There are 2 main types of dyslexia:
- Developmental dyslexia which is an organic condition and is often hereditary. It is lifelong and neurologically based.
- Acquired dyslexia is when a person loses the ability to read and write as a result of a brain injury or disease.
(For the purposes of this article, we will discuss developmental dyslexia as it is by far the most common form.)
What are the symptoms and characteristics of dyslexia?
Dyslexia results in persistent problems in the areas of:
Other symptoms associated with developmental dyslexia are:
- Poor concentration
- The poor short term memory
- Issues with organization
- Problems with sequencing (days of the week, alphabet, months of the year, etc)
Pupils with dyslexia may have co-occurring difficulties in aspects of language, motor coordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organization, but these themselves are not specifically markers of dyslexia.
Characteristic features of dyslexia include difficulties with :
Poor phonological awareness – Learning the letter sounds for reading (called decoding) and spelling (encoding).
A phonological deficit- they have a shortfall (weakness) in their ability to build up a bank of speech units (words, letters, syllables) in the various forms that are all around us. Whilst we may hear a word or letter in different accents and in the different ways each person speaks, we still have a basic imprint of what that letter or word is like. Someone with dyslexia will not have that core bank to call upon.
These weaknesses impede the set up of what’s called the decoding system which converts letters to ‘sounds’ for reading, and ‘sounds’ into letters for spelling. The system of direct access for the pronunciation of words from print is poor.
Hence, learners with dyslexia develop ways to identify words that are less automated and less accurate and much slower than those without. This results in their challenges with reading and spelling as well as understanding and composing text.
Verbal memory – the capacity to remember information that is presented verbally. Verbal processing abilities – the ability to focus on information that is shared verbally and to screen out and ignore any distractions.
The written words are not processed correctly or rapidly enough.’ Professor Jose Morais, Free University of Brussels, Belgium.
What causes dyslexia?
It is thought to be caused by impairment in the brain’s ability to process phonemes (the smallest units of speech that make words different from each other). It does not result from vision or hearing problems. It is not due to any intellectual difficulty, brain damage or a lack of intelligence.
The causes of dyslexia vary with the type. In primary dyslexia, much research focuses on the hereditary factors. Researchers have recently identified specific genes identified as possibly contributing to the signs and symptoms of dyslexia. This research is very important because this may permit the identification of those children at risk of developing dyslexia and allow for earlier educational interventions and better outcomes.
Dyslexia is not the result of:
- Poor schooling
- Poor home environment
- Not wanting to learn (demotivation)
It is NOT caused by poor vision or hearing, or lack of motor coordination. However, in some cases, problems with visual and auditory processing (how we process the knowledge from what we see and hear) may occur together with dyslexia. For parents, it is important that physiological factors with vision and hearing are ruled out when trying to establish why their child is having difficulties with reading, writing and spelling.
Is dyslexia a barrier to success?
Dyslexia can occur across a range of intellectual abilities and many people with dyslexia have gone on to enjoy famously successful careers, for example, Richard Branson, Orlando Bloom and Whoopi Goldberg.
The diversity of dyslexia.
Those with dyslexia are as varied as any other grouping in society. For many, their problems are with reading, writing and spelling as one would suspect. For others, it might also include difficulties with maths, organisation and sequencing.
For many, their feelings of being ‘stupid’ or a ‘failure’, and in becoming marginalised by their peers and sometimes society as a whole, is too much and they sink into depression and feelings of worthlessness. Often can’t find work and become involved in anti social behaviour in school and as an adult. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbjarmtXSAs (Link to youtube video BBC film ‘Language Shock’).
Strengths associated with those diagnosed with dyslexia.
‘Whatever the severity of difficulties with reading, writing and spelling, children with dyslexia often display skills developed to an average or above-average standard.’
– Dr Harry Chasty, International consultant.
These skills are many and varied, as detailed by John Stein, Oxford University, UK. They may include:
- Marked spatial ability e.g building models without instructions
- Higher order thinking skills and inquiring minds- the ability to ask pertinent, sensible questions, using advanced vocabulary
- Well developed social awareness
- Ability to solve problems rapidly
- Creative thinkers
- 3D construction
- High performance in geometry, chess, cards, computer games and superior technical abilities
- Coming up with their own strategies to solve problems (including those associated with their dyslexia)
‘It is a fact,’ says Stein, ‘that dyslexic learners have many talents that just don’t happen to include reading and writing’.
In my own experience, many of my students who were identified as dyslexic were highly intelligent and sometimes had advanced skills in a wide range of abilities in subjects such as Drama, Maths, Science, Computing and Art. Many have gone on to university and very successful careers. Indeed, some of my colleagues in teaching have been diagnosed as such, and enjoy great success in their specialisms.
Conditions that may co-exist with dyslexia.
Quite often, dyslexia may coincide or be confused with other deficits.
1. Specific Language Impairment (SLI) also known as dysphasia
Specific language impairment (SLI) is a communication disorder that interferes with the development of language skills in children who have no hearing loss or intellectual disabilities. SLI can affect a child’s speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
2. ADHD- Non attentive / Hyperactive or combined
Its origin is in neurological development where there is a disruption of brain functions that control behaviour. (see link to ‘What is ADHD’ blog?)
3. Difficulties with mathematics
Research shows that approximately 60% of students with dyslexia can have difficulties with basic maths. (Some students do however, excel at geometry, as that requires spatial skills that many dyslexics have.)
The following areas in maths often present as challenging for dyslexic students:
- Memorising the basic elements of addition, subtraction and multiplication
- Remembering the elements of long division
- Understanding abstract concepts such as ‘reduction’, ‘less’ and ‘difference’ when dealing with subtraction. The phrase ‘ find the total’ when talking about addition is often confusing for them.
- Similar looking signs such as the ones for ‘bigger than’ or ‘smaller than’
4. Poor physical coordination
Known as ‘dyspraxia’ or more commonly as ‘clumsiness’. This is a developmental condition that affects coordination, balance and fine motor skills, as well as thought and perception.
The importance of the identification of dyslexia.
Many students with undiagnosed dyslexia feel stupid and different from others. They may feel that it is their fault, that they need to do more. Many can suffer from anxiety and depression. It is vital that they are offered some hope that they can be successful in school and find rewarding careers. Their low self esteem and well-being will continue to decline unless they know what is causing their difficulties.
Where a student has high cognitive ability, this can be even more complex. They get fairly good grades so are not always so obvious to teachers and parents. However, they are not achieving anywhere near what they are capable of and their ‘middle of the road’ grades are a disappointment. Their dyslexia becomes hidden because of the association of dyslexia and poor ability. Teachers and parents don’t always see these students’ true potential as many of them have come up with ingenious, and sometimes laborious ways, of trying to deal with these challenges.
If their dyslexia remains undiagnosed and unsupported in school, they will surely develop a sense of low self-worth which can often lead to dropping out of school due to the mental stress and anxiety it induces. No matter what they do or try, they always feel defeated. Many are marginalised and develop anti-social behaviours.
Once diagnosed, however, I have been told there is a feeling of relief at knowing what is happening to them. Many show great resilience and develop coping strategies. Being afforded concessions for examinations (word processor use, for example,) can help them achieve what they want and deserve in life. Many that I have worked with are the most diligent and conscientious students ever.
Where can I get help?
In many schools there are Special Needs departments, sometimes called Learning Support. They are usually led by someone with experience of working with students with dyslexia, and will know where you can get help.
Dyslexia is diagnosed by Educational Psychologists or teachers who have taken part in extra study to be able to offer assessments.
Once the student has a diagnosis, they can ask the school to apply for exam concessions where they will be allowed to use a word processor in examinations. There are other concessions such as extra time ( for reading text) that can be offered too.
Online teaching strategies
Quite often there will be local associations and support networks available to support students and their families.
Please see below: