Dyslexia Awareness Week: Myths about Dyslexia


See you on the other side by Annalisa Shepherd

Next week is Dyslexia Awareness Week and I shall be posting something here every day.

First, here is a list of myths about dyslexia. I’ll make sure each one is debunked before the end of the week!

Myth 1: Dyslexia does not exist.

Myth 2: Dyslexia is a “catch all” term.

Myth 3: Intelligence and ability to read are related. So if someone doesn’t read well, they can’t be very bright. Equally, very able children cannot be dyslexic.

Myth 4: People with dyslexia cannot read.

Myth 5: People with dyslexia see things backwards.

Myth 6: Dyslexia is rare.

Myth 7: Dyslexia is a medical diagnosis.

Myth 8: Children outgrow dyslexia.

Myth 9: Dyslexia affects four times more boys than girls.

Myth 10: Any child who reverses letters or numbers has dyslexia.

Myth 11: Every child who struggles with reading is a learner with dyslexia.

Myth 12: Children with dyslexia are just lazy. If only they tried harder…


Thanks to Annalisa Shepherd for the picture.

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Memory Performance Boosted while Walking

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Interesting article here  (thanks to Charles Fernyhough on Twitter for the link) on memory perfomance and activity.

This research that shows  that memory performance can be boosted by walking compared with sitting down.

The headline finding was that the working memory performance of both age groups improved when walking at their chosen speed compared with when sitting or walking at a fixed speed set by the researchers. This was especially the case for more difficult versions of the working memory task, and was more pronounced among the children than the adults. So, this would appear to be clear case of mental performance actually being superior in a dual-task situation.

 Why should the secondary task of walking aid, rather impair, mental performance? The researchers aren’t sure of the mechanism, but they think the attentional pool tapped by a sensori-motor task like walking is likely separate from the attentional pool tapped by working memory. Moreover, physical activity increases arousal and activation, ‘which then can be invested into the cognitive task,’ they said.

It is often argued that children with specific learning difficulties ‘have more problems than healthy controls when they have to divide their attention between two concurrent tasks.’ However, this research indicates that the opposite is in fact the case. So get those kids moving – at a brisk but self determined pace – and you might find that their working memory (and hence learning in general) improves.

Worth a try!

Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies. It happens when society adopts new behaviours. Clay Shirky

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Thomas West states:

Some have estimated that more than 50% of computer graphics artists are dyslexic. Brains that seem ill adapted to one technological context can be superlatively well adapted to a very different technological context. The child who has struggled most with conventional academic skills may be perfectly adapted to lead the way with these new and powerful computer visualisation technologies.

 The Curriculum for Excellence gives permission for teachers to celebrate and develop those attributes that have traditionally been accorded less value. Our new (or perhaps re-awakened) perspective tells us that insight and innovation are more even important than book knowledge. Technological change is re-defining the kinds of things that need to be learned and the ways in which we can express our knowledge and understanding.

Many learners with dyslexia are creative and enterprising, while they often fail in school-based clerical and memorisation skills. It is amazing to observe those dyslexics who excel at very high-level maths but who still have not mastered the ‘basics’. Sophisticated mathematical thinking contrasted with poor computation is akin to mature facility with oral language and poor spelling and punctuation. The Tortoise Mind cannot always compete with the Hare Brain, despite deep and thoughtful understanding. 

Sometimes the very terminology of different subjects defeats those with processing difficulties; even when their imagination and vocabulary is wide ranging and rich and even when they know the stuff. I wish I had kept the picture one student produced in a maths exam when asked to ‘show his working’. He painstakingly drew himself seated at a desk, head in one hand, and pencil in the other.

Some brains seem designed to do the high-level work while the elementary is stubbornly problematic. CfE encourages educators to acknowledge the differences in learning and cognitive styles and to celebrate the various approaches to learning adopted by our students.

One of the most important and distinctive characteristics shared by many learners with dyslexia (within great diversity) – when it comes to details they falter. They are not so good at remembering exactly what the teacher said or the exact argument used by this author or that. They may be a bit vague about the numbers cited or the lists of names given. However, sometimes, perhaps often, they can be very good at listening carefully and drinking in the whole situation in all its complexity – and slowly working toward seeing a much larger integration of many divers elements.

We are re-thinking what we are trying to do in education and what our unspoken and unexamined assumptions are. We are using the newest technologies to prepare our students for the realities of the modern world – and in so doing tap into talents that have rarely been noticed or developed before. We are moving beyond fixing problems and discovering where unconventional learners thrive.

Working Memory: the New Intelligence

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Working memory is the new intelligence: the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally. We use this mental workspace not just when doing ‘mental maths’, but also when following instructions and directions, recalling sequences in words, sentences and oral presentations, and retaining information long enough to evaluate and synthesise. Children who do poorly at school may have poor working memory rather than an immutable lack of intelligence.

Working memory is not linked to differences in income, environment, social class or any of the other factors that make traditional IQ tests so unhelpful. Poor working memory is often not routinely identified at school and teachers often describe children with this problem as inattentive, day dreamers or being less able.

Working memory determines how effectively someone can learn and is, according to Tracy Packiam Alloway, ‘the best predictor of academic success’. I had thought this was receptive vocabulary but of course knowledge of a wide variety of words is dependent on the ability to retrieve these words at will. An effective working memory is fundamental to learning.

Dr Alloway is the director of the Centre for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at Stirling University. I heard her at the Edinburgh Science festival last week and was most impressed with her energy and wide ranging research profile.

People use working memory to stay focused, creatively solve complex problems, respond to questions thoughtfully and recall instructions and crucial information. Those who are better at remembering and working with new information do better in all aspects of learning.

Working memory impacts on every aspect of how our brain works and, as a consequence, every aspect of our lives: from securing our survival, to making savvy business decisions and controlling our emotions. Understanding what we can do to train our working memory can have a tremendous impact on preventing memory loss and delay the signs of dementia.

Alloway states that specific ‘Brain Training’ programmes have no benefit other than enabling people to do brain training exercises more effectively. She has also debunked ‘Brain Gym’ in her extensive research. The BBC programme this week, ‘Bang goes the Theory’ , confirmed these findings in an amusing way. A chimp demonstrated that practise in such games improves performance measurably, with no concomitant surge in overall cognitive function. The chimp didn’t become more intelligent in the generally accepted sense of the word.

Brain Test Britain found that people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games. But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.

However, all is not lost. Alloway’s research demonstrates that playing video games involving planning and strategy, such as war games, may also train working memory. Games that demand keeping track of past actions and mapping the actions you are about to take (Scrabble, chess, crosswords, Sudoku being prime examples) are likely to have the same effect as their video equivalents in challenging the brain.

Dr Alloway’s team has developed a program, Jungle Memory , that claims to increase the performance of 11 – 14 year olds. After 8 weeks, children in a trial saw ten-point improvements in literacy, numeracy and ‘IQ’ scores. (I wonder why Alloway continues to use this outdated mode of assessment. It is clear that she regards intelligence quotients only as effective indicators of the ability to pass intelligence tests).

Doodling is also highly recommended for recording those ‘mental scribbles’ about information we need to remember and reflect on.

Adopting approaches that encourage note making using symbols, metacognitive strategies for recall, strategic thinking, time for reflection and – crucially – collaborative learning and playing games in the classroom is likely to help those children (estimated at 10% across all age ranges) whose poor working memory affects their progress.

Interesting stuff that should impact upon learning and teaching for all children, but especially those with learning difficulties.

Fresh thinking about gender differences and dyslexia

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The old measurement scales don’t fit any more. As our technology, economy and society are transformed at ever greater rates, while our institutions hold fast ever more tightly to outmoded ideas, perhaps it is time for some fresh thinking.

For example, it has long been assumed that the ratio of dyslexic boys to girls was roughly 4 to 1.

Differentiating between the genders in terms of characteristics is, of course, arrant nonsense. There are as many differences between members of the same gender as there are similarities between those of different genders. However, I am going to make some very sweeping statements which may reflect the experience and attitudes of some boys and some girls.

Girls traditionally tended to have more developed social awareness. They were more likely to ask for support from peers to hide difficulties and/or be very dependent on the opinion of the ‘popular’ girls who may not value learning. Perhaps they felt there were fewer opportunities available to them and consequently were less inclined than some boys to voice frustration that their abilities and attainments were mismatched. Any difficulties may have been interpreted as their own fault with a commensurate disinclination to ask for explanation or support.

The convention for boys, on the other hand, was that they were less tolerant of appearing stupid or bored. In fact, some might have made active choices to appear badly behaved, this being preferable to being thought incapable of learning. They may also have perceived failure to be the fault of others or just bad luck.

The chances are that children conforming to these somewhat crass stereotypes may have had very different experiences of school success or failure. If this is the case, then it follows that many girls may not have been assessed or identified as having dyslexia. (It is true that many boys with perceived behavioural difficulties may also have missed such identification but at least they had drawn people’s attention to themselves, unlike many girls).

I should be delighted to think that these traditional views were diminishing. If so, then we may find that the ratio of boys to girls with dyslexia is more like 1:1 than 4:1.

What we have here may be a ‘referral bias’ type problem. The long line of boys labelled school ‘failures’ and those ‘at risk’ may comprise those who are have not yet found a way to find some measure of success (often necessarily outside of school), great or small. The considerably shorter line of girls thought to have dyslexic difficulties may be those who have raised their heads above the parapet, whether by exceptional aptitude or unusual behaviour patterns.

 The consistent ‘A’ students have always been very good at doing pretty much exactly what the teacher wanted, exactly what the teacher expected. They are very good at the expected. It does not follow, however, that they are any good at the unexpected. It is often those unconventional, sometimes outrageous and always challenging students who become the leaders, creators and entrepreneurs just because they revel in the unexpected. (Thomas West).

It is up to us to ensure children and young people have opportunities to discover and react to the startling and discomforting. We need to be looking beyond the conventional and traditional, so that we are aware of differences, of strengths and of weaknesses that might not have been so obvious in the classroom of the 20th century.

 We should encourage diversity not only to be civil, not only to be respectful, not only to be humane, not only to be just, but also because we have a particular stake in diversity that is rarely, if ever, fully articulated. We want there to be people who have abilities we don’t yet know that we need, abilities that we have not ever tried to measure because we didn’t know that we needed them, abilities that may be in no way associated with the abilities and talents that we now measure by formal or informal means.  (Thomas West).

Medieval Clerk to Renaissance Person

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Thomas West’s ground breaking book In the Mind’s Eye was first published in 1997 and was up-dated last year. It challenges many myths about the nature of intelligence, exploring the visual strengths that many non-traditional learners, such as those with dyslexia, have.  His new chapters investigate how tapping into new technologies greatly enhances creative potential.

In the Foreword, Oliver Sacks writes:

People with dyslexia are often regarded as defective, as missing something – a facility in reading or linguistic thinking – which the rest of us have. But those of us who are predominantly verbal or ‘lexical’ thinkers could just as well be thought of as ‘avisuals’. There may indeed be a sort of reciprocity between lexical and visual powers. West makes a convincing argument that a substantial section of the population, often highly intelligent, may combine reading problems with heightened visual powers and are often adept at compensating for their problems in one way or another – even though they may suffer greatly at school, where so much is based on reading.

Some of our most original intellects (e.g. da Vinci, Edison, Yeats, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Lewis Carroll, and Winston Churchill) relied heavily on visual modes of thought, processing information in terms of images instead of words or numbers. How many visual thinkers in school today are languishing for lack of understanding of their extraordinary talents and insights?

As our technology, economy and society are transformed at ever greater rates, while our institutions hold fast ever more tightly to outmoded ideas, perhaps it is time for some really fresh thinking – especially from a quarter where it might have been least expected. The old measurement scales don’t fit any more.

West’s blog can be found here. Posts tend to be long and infrequently added; but are worth reading.

To be of importance to others is to be alive. T S Eliot

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I wrote here about the debilitating effects of a set mindset; one that ensures that learners ultimately become paralysed by the need to ‘be clever’ at all costs. People with fixed beliefs in their own abilities can all too easily become stuck in rigid patterns of behaviour as a result of too much emphasis on attainment rather than achievement. An incremental notion of intelligence, on the other hand, allows for – necessitates –  making mistakes as starting points for development. Our view of ourselves as worthwhile beings and our health and well-being are in large part dependent on our perception of our place in society. The biological is correlated with the sociological.

If we feel that we can only belong, that we only matter if we act in certain prescribed ways; if we are given generalised praise or blame for being ‘good’ or ‘poor’ (academically, socially) rather than for specific actions; if our being is witnessed as complete and immutable, then we will suffer.

A powerful book about depression notes the debilitating effect on animals of stressful envionments:

Animals can hurt themselves deliberately, and they frequently do if subject to excessive vicissitudes. Rats kept crowded together will chew off their own tails. Rhesus monkeys reared without mothers begin self-injuring actions at about 5 months; this behaviour continues throughout life even when the monkeys are placed in a social group. These monkeys appear to have lower than normal levels of serotonin in crucial areas of the brain.

The author tells the distresing story of a creature with whom, before I read this, I could never have envisaged correlating with any human experience:

I was fascinated to hear of the suicide of an octopus, trained for a circus, which had been accustomed to do tricks for rewards of food. When the circus was disbanded, the octopus was kept in a tank and no one paid any attention to his tricks. He gradually lost colour (octopuses’ states of mind are expressed in their shifting hues) and finally went through his tricks a last time, failed to be rewarded, and used his beak to stab himself so badly that he died.

How many of our children are rewarded, positively or negatively,  for their tricks? How many youngsters damage themeselves psychologically or physically because they feel they are only noticed for set attributes (good girl, clever boy, at foundation level, a Level B reader...) rather than for the unique individuals they are?

It is our communal responsibility to ensure that no child  subjects her or himself to such acts of self destruction.