Four Things All Educators Should Understand About the Dyslexic Brain | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What do you think of when you hear the word dyslexic? All too often the reflex reaction is a stream of negative associations -- "slow reader," "under performance," "extra time on exams," "difficulty spelling." While it is true that these are common symptoms in students with dyslexia, they are surmountable problems. For any educator, the key to unleashing academic success in dyslexic students lies in understanding how their brains work.

A recent Edutopia blog post by Judy Willis made the case for adding neuroscience to the curriculum for student teachers. When it comes to tackling dyslexia in the classroom, this understanding would be hugely beneficial, as it would help teachers explain to students exactly why they are having problems and what they can do to overcome them.

Disenchantment and despondency about education are big problems in the dyslexic community, and it may go some way towards explaining why such a high percentage of the prison population has some form of dyslexia, a statistic that is way above the national average of dyslexics. A teacher's ability to offer clarity on the student's condition and offer a strategy to become successful could be life changing for so many dyslexics.

Here are four key characteristics of the dyslexic brain that are crucial for educators to understand.

1. Writing is a Three-Step Process

Putting pen to paper is a more complicated action for the brain to process than you might think, particularly for dyslexics. It puts huge demands on the short-term memory to move from one step to the next, which can be a real weakness for them. In the brain, the process involves:

  1. Synthesizing a thought, e.g., writing a story about what you did last weekend, such as going to the park
  2. Working out how you are going to write it: "I . . . ran . . . fast . . . in . . . the . . . park"
  3. The physical act of writing; "getting" those words and physically writing them

A dyslexic can typically do one of those things but will struggle to do all of them in sequence. The process of "holding" that thought and then selecting words and subsequently writing them down on paper can end in chaos. Poor sequencing in the brain also makes it very difficult for dyslexics to organize their thoughts and sentences into a structured piece of writing. Creating a structured argument is a bit like cooking while trying to hold all the ingredients at the same time. Sometimes ingredients can fall into the pot in the wrong order. This can lead to a spaghetti soup of ideas that pour out in a stream of consciousness.

To overcome this while training the brain to become more comfortable with synthesizing the thoughts that students want to write and structure, I have found the "Talk To Write" method is extremely helpful. This involves getting students to talk through their thoughts, repeating the process until the structure of those thoughts is clear in their minds, and only then starting the process of writing.

2. Dyslexics Struggle with Automated Processes

To cope with the multitudinous series of thoughts and actions that the brain coordinates every day, humans complete simple tasks on a subconscious, automatic level. For example, a non-dyslexic may pick up a sock and know instantly that it should be put in the sock drawer, or drive to work without thinking about how to turn the steering wheel. For dyslexics, however, these automatic processes can be more difficult due to poor memory recall. This may explain why dyslexics' bedrooms are often particularly messy!

A good way to help dyslexics improve their ability to complete simple processes more quickly is to encourage them to create models, such as "SLUR" (Socks Left-Drawer Underwear Right-Drawer) and "I before E except after C." Models can be created for anything from writing a paragraph (AXE: Argument, Explain, Evaluate) to remembering to pack essentials into an overnight bag (DTGMAP: Deodorant, Toothpaste, Glasses, Makeup and Pajamas).

3. Memory? What Memory?

Poor memory recall is a key characteristic of the dyslexic brain. This means that while students may appear to understand things well, they often struggle to recall concepts later. Think of your memory as a warehouse full of ideas. A dyslexic searches for the words with the light off. Because they have more difficulty recalling things, they can sometimes come out of the warehouse wrongly assuming that they have the right thing. An extremely common example of this is dyslexics often confusing the word "specific" with "pacific."

4. Dyslexics are Creatives

Because dyslexics can't rely as much on memory, they become very good at creating abstract constructs rather than thinking in relation to past experience. Imagine explaining to a British rugby player how to play American football. The non-dyslexic will relate this to his experience, e.g., "It's like rugby but you need to throw the ball forward." The dyslexic has more work to do and, as a result, has to create the construct of American football more from his imagination.

This creativity can also lead to the ability to solve complex problems. Michelangelo (the Italian artist and inventor), Albert Einstein (the German physicist) and James Dyson (the British inventor of the modern vacuum cleaner) were all dyslexic. It is likely that their inability to rely on recall helped develop their imagination and ability to create brilliant art, inventions and concepts that have changed the world.

With the right understanding of dyslexia, a student can become a truly successful and adaptable person. When a non-dyslexic sees failure as an indication that he or she can't do something, a dyslexic will see it as a part of the path to progress. Olympic rower Steven Redgrave attributed his tenacity to his dyslexia. He tried and failed. But he knew this was part of his learning process, and he did not give up until he won five gold medals!

So if you encounter a dyslexic student that is frustrated in education, I hope you can use this knowledge to inspire him or her to similar greatness.


Comments (34)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music

Our oldest boy taught himself to read by the age of five. He was a GATE kid, went to Berkeley and wizzed through all that. He's the obvious kind of bright.

Our youngest boy is very dyslexic. It took him until the age of twelve to actually read at all. But he's bright too. He wasn't about to let his brother take all the honors, God bless him--he went to college, got great grades, and is now, out of our two boys, the one with his act the most together. I'm guessing because he had more to deal with at a younger age, he grew muscles!

Lesson learned here; Never EVER underestimate a quirky kid with challenges :-)

inspirepassion's picture

As someone who has worked as a neurodevelopmentalist, and having seen many children with labels get rid of those labels over time, I find it extremely frustrating that the general approach in the educational world is accommodation and differentiated learning for struggling learners, as opposed to finding solutions to the underlying causes.

Neuroplasticity is a well-established aspect of the human brain, and we CAN change the brain to resolve dyslexia and a host of other learning disabilities. In the case of some people with dyslexia, there is sometimes an underlying vision issue (not acuity, but things like tracking), which can also be resolved.

So, why don't we look for and apply solutions, instead of band aids?

Bob Zenhausern's picture

Neuroplasticity and accommodation are almost synonymous. NP refers to creating new pathways to make up for old ones that are not functional. It does not mean fixing the dysfunctional ones. One type of this accommodation can be seen in those who have lost speech due to damage of Broca's area. The accommodation is to take advantage of the right hemisphere area homologous to Broca. The person is taught to speak by chanting and to develop speech using the right hemisphere. An accommodation using NP.

Roughly 85% of dyslexics have a problem in the left angular gyrus, the brain area responsible for phonetic decoding. NP might be used to train different areas to decode, unfortunately treatment seems to focus on fixing the broken system rather than NP training. NP would be one type of accommodation and another would be to avoid phonetic decoding all together.

Always_a_student's picture

why is it the majority of these posts ask for a fix, a diagnoses, a solution to a problem. Dyslexia is not a problem for you (as educators) to solve, it is a gift to be explored. We have lost the plot with this idea that School is about an outcome, about college acceptance. It is about a process, a development of learning AND FAILING in a safe, structured environment. If we would just give up the notion that success is determined by a prescribed outcome and looked more for the exception, the growth, the opportunity to try and fail and then try something else. I believe we might actually change the world and not just hand out a new piece of technology and pretend we are adapting to the 21st century.

Allboys's picture
Kindergarten teacher

This is a great article. I was just discussing brain research and memory recall with a colleague yesterday and she challenged my readings with the topic of dyslexia and how it changes the minds ability to recall. I am excited to share this with her and discuss it soon. I have little personal experience with this "condition" and I believe it's often overlooked at young ages. Catching it and understanding it early, we can offer assistance and strategies to turn this into an asset instead of a hindrance. This can prevent a lot of frustration for students.

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price

All the phonics people say that dyslexia is very rare, and most cases are caused by sight-words.

So I wonder, when I see such a discussion, how does anyone know for sure whether a so-called dyslexic child was taught some sight-words at the age of five, and became a whole word learner, and then a dyslexic? The child won't remember. The parents may not know.

Christine Stern's picture

Mr. Price, what causes dyslexia is a scientifically proved neurological condition (see "Overcoming Dyslexia," by Dr. Sally Shaywitz of Yale University). It is not the result of "sight words" or anything other than a brain difference. It is not a rare condition. Please visit my comments re: this article posted last fall...
"Students with dyslexia account for 15-20% of our classroom population, so it is imperative that teachers understand what it is and how to ensure that their teaching is effective. There is excellent information online at the International Dyslexia Association, (see "Just the Facts") and Reading Rockets, (see "All Dyslexia Articles" and "Findings of the National Reading Panel")." Understanding dyslexia is vitally important to the future of 1/5 of your classroom population.

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price

Phonics experts agree that most dyslexia is caused by sight-words. The best policy is to eliminate sight-words entirely from public schools.

BNicole's picture
Education Student

I do not know a whole lot about dyslexia, but I am learning and this article gave me more knowledge and I though it was very insightful. I did not know how creative people with dyslexia are and it made me think about how great it is. Along with all people who have any disabilities, if they have trouble in one area, they usually excel in a different area. I think it is great that people with dyslexia can look at people such as Albert Einstein and know that they overcame it and so can they. I also really liked your portion on using models to help the students. I think that this is very important for any child with a disability because it helps their memory and helps them to be more successful when using these mnemonic devices.

I really enjoyed this article and I hope to continue to learn more about dyslexia. I am going to be an intervention specialist, therefore, I am learning as much as I can while still in college.

Do you know of any other ways to help train the brain with its synthesizing other than "Talk to Write?'

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price

All phonics experts say that learning phonics helps erase dyslexia.

Also, an article in the paper today about cursive handwriting reminds me that most phonics experts think that cursive is important for learning to read. Conversely, if a person with so-called dyslexia is encouraged to learn cursive writing, they will work their way out of this dyslexia. In both cases, you have what I think the experts call patterning, the best kind of patterning. Cursive forces you to see the letters one by one, to move from left to right, to realize there is a baseline.

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