Dys Diff

Most commentators and practitioners acknowledge the wide range of difficulties experienced by dyslexics while emphasising that every learner with dyslexia has different strengths and weaknesses. They make it clear that not all dyslexics exhibit all symptoms all the time (hence the difficulty in identifying it of course). No two people with dyslexia are exactly alike because dyslexia ranges from mild to moderate to severe to profound.

However, there does tend to be an emphasis on the negative aspects of dyslexia in much of the literature. I am not denying that many learners with dyslexia are disadvantaged. The education system often militates against non-traditional learners until they fail, despite the best intentions of the majority of us in schools.

Here I want to elaborate a little on the difficulties experienced by many dyslexics (with heartfelt thanks to Gavin Reid whose influence in developing the knowledge and understanding of generations of teachers, myself included, is gratefully acknowledged).

Reading, writing and spelling are the core difficulties associated with dyslexia. Literacy tasks, apart from creative writing, are associated with the left hemisphere. Galaburda’s research indicates that a non-dyslexic brain has a left hemisphere that is heavier than the right. In dyslexics, the hemispheres are more equal in weight (‘a deviation from the standard pattern of cerebral asymmetry’). This difference means that tasks involving phonics, accuracy, sequencing and remembering will be more challenging and more exhausting for the child with dyslexia.

These difficulties often don’t reflect an individual’s intellectual abilities and may not be typical of performance in other areas.

Short-term and working memory and processing ability: There is a well-established connection between reading and memory. Auditory memory is critical for literacy development, especially for the acquisition of phonic skills, i.e. mapping of letters (graphemes) on to sounds (phonemes), and for the storage of phonological codes in short-term memory during word recognition and processing of text. When reading continuous text for meaning, the child must also hold words in memory until the end of the phrase or sentence. Poor working memory will thus affect reading comprehension.

Visual memory is a key component of literacy development too, especially in the early stages. It is also essential in rapid retrieval of visual whole-word representations from the mental lexicon by older and more fluent readers when reading text. Visual memory also comes into play when retrieving visual sequences of letters in the correct order for spelling (particularly where irregular words are concerned).

Some learners may have visual disturbance when looking at print and this can cause blurring, words merging and omissions of words or lines when reading. This has been labelled Scotopic Sensitivity or Irhlen Syndrome. Currently, Visual Stress is used to describe visual processing difficulties such as binocular instability, astigmatism, etc.

Oral language skills and reading fluency: Difficulties in processing  information may also affect a child’s verbal performance, despite a reasonable vocabulary and understanding. Fluency does not just mean speed of processing but the rate at which a learner assimilates information and connects it with prior knowledge to create understanding. If word retrieval is a problem then a learner with dyslexia may be long-winded or taciturn. Sometimes a teacher will tell me that a child’s comments are ‘irrelevant’. Many dyslexics do have difficulty focusing on the main idea and this can result in circumlocution. Some make links between concepts that seem entirely pertinent to them but which don’t represent typical thinking.

Sequencing and Directionality: Learning any task that has a series of steps which must be completed in a specific order can be difficult because of the overload on the working memory. Most dyslexic children and adults have significant directionality (Left-Right, Up-Down) confusion making reading or understanding maps hard.

Number skills: Maths has its own language, and this can be the root of many problems. Related difficulties could be with visual/perceptual skills, directional confusion, sequencing, word skills and memory. Dyslexic students may have special difficulties with aspects of maths that require many steps or place a heavy load on the short-term memory, e.g. long division or algebra. Unfortunately, difficulties in directionality, rote memorisation, reading and sequencing can make the many computation tasks so difficult that their ability in areas such as 3-D visualising and representation is masked.

Organisational ability: Organising one’s room, notebook and writing on a page proves to be quite challenging for many dyslexic people. This is generally a result of memory and sequential difficulties.

Motor Skills: A number of learners with dyslexia will have fine and gross motor difficulties that can result in immature handwriting and/or clumsiness.

Confidence: The learning environment affects all learners, especially those experiencing difficulties.  A focus on attainment in a narrow range of areas stops dyslexic pupils feeling  valued and that they belong: crucial for developing resilience in learning.

Diet and exercise: Lifestyle affects learning in everybody. Richardson’s research indicates that many learners with dyslexia, as well as dyspraxia, are deficient in fatty acids which maximise efficient learning.

Phew! No wonder people with dyslexia have it tough in today’s schools.