using the telephone, do you get the numbers mixed up when you dial?
Is your spelling poor?
Do you mix up dates and times and miss appointments?
Do you find filling out forms confusing?
Do you find it difficult to take messages on the telephone and pass them on?
Do you mix up numbers like 59 and 95?
Do you find it difficult to say the months of the year forwards in a fluent manner?
Did you find it hard to learn your multiplication tables at school?
Do you take longer than you should to read a page of a book?
Do you have difficulty telling left from right?
When you have to say a long word do you sometimes find it difficult to get the sounds in the right order?
Is map reading or finding your way to a strange place confusing?
Do you dislike reading aloud?
Do you find it difficult to remember the sense of what you have read?
Do you dislike reading long books?
Is your writing difficult to read?
Do you get confused if you have to speak in public?
Do you find it difficult to do sums in your head without using your fingers or paper?
Do you find it difficult to say the months of the year backwards?
If you answered 'yes' or 'sometimes' to most of these questions and are already concerned about your work, you may be dyslexic. Of course, the only way to find out is to be tested.
So Where Do I Get My Test?
In the United Kingdom the place to write to is the dyslexia institute. Although you will have to have a statement from your LEA (Local Education Authority) before your school is forced to do anything. Please remember that being diagnosed dyslexic is simply the first step and you will have an uphill struggle to get the help that the education services owe you. There are far too many incidents in Britain where legal action has to be threatened before the LEA will approve the funding they are supposed to give.
Can I Find Out More?
The following is a list of web sites and books that may be useful. Please note that this Researcher has not read all of these sites or books, and cannot say anything about them, other than they exist and that they may be of some use.
Books on Dyslexia
Cairns T & Moss W (1995), Students with Specific Learning Difficulties: Dyslexia in HE(Goldsmiths College)
Davis R (1995), The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Brightest People Can't Read (Pedigree Books)
Gilroy, DE (1993), Dyslexia and Higher Education (University Collage of North Wales)
Hornsby, B (1984), Overcoming Dyslexia (Dunitz)
Klein, C (1993), Diagnosing Dyslexia (Adult Learning Basic Studies Unit)