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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

Bob Zenhausern's picture

Dyslexia is caused by a defective phonetic decoding brain system. It you can teach them phonics they no longer have a deficit.

What about those who cannot learn phonics? How do we deal with them. Perhaps reading methods used for the deaf would be useful.

Why would you put the extra burden of cursive writing on a person who is a high risk student? Remember handwriting was used as a punishment in the 20th Century

Bob Zenhausern's picture

One advantage I do see with cursive writing is the lack of spaces make it more likely the word will be seen as a whole, rather than a series of letters.

R. Chapman's picture
R. Chapman
Second Grade Teacher from Michigan

I am very interested in brain research as an educator. But I agree with "Always_a_student" about how we are always trying to solve things. Well, it IS are job as educators, because society so often blames us teachers for failing. Actually, we just need to find what works for different individuals.

I like to begin with finding students' strengths. Which is why I like the way you put it ("Always_a_student"): as a gift to be explored. This reminds me of a very close friend who struggled with Dyslexia as a young student. In fact, he could not read very well when he was in third grade. A colleague of mine was his third grade teacher and used to talk about how "slow" his reading was. Well, now he is a very successful rocket scientist. He is highly intelligent. I recall that he once told me that he "just found the kind of books that interested him" and it went on from there!

Educational Therapist's picture
Educational Therapist
Educational Therapist

As an educational therapist, I have had the opportunity to work with many students who have been diagnosed with dyslexia. Although these students have difficulty processing language, they are gifted in many ways. When these students are taught to read with a multi-sensory, phonic-based reading program they can learn to read, and read well. Early intervention is the key to success with these students.

wildrose's picture

Hi Interesting Article. Some really excellent contribution it makes.
2 things, however. Dislexics are described as they or the dislexics. Actually we are people. I wonder how many people are dislexic. Possibly more than 'they' the non dislexic professionals think? We are all people. And there are many forms of dislexia and possibly even many forms of 'non-dislexia'. I don't think dislexics have poor memory recall by definition. And also we are rather, or can be, instead, excellent organisers of thought PAR EXCELLENCE. Our difficulty often comes from trying to be like others, trying to fit the mold, or feeling stressed when we don't. Unfortunately I wholly identify with tidyness. Its very easy to become untidy when under pressure, and unfortunately I identify with some of thinsg suggested. Yet, I still think it is upside down logic. Non dislexics are often exceptionally messy. The difference with a dislexic is, that it becomes a problem when we feel we have to perform 'like those imaginary normal non dislexic people'. This puts extra pressure on us. My own expereince as a dislexic tells me we dislexics have an ability in tidyness. However, when we have difficulty it can become a problem sorting things.This article has actually highlighted this for me, and made me aware, and I am thankful, as I can now walk forwards embracing my natural tidyness, and to let myself off the hook as 'normal' like everybody, dislexic or not, when I have stresses. At least 'dislexic' Can be understand as someone who likes and makes efforts to be tidy. I like to color code. Why would I bother if I wasn't interested in making an effort? Just some of that effort is misdirected into attempting 'normalness'. This can cause high stress, and leads to lessening our abilities. What is often seen as 'dislexic' is actually often more like symptoms of stress a dislexic is under. High memory recall quickly dissipates into extreme inability to access experiences when we feel questioned to the core in our natural being and seek pathways to being normal. We are so programmed most of our lives we dont even know we are doing this. It has taken a lifetime for me to even begin to understand myself. And I know, that every dislexic like every indiviudal will be slightly different. Dislexia decribes a generality. There is nothing specific about the term, it does just distinguish those that are not less stressed by how things are / how our brains are expected to function and those that are more stressed by how things are our brains are expected to function as expected of us at home, in the classroom, and later on in work and in social spheres. Non dislexics are equally programmed, and thus have the disability in believing they are normal. I have shown high ability to be organised, and yet have been perceived as if 'in the clouds', whereas non dislexics often make erros and create confusions and yet are perceived as 'organised'. Its odd that. I have finally understood, we are all programmed. All of us, and what we need to do more and more is embrace diversity, and individuality.

wildrose's picture

Interestingly I can observe all I said in the post above. I felt stressed in even addressing it, I felt having to negate or cross out what I am saying to 'be normal' At one point I preface a positive alternative with a negative, and instead of saying two different things, to show difference, I say the same thing twice. And I almost fall into the trap of re-inforcing stereotypes. You will not find layering of color coded clothes in my cupboard. You will find the words monochrome, or minimalist less useful in describing my created environs than colorful and abundant, you will find clean, lived in and organised. Normal people tend to be happy in super-tidy situations, or at ease with being messy. Dislexics are neither, as we feel the pressure to perform to these very difficult. I guess what i really need to say is I feel it is very erroneous to suggest dislexics have poor memory recall, have difficulty organising or are to be expected to 'have messy bedrooms' Such impositions are highly stressful for us. There may be specific forms of dislexia that may increase memoery problems, however these blanket statements say more about the disability 'normal' folk have in addressing diversity, other ways of thinking modes than those expected of us at large.

wildrose's picture

it may be just a matter of a minor quibble to point out that dislexia is maybe not actually -caused- by sight words, but I get your main point. They may be a negative irritant to learning while young for some. Its important to notice how teaching methods AFFECT kids, some kids, etc. I am finding this interesting, as I have memories that are significant here, but need to reflect on it some. Thanks for the comment however.
[quote]Phonics experts agree that most dyslexia is caused by sight-words. The best policy is to eliminate sight-words entirely from public schools.[/quote][quote]Phonics experts agree that most dyslexia is caused by sight-words. The best policy is to eliminate sight-words entirely from public schools.[/quote][quote]Phonics experts agree that most dyslexia is caused by sight-words. The best policy is to eliminate sight-words entirely from public schools.[/quote][quote]Phonics experts agree that most dyslexia is caused by sight-words. The best policy is to eliminate sight-words entirely from public schools.[/quote]

wildrose's picture

to the Dixie Diarist. Thanks for the share, touched my heart. I have and old habit of sitting on the floor when in doubt! LOL. Thanks, in a healing way, thats a truly lovely post. Thanks to the kids who werent even asked, with due respect :)
!:)

[quote]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?Yes.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.www.adixieidiary.com[/quote][quote]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?Yes.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.www.adixieidiary.com[/quote]

Bob Zenhausern's picture

Dyslexia has been the subject of brain research since Orton considered it due to lack of lateralization in the brain around 1920. This proved to be incorrect but related to current thinking which indicates that dyslexia is associated with lack of activity in the angular gyrus which is the brain system responsible for phonetic decoding. This matches with the most typical behavioral symptom of dyslexia, a weakness in phonics.

A weakness in phonetic decoding has been long recognized as a problem and remediation of this weakness is stressed by some of the major programs as Orton-Gillingham and Hooked on Phonics. In one way this makes sense since phonetic decoding is the most typical approach to teaching reading. So if we can fix the broken brain system we can fix dyslexia.

In another way, however, it makes no sense at all. We do not try to teach the blind to see or the deaf to hear. Why do we try to teach the dyslexic to decode. Just like the blind are given accommodation like Braille and talking books, why are the dyslexics not given accommodation. We teach the deaf to read and phonetic decoding makes no sense for someone who cannot hear. Why do we insist on phonetic decoding for the dyslexic?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England
Facilitator

Interesting article and comments on Dyslexia.

R. Chapman- You wrote a comment 'I recall that he once told me that he "just found the kind of books that interested him" and it went on from there!'

Wow, this is so true about many kids who struggle with reading. Sometimes just finding the topic that kick-starts them is the key. With more and more informational texts being written on a lower level I think it is easier getting students books on a topic they are interested in.

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