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What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia [dis-lek-see-uh] is a language processing disorder that some people are born with.  The name of the condition comes from the Greek words “dys” meaning difficulty and “lexia” meaning language. Current research suggests that dyslexia is an inherited condition resulting from a physical difference in the brain. It presents itself in many degrees, ranging from mild to severe. Dyslexia is not simply a reading disorder. Dyslexics may have special needs in all areas of language, including spelling, writing, reading, pronunciation, and other disciplines involving sequencing, such as mathematics.

A dyslexic person’s brain has difficulty recognizing symbols and patterns and forming them into language. Some people think dyslexia causes people to read backwards. This is a myth. Reversing letters or numbers is a normal part of development, and on its own is not a warning sign of dyslexia in the early years. However, if letter reversal does not go away after a few years of handwriting practice, it may be a sign of dyslexia. People with dyslexia have trouble separating and grouping the sounds that letters make. They can learn to read, write and spell, but they process language differently than the average person, and thus require different training. Studies suggest that dyslexia is not caused by vision problems, and that people with dyslexia typically have normal or above average intelligence.

Dyslexia in the Classroom

In a classroom, dyslexics may appear to be easily distracted, and because of this are often labelled as lazy by teachers and parents who do not understand the learning difficulty. This leads to self-esteem problems, which can be the most debilitating longterm effect of dyslexia. Many kids with dyslexia may also suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD). Teachers who understand dyslexia are able to use different strategies to help learners succeed. Since the classroom is often the most stressful environment for a dyslexic person, a knowledgable and compassionate teacher can help prevent depression and behavioural problems.

Dyslexia in Language Learners

Learning a new language can be very difficult for people with dyslexia, especially in the written form. It can be very stressful for these language learners to be introduced to new patterns, sounds and symbols when they already struggle with reading, writing, spelling and vocabulary acquisition in their native language. Memorization is also difficult for dyslexics. This does not mean that dyslexics should avoid learning additional languages altogether. It does mean that dyslexics with a more severe condition will have to be highly motivated and confident to succeed in learning a new language. Dyslexics will likely find that learning to speak another language is much easier than learning to read and write a foreign language. Some colleges and universities waive the foreign language requirement for students with dyslexia. A sign-language credit is a viable alternative. In elementary and high school, dyslexics may not have to take the same standardized exams as their peers.

Symptoms and Warning Signs of Dyslexia

Dyslexia can be diagnosed in young children, but is often not diagnosed until at least the age of seven or eight. Some people go through their whole lives not knowing that they are dyslexic. A student who displays a number of the following warning signs may be a candidate for testing:

  • speech delay as a child (not talking until at least age three)
  • early stuttering
  • trouble saying words with more than one syllable
  • trouble putting thoughts into words
  • difficulty rhyming
  • trouble with minimal pairs (for example, in English: l/r, m/n, sh/ch)
  • odd spacing in writing
  • rarely using punctuation
  • often leaving out out vowels when writing
  • rarely using capitalization (in languages that require it)
  • reading a word in context, but not in isolation
  • inability to sound out words (may understand phonics in isolation)
  • not learning to tie shoes
  • guessing left and right (can’t comprehend)
  • spelling not sticking for very long
  • hearing things a bit more slowly than peers
  • poor penmanship and pencil grip (trouble remembering the proper sequence of forming a letter)
  • trouble decoding words and sounds
  • difficulty memorizing sequences (such as multiplication tables or the alphabet)
  • difficulty naming letters or symbols
  • reading a familiar-sounding word instead of the correct word
  • poor concentration
  • extreme difficulty copying notes from the board
  • skipping words when reading
  • confusion with “mirrored” letters or symbols (for example, b and d or 9 and P)
  • poor sense of direction
  • confusion with directional words (for example, in English: before, after, first, last, over, under, yesterday, tomorrow)

Strategies for Teachers of Dyslexic Learners

There are many strategies that teachers can adopt to help dyslexics. A good foreign language teacher can even help a dyslexic person become a stronger reader and writer in his or her own language. Dyslexics learn better by doing than by reading. This is why dyslexic learners succeed better in an immersion environment, such as living in a foreign country, or watching English films and videos. A multi-sensory approach has been proven to work well in teaching language to dyslexics. Since this approach also works well with learners who do not have learning disabilities, it can be used in any classroom.

Here are a few suggestions for teachers who have a dyslexic learner in the classroom:

  • learn everything you can about dyslexia, including the warning signs
  • share everything you know about dyslexia with parents of dyslexic kids
  • find materials with a large font (and write in large font on the board)
  • use a structured approach and find materials with familiar structure throughout
  • encourage the student with praise and understanding
  • do not expect the student to read aloud in front of the class
  • find out the particular weaknesses that a student has, and help the student recognize these
  • teach spelling, but don’t mark the student on spelling alone
  • find ways to increase self-confidence
  • seat the student close to the board
  • provide audio lessons
  • review regularly
  • provide multisensory lessons
  • read directions out loud (especially for tests)
  • test verbally
  • introduce mnemonics and other memory training techniques
  • integrate technology and audiovisual resources
  • identify learning styles that work well for your learner (pairs, groups, tutors, etc.)
  • work with a specialist to develop an IEP (Individualized Education Program)
  • help other students understand dyslexia too (helps prevent bullying)
  • reduce clutter in the classroom and on the board
  • provide a calm and quiet environment for tests (student may need a private room and extra time)
  • provide instructions for assignments and tasks in small steps
  • consider inviting a visitor with dyslexia into the classroom (or discuss the success of some famous dyslexics)
  • provide colour coding for corrections
  • grade student based on schoolwork rather than just tests

Some famous dyslexics
The following famous people were diagnosed with dyslexia or are believed to have suffered from it:

  • Muhammed Ali - American professional boxer and social activist
  • Alexander Graham Bell - inventor
  • Orlando Bloom - British actor
  • Richard Branson - founder Virgin Group
  • Cher - singer
  • Winston Churchill - soldier, author and statesman
  • Tom Cruise - actor
  • Leonardo da Vinci - artist
  • Thomas Edison - American inventor
  • Albert Einstein - mathematician
  • Henry Ford - founder Ford Motor Co., inventor of mass production
  • Salma Hayek - Mexican-American film actress, director and producer
  • Steve Jobs - joint-founder of Apple
  • Jay Leno - American stand-up comedian and television host
  • Jamie Oliver - chef and restauranteur
  • George Patton - American general

Written by Tara Benwell for EnglishClub

See also: Interview about Dyslexia

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