What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning difference which relates to how individuals process information.  It heightens a variety of cognitive skills, what I like to call ‘Dyslexia Superstrengths’.  These include inventing, empathising, storytelling, influencing, the ability to see the big picture/lateral thinking, creating, analysing, problem solving and simplifying complex ideas. It also creates challenges in traditional learning, typically reading and writing skills. However, it impacts more cognitive abilities than that. The main areas of difficulties relate to phonological awareness, working memory and processing speed.

Phonological awareness is a wide-ranging skill that includes identifying and manipulating sounds of language – i.e. words, syllables and individual letter sounds. A child with good phonological awareness would be able to identify and make up rhymes, clap out syllables in a word, and can talk about words with the same initial sounds such as ‘money’ and ‘mother.’

Playing with words verbally, listening to and making up poems and talking about the words and sounds of language can really help dyslexic children.

To explain how dyslexics and non-dyslexics differ with their working memory and processing speed I have written this very simplistic view:

Think of the memory store in the mind as an office full of filing cabinets.

Now, non-dyslexics, particularly children, often have a very open-door policy when it comes to processing information into memory (using the working memory).  The long-term memory store of information is then organised neatly in clearly labled files.  Non-dyslexics tend to know quickly where all the information is stored and when certain information is required, for instance when they are asked a question. Usually with very little thought, they can go into the office, walk to the right cabinet, open the draw and select the appropriate file and give an answer.

A dyslexic’s mind, on the other hand, typically processes and organises information differently.  Firstly, dyslexic individuals need things to make sense before information can be taken into the long term memory store. A security sensor on the door, if you will, whereby if the information does not make sense or isn’t relevant to the individual it does not get in or isn’t processed as efficiently.

This is the working memory’s job and is often referred to as being weak in dyslexics, but I like to think of it as highly selective!

Once inside the memory store, different types of information can be linked to one another in unexpected ways and therefore ‘filed’ differently to non-dyslexics.  The information may be only partially processed due to distractions during information processing and therefore the files may still be ‘on the desk’.

Because of this unusual organisation system, the individual may not know exactly where each piece of information is stored and therefore when certain information is required, i.e. the same question is asked, it is likely to take a little longer to retrieve.

This extra time, however, is not wasted by the dyslexic individual. By searching throughout the ‘office’ and opening different ‘drawers’ the child has access to a great deal of knowledge and previous experience and is able to make thoughtful connections between ideas and concepts and therefore answer the question in a novel and more creative way.  This slower processing speed and ‘highly selective’ working memory can create challenges, make learning harder and more frustrating but it produces highly creative and inventive problem solvers.


Author: Zoë Brown

I am a dyslexia specialist, qualified in assessing dyslexia and literacy related difficulties as well as tutoring dyslexic children and those who need additional literacy support. Having been diagnosed as dyslexic at an early age, I have a personal understanding of both the challenges and advantages that dyslexia brings. I feel strongly that when given the right support and positive encouragement, dyslexic people of all ages can excel in confidence and academic attainment.

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