What is dyslexia?
As it is Dyslexia Awareness Week, we asked three guest contributors to explain, in their own unedited words, how their experiences of dyslexia affect their relationship with language. Underneath these, we also asked a representative of the British Dyslexia Association to discuss what dyslexia is, how it affects people, and how we can make the printed word more accessible for dyslexic people.
It takes a lot of concentration and stamina, my brain has to work twice as hard to make sense of the letters in front of me.
When reading I find that I miss out words, or dont even read the word that’s in front of me, my brain makes something else up. It can be quite stressful, especially when I have to read for work, a project, or out loud.
I feel like perhaps people think I have a limited vocabulary, but I don’t, I just stumble and can’t use the words I want to. My spelling isn’t great and dictionary’s dont always help because sometimes I don’t know where to being, I have no clue of what the letters might be or in what order. I’ve also got a stammer!
It’s an invisible problem that people don’t fully understand, a constant exhausting struggle.
Basically in school I felt really silly compared to the other kids because I had to sit in a class with like 4 other people because I was slower then the rest of my class, not the whole day just a hour out of the day to help me with my problem but other the year I realised that I’m better at other thing rather then reading writing and spelling which I still to this day struggle with massively but I’m figuring stuff out. In school maths and hands on stuff I was much better at I used to have a helper sit with me in class which was weird at first Coz someone took the piss out of me for it calling me stupid and stuff but I got other that because they couldn’t do stuff I liked. As I got older I realised that having dyslexia wasn’t as bad as I fort I’m still fine I have a job and a great life with a brilliant family that were always around to help me when I needed. This learning differculty isn’t something people should be ashamed of I’m proud of my dyslexia because I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it
It’s important to start by saying that this is my experience of being dyslexic, it presents a little differently for different people so it won’t necessarily match up with everyone else’s personal experience.
I am fortunate in that I had family and teachers who were (mostly!) aware of dyslexia and I was diagnosed fairly early, year 4 or 5 I think. Before that I just thought I was stupid. I never had any of my work put on the wall, I did terribly in spelling tests, it took me a long time to learn to read.
However, once I did learn I loved reading, I’d stay up reading books with a torch under the covers until late at night. My verbal vocabulary grew quite fast, but I couldn’t use what I knew at school, because I didn’t know how to write it down. I remember asking one of the ‘clever girls’ at primary school how to spell the word obscene, and she told me there wasn’t any such word, so I assumed I was wrong and didn’t use it. Similarly I could never spell ‘weird’, so would often start, falter, and change it to ‘odd’ (much easier!).
Written language is a bit of a mystery. People who ‘just know’ how to spell things totally baffle me. I am 31, I have a degree from Oxford and am part way through a doctoral course, but I have to use ‘tricks’ if I want to spell things correctly: Science – Sally Calls In Every New Church Entrance Necessary – one coffee (C) two sugars (S) If you’re successful you can have two of everything (C & S) Tier – This Is Easy Really I know lots of people use things like these, but for me they are a necessity and I still have to come up with them when there are new words I use regularly. I also miss prefixes (sometimes) and suffixes (often) when I’m writing. And I have to read things aloud to have a chance of noticing that they’re not there.
A pet peeve is when I ask how to spell something, say omnipotent, and the response I get in for someone to say “om-nih-puh-tunt” English has a really vague orthography, so our vowel sounds don’t map clearly onto our graphemes (letters/letter combinations). When someone ‘sounds out’ a word for me it plays exactly into what I’m poor at, mapping sounds to letters. It also drives me nuts, I can clearly say the word, I just used it to ask for help!
Ultimately I am fortunate. I love language. I love reading. I got to study how language is acquired in childhood as part of my undergraduate degree and that helped me to understand dyslexia better, which was useful. I’m aural not visual, so I may not be able to write things down very well but I know a fair few poems by heart. And with the increase in digital communication, spell check and auto correct I’m at less of a disadvantage than I used to be.
Margaret Malpas, MBE
Margaret is Joint Chair of the British Dyslexia Association, a national expert on HR, and a dyslexia specialist for adults.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a neurological condition i.e. it originates in the brain. It is inherited through a range of genes and chromosomes. There has been a lot of academic research into it but we still don’t have the full picture, probably because the brain and our DNA are so complex. We do know now though that dyslexia is one of eight conditions that are all genetically related and overlap with each other. These eight conditions all have an impact on how we gather and interpret information. So, for example, individuals with dyspraxia DCD may have elements that we describe as arising from dyslexia but they also have difficulty interpreting information from their gross muscles which may result in poor coordination. In my case, I have dyscalculia which gives me problems with maths processing but I have no problems with literacy. Dyslexia is the name we have given where the individual has difficulty processing sounds. Individuals with dyslexia have brains which work a bit differently so they may not be able to distinguish between ‘e’ and ‘i’ or other vowels or soft consonants. They may also have problems with working memory and the speed at which the brain processes information. On the other hand, they may be exceptionally good at coming up with off the wall solutions to problems!
Dyslexia is unusual, right?
No, dyslexia affects 10% of the UK population and the other related conditions account for another 5%. So in total we are talking about 9 million people in the UK. This makes it by far our largest disability group. The good news though is that we can mitigate the worst outcomes and we need the strength many have.
What is the link to words and literacy?
You can easily see that if you have difficulties distinguishing between some letters and attributing sounds to them, that this is going to create difficulties when you try to learn to read, write or spell. As a consequence, many adults with dyslexia continue to have problems with spelling and their reading may not reach the levels of fluency that adults who read prolifically, reach. We do know how to teach dyslexic children though. Through a combination of multi sensory teaching, and repetition to over embed this knowledge in long term memory, we can teach most individuals to be fully literate. Sadly, the problems continue to arise for dyslexic children because our teachers are not trained in their initial teacher training to teach them like this. The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) is campaigning to get dyslexia awareness into initial teacher training so that we do not disable children with dyslexia like this.
What about adult dyslexics?
In general, by adulthood, individuals have either learned to cope with the printed word, or if their dyslexia is very strong, they may be illiterate. Illiteracy locks people out of society, causes poverty, ill health, and a myriad of problems. Dyslexia occurs regardless of race and economic circumstance and intelligence. Some people are very much affected, and others less so. For many dyslexic adults, the primary problem is working memory. This is the part of short term memory where we hold information and then do something with it. For example, if we are trying to remember someone’s name and write it down, we use our working memory to grasp the name, and to remember spelling rules and write it. As you can see everything we do in life uses working memory so if yours is weaker, it is a considerable drawback. Many adults with dyslexia complain about their time management and personal organisation skills. Fortunately though we do know lots of coping strategies we can share which do help with this.
How can we make the printed word more accessible for dyslexics?
We can do a lot to help. We can use non serif fonts and ensure that the font size is at least 12. We can choose pastel coloured paper which is strong enough so that the words cannot be seen from the previous page. Roughly half of those with dyslexia also have airline Syndrome which is a hypersensitivity to glare. The worst environment for that is black print on white paper, so we can correct this easily by using coloured ink on pastel coloured paper. For more detail on this see the BDA’s style guide on www.bdadyslexia.org.uk.
So, for Dyslexia Awareness Week, I would urge you to share this blog with three other people, so that we can create greater awareness through which people can help themselves. You could do one thing to make your printed word accessible. Can you even imagine a world where you are excluded from reading for pleasure, let alone some of the worse outcomes from unsupported dyslexia?”