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

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

For some time I've noticed that when you give them the rest of the class off, most of them sit on the floor somewhere. I think when the pressure's off, they like the go somewhere below the teacher's eye level. That's what I think. Sometimes they don't want to go outside and play.

I'm grading tests at my desk in the back and I've got some music going. Just low enough to know there's music playing somewhere. Some others are working on their new study guides or reading a book. A couple are finishing up essays ... due tomorrow.

It's cloudy and drizzly outside. The moment has a nice feel but fifth period always does. They've had a demanding week, I admit. Covering one chapter in four days is a lot to ask. I do it every other week. And they've given a lot back. So they get to sit on the floor. That's what they like to do sometimes.

But I heard a question. A very personal question. It stopped me. I looked over at a twosome in the back , Herman and Albert. It was a question I had never heard a kid ask another kid: Herman asked Albert what was it like to have dyslexia.

I turned the music all the way down and sort of hid behind my computer screen. They didn't know I was listening and watching.

Albert said reading is almost impossible.

Herman asked him what he meant.

Then Albert shimmied over a little bit and pointed at a world map on the wall near them. He said do you see the word Russia here?


Well, to me the A is way over here and the R is way over there and it's a big jumble. That's what it's like. That word does not look like Russia to me.

Reverently, respectfully, Herman said ... Wow.

Albert asked Herman, What do you have?

Herman said all he is ... is nervous all the time.

Lauren1955's picture

My youngest daughter is dyslexic and had a special ed teacher as a mom. I realized she was probably dyslexic when she was going into 3rd grade (I had suspected it for a while,but was waiting to make sure that it was not just a creative way of looking a words and numbers). The psychologist did not want to label her afraid she would use it as an excuse. I insisted she be labeled and let the psychologist know that I never let my deaf students use their hearing loss as an excuse and would not let my daughter. When we explained it to her after the meeting, the first words out of her mouth were "I knew I was not stupid!" She is a creative and successful adult who never gives up!! She handled her 11th grade 504 meeting by herself, I came in later to sign it. The assistant principal was very impressed that she understood her skills and deficits and what supports she needed to be successful. For the state testing for high school she exceeded state standards in reading and was reading and acting Shakespeare in middle school.

Ben Bowman's picture

Great post and insights but what about "people" or "person" with dyslexia instead of dyslexic?

Christine Stern's picture

This article contains some useful information, but there's more to the story.

For a dyslexic student to be successful at reading, writing and spelling, it isn't enough for a teacher or parent to be encouraging, patient and inspirational. To be sure, self-esteem is an important strength for any child, and such support will help a struggling student. But what is vitally important is that the student receives an education that is geared to the way s/he learns. That means a research-based, multisensory, structured, sequential approach to language that is easy for teachers to deliver and helps all students to succeed, not only those with dyslexia.

You are correct in saying that dyslexia challenges people of average to superior intelligence, and that it is a neurological difference in the way brains function. Research based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that the brains of people with dyslexia operate differently from the norm and often in highly creative ways.

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").

I speak from experience as a parent and spouse of dyslexic achievers; president of a foundation that provides professional development scholarships to K-3 teachers; and advocate for curriculum change at college and university schools of education. There is a lot of misleading information out there. Please make sure you know precisely how to teach to these students. It will help your entire class.

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