Up to 10% of the population may be affected with dyslexia. What does it feel like to be considered at best ‘a bit stupid’, at worst labelled ‘lazy’ because you can’t read or write as well as others? Imagine your frustration as a child if lines dance across your page forming patterns while others find meaning in something you can’t understand or when you write a word and spell it wrongly each time. Without help, how soon before you might switch off, get bored, frustrated or even play around and skip school?
If undiagnosed dyslexia has been your childhood experience of education and no one helped, consider these questions for an adult:
• How do you get around when trying to read train or bus timetables?
• What literacy skills do you need for a job?
• How will you cope with internet communications instead of phoning?
• Can you help kids with spelling and homework?
In this story there are the lucky ones who get by. I’ve known business men who only let wives or secretaries into the secret to cover for them. Others compensate by taking jobs with few literacy requirements or find strategies hiding problems but never realising their full potential.
The lucky, successful or talented in their field may be confident talking about their dyslexia, like Richard Branson or Whoopi Goldberg. There are many famous dyslexic people but the less fortunate can suffer from low self esteem. It can be hard studying for qualifications and finding jobs. It’s suggested that around 50% of offenders can have dyslexia related problems. Fortunately, there is now awareness of the subject and some of the advantages of dyslexia. Many well known people now discuss the subject and the opportunities of ‘neurological differences’.
Although dyslexia isn’t ‘curable’ a diagnosis is an important step for children and adults Diagnoses highlight specific inefficiencies with auditory, visual or motor processes. If we’ve no problems we see letters and words, hear sounds and discriminate between them. We memorise how sounds link to letter patterns forming words with meaning (phonic decoding) or we remember how words look. We co-ordinate these memories with our hand movements to reproduce written language.
If a child has no medical problems with hearing, eyesight or co-ordination and finds learning to read and write difficult then we need to ask why? A diagnosis leads to understanding and then we can work with an individual’s strengths or bypass problem areas. After a diagnosis people often say, “What a relief.....I thought I was stupid.” Firstly, the problem has been named, secondly someone out there can help and thirdly strategies, technologies and support can become available.
What can tutors look for?
Tutors may not be dyslexia specialists but can be alert for difficulties especially when several are noticed. Here are some suggestions:
Speaking and listening:
- stumbling over words with several syllables
- pronunciation problems with sound combinations
- forgetfulness - difficulties recalling names
- numbers out of sequence - dates and times
- hesitancy - especially with longer words
- inability to decode words by sounds – ‘phonologically’
- problems tracking text, text blurred
- avoidance - "I haven’t got my glasses."
- letters back to front - ‘d’ for ‘b’
- inconsistent handwriting, letter formation, frustration, tiredness
- crossings out and spelling errors
- poorly organised writing
These highlight some but not all problems and are part of a spectrum of difficulties experienced as processing problems in the brain. These include poor working memory including sounds and symbols, processing speed, vision problems and motor integration difficulties making handwriting tiring. Importantly, for people with dyslexia literacy skills don’t match up to other cognitive abilities.
What can tutors do?
Although diagnosis is desirable, tutors can use multisensory teaching techniques giving opportunities to learn in different ways and also a holistic teaching approach. Teaching strategies for specific learning difficulty are helpful for all learners and adaptable to different curriculum levels for children and adults.
Dyslexic learners prefer the complete picture not small parts forming a whole. Use mind mapping techniques presenting interlinking ideas simply and encourage use of this strategy. Images can convey complex information simply and aid memory retention for ideas and concepts when words fail.
For reading and writing, here are just a few ideas:
- use 12 point Ariel or Comic Sans - not Times Roman
- avoid dense texts without headings or bullet
- avoid UPPER CASE
- non white grounds reduce contrast and movement
- track text using ruler
- trial spelling strategies:
- patterns in words - highlight them in colour - ‘aubergine’ ‘mauve’
- use mnemonics
- break words up by syllable or visually, ‘man / a / ger’ or ‘m / ana / ger’
- word processing avoids handwriting
- texthelp, speech recognition software, reader pens, recorders
There are many more creative ideas and strategies to explore with learners that bring great rewards but be sensitive. Remember the confused dyslexic child? Work with whole groups not singling out one person, discuss assessment options privately. The more you know about dyslexia, the more you’ll understand about how we all learn.
What is Dyslexia?
British Dyslexia Association
Dyslexia Research Trust
Wikipedia Mind Maps
Krupska, M & Klein, C (1995) Demystifying Dyslexia. LLU+. ISBN 872972 14 4
Klein, C Diagnosing Dyslexia, (1995) The Basic Skills Agency. ISBN 1 870741 71 7
Miles, T (1993) Dyslexia: the pattern of difficulties. London, Whurr.