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

Stacey Laney's picture

I have found that teaching a child with dyslexia can be very challenging. This article was very informative and on point. Highlighting and integrating the creativity of the student into the learning environment is crucial to the self esteem and success of the learner. This year I have started to use apps that help with letter recognition such as LetterReflex-Overcoming Letter Reversals & Backwards and Dyslexia Quest.

valeriechernek's picture
Disability Advocate - Sharing what works in educational technology

Informative article and exhilarating comments on an exhausting challenge for people with dyslexia. Through interviews with lots of U.S. teachers, parents and students about the struggle with dyslexia in schools, one positive note is that early diagnosis and introduction to digital accessible books and reading technologies with text-to-speech can help to ensure an improved reading experience.

Bob Zenhausern's picture

I have some serious objections to the article "Four things about the dyslexic brain".
1) Writing is not dyslexia which is a problem reading, not writing. Might a dyslexic have a problem with putting thoughts on paper? Maybe. Would it be easier to use a keyboard? Maybe. Can the person tell a story? If so, there is software that will translate the words to print. We need to separate the physical act of writing from the ability to create meaningful discourse.

2) Dyslexics do not suffer from problems in automated processes in general. They do suffer from automated reading with which they struggle. Might some dyslexics struggle with automated processes? Probably. Might some non-dyslexics struggle with automated processes? Probably.

3) Problems in memory are not a typical symptom of dyslexia. There is little more I can say except this is not found as a general issue.

4) Dyslexics are creative. Some may be. But also some non-dyslexics are creative.

Bob Zenhausern's picture

The story of Albert is real, but it is not typical. About 5% of the students we call dyslexic have this problem and they are the lucky ones. These are the students who can be almost instantly helped by the use of Irlen lenses which stabilize the text by use of colored overlays.

sarita hood's picture
sarita hood
Ninth and tenth grade social studies teacher from India

dyslexia is something little understood by many here and i know what an uphill task t is to get parents even to get their children assessed, so i don't wait for an assessment but use methods to try and reach the maximum students in class. i do have small successes but i know my 1 on 1 teaching is far more effective. i learn a lot from articles on the net and wish i had half the resources you all have and the time too but i do whatever i can.

sarita hood's picture
sarita hood
Ninth and tenth grade social studies teacher from India

wow! what an eye opener for someone who does not know about dyslexia. do you mind if i share this with my colleagues it may help them understand better what the child is going through.

nlyeve7's picture

I am thrilled to learn that educational magazines provide essential information for struggling students who are experiencing dylexia. As a teacher, we know that all students should be afforded the opportunity to achieve excellence. Therefore, this information gives so much hope to teachers and students who are teaching and learning daily. It is encouraging to know that some of our most brilliant minds were individuals who suffered from dylexia and were able to channel their minds to higher levels of critical thinking skills.

ScienceMathEducator's picture

@Bob Zenhausern
I agree with your arguments 1 through 3 but not 4. I find that the dylexic is an "out of the box" thinker. Creative might not be the best word. However, the ideas, processes and/or products of a dyslexic can be quite different or unique.
Also, tell me more about Irlen lenses. When you say that it stabilizes the text, I am wondering if you are talking about dyslexia or visual issues such as visual preception difficulties?

Bob Zenhausern's picture

...but not all. Some non-dyslexics are creative, but not all.

Creativity and dyslexia may be correlated but correlation does not prove causation. A third factor may be a mediating factor.

I have done research on the characteristics of reading disabled students and one consistent finding is that 85% have a right hemisphere orientation. This is a problem for a left hemisphere oriented school system, but some kinds of creativity are associated with a right hemisphere orientation. Since dyslexics show more right hemisphere orientation than non-dyslexics, I would expect they would show more creativity. But it is not the dyslexia that is responsible for the creativity, but the right hemisphere orientation.

ScienceMathEducator's picture

You have said it best! Early intervention is most important and then appropriate accommodations/tools. Thank you!

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