Why does dyslexia make learning so hard?

Dyslexia is a learning difference which affects the way in which certain individuals process information.  The word Dyslexia comes from the Greek, ‘Dys’ meaning poor or inadequate and ‘lexia’ which refers to words or language, i.e. dyslexia means language difficulties.  

However, dyslexia, often found in bright and highly capable learners, is widely misunderstood because, when it first becomes apparent in children, the signs that are noticed are the difficulties with learning to read, write, spell and recall facts within the traditional, narrow and fast paced curriculum whilst its strengths are overlooked. 

Strengths such as:

  • Problem solving – dyslexics are renowned for their ability to take an original perspective.
  • Analysing – by taking a unique approach, the dyslexic mind can offer a critical viewpoint.
  • Story telling – Dyslexics are often highly vocal and engaging with the way they present information or a story especially when it is of particular interest to them.
  • Empathising – dyslexic people are especially adept at considering another’s point of view and can show tremendous levels of empathy to friends, colleagues and strangers alike.
  • Simplifying complex ideas – using their ability to take on another’s perspective; dyslexics are frequently skilled at breaking down complex concepts and explaining them in comprehensive ways.
  • Influencing – with their well-developed interpersonal skills and engaging characters, dyslexics are often able to use their verbal skills to influence and persuade an audience to share their outlook.
  • Creating – The unique imagination and visio-spatial skills of dyslexic people make them highly proficient at creating novel concepts, either using physical components such as drawings and paintings, graphic design or sculpture making, etc. or coming up with abstract ideas and turning them into reality.  Because of this creativity, dyslexics make inspiring entrepreneurs
  • Inventing – similar to creating, dyslexic people have been at the forefront of invention in the last century.  They are able to understand the needs of individuals, and develop ways to meet those needs. 
  • Seeing the big picture – with all these strengths, the dyslexic mind is free from being bogged down in the details – rather they can think laterally, see the bigger picture and be ready with the next big idea!

With all this going for them, how could being dyslexic be a challenge? I hear you ask…

Well, the trouble is that the education system is built to mostly teach the 80% or so who don’t have dyslexia.  This system focuses on the details; things like getting commas in the right places, writing ‘right’ and not ‘write’ in the right ‘place’ but not ‘plaice’.  The dyslexic mind needs things to make sense and be relevant in order to learn – sounds sensible doesn’t it?

Firstly, from infancy, amongst all the things you have to learn about the world around you and the people in it, you also start to develop an understanding of object consistency.  That is to say, a baby, when lying in their cot or pram will stare up at their hand, turning it this way and that, holding it in a fist or fingers spread out and viewing it from different angles.  Whilst they are doing this, they are learning that the hand they see remains consistently their hand despite all the different shapes they can view it in.  This learning is then transferred to objects as they discover that the view point in which one sees an object doesn’t affect the existence of the object itself.

Photo by Max Fischer on Pexels.com

Then they go to school. 

They are told that although object consistency applies to most things around them it does not apply to letters or numbers and that whilst this is a ‘b’, this is not, ‘d’, nor this, ‘p’ nor this ‘q’ and that the ‘b’ in different orientations, has entirely different sounds and can dramatically change the meaning of words when shown in the ‘wrong’ orientation!  It doesn’t seem to make sense!

Neither does the English language itself. For instance – and this is just one confusing element with on our language – there are over 13 different ways to write the sound ‘or’ and most of them only make the sound ‘or’ in certain words and can make other sounds in others. 

Children are taught synthetic phonics from an early age – a list of sound/grapheme correspondences which they not only have to remember, and get to grips with in order to pass the test at the end, but have to absorb all this whilst learning about being at school, learning numeracy and all kinds of other things both literal and abstract, making friends and learning to listen to what the teacher is saying, make sense of it and ignore all other distractions. It’s hard for them to grasp the importance and the relevance of what they are being taught.

For a dyslexic child, struggling to grasp an understanding of the sound structure of the English language (phonological awareness), struggling to encode, remember and focus on information they are being taught (difficulties with short term memory, working memory and/or phonological memory) and finding that everyone around them is learning at a faster rate (slower processing) makes them feel confused and far less capable than all those around them.

Later on, these sound/letter correspondences which they have been taught to rely on are blown up when they are introduced to the more complex sounds and irregular words, and the English language, if they had started to grasp it, no longer makes logical sense.

Without a structured, yet adaptable, multi-sensory approach, sense of humour and highly patient teachers, getting one’s head around all this can feel virtually impossible and children can begin, instead, to learn to fail. 

I mentioned earlier the slow processing that is one common sign of dyslexia.  It is a common misconception that the word ‘slow’, especially when used to describe a cognitive function, is a bad thing and is often considered synonymous with a lower level of intellect.  However, when it comes to processing speed in dyslexics, this is certainly not the case. 

Imagine, if you will, that the mind is like an office.  The individual with average or fast processing speed – let’s call them Alex – has a very tidy office.  A number of filing cabinets line the walls and all the documents and paperwork within these cabinets are ordered in clear and logical format.  When they are asked a question about spiders, they go into their office, straight to the cabinet entitled ‘animals’, open the arachnids drawer and pull out the spiders file, get the appropriate document then leave. A fast and automatic information retrieval process.

Archive cabinets with folders

However, the mind of someone with slower than average processing speed –  let’s call them Jo –  may not resemble the tidy office I described above.  Instead, there may be paperwork still in the in-tray and on the desk not quite filed away yet.  The documents in the cabinets may not be stored in the same coherent way. For instance, Jo may have seen a big spider whilst on holiday so some arachnid details may be stored in the holidays file; they may have a spider living under their bed so other information on spiders may be stored in the ‘things under my bed’ file.  Therefore, when Jo is asked the same question on spiders the information retrieval process isn’t as straightforward and automatic. 

Nevertheless – and this is the important bit – when slow is advantageous, while Jo is looking for the information to answer the question, they are exposed to so much more past knowledge and experience than ever Alex was and therefore they can make connections between the concepts that they have access to, produce ideas and novel thoughts which will ultimately make their response likely to be far more interesting.

This is why, in the words of Matt Hancock, our Education secretary:

“Dyslexia is the biggest single driver of ingenuity, imagination and scientific achievement in human history!”

I am a dyslexia specialist and I conduct diagnostic assessments to help children get access to the right education support. If you want to know more about dyslexia or how I can help your child drop me an email – info@mancroftlearning.co.uk I look forward to hearing fro you.

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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