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Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?

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Student being helped by teacherMarie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist, and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). She will be hosting a webinar entitled “Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?” on 9th and 18th October.

What do Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Muhammed Ali have in common? They all found school and teachers difficult. Thomas Edison’s teacher sent a note home when Thomas was 6, which said “He is too stupid to learn”.

These successful people had dyslexia. Their teachers didn’t know much about dyslexia. They labeled them lazy and stupid. You may have students with dyslexia in your classes and not even know it. Often these learners are labeled slow, lazy, or daydreamers. It’s not true. In order to help these learners, we, as teachers, need to understand more about it.

What is dyslexia?

As you read this, are the letters clear to you, are any moving around, blurred or reversing? Bropaply not. (Probably not.)

For a learner with dyslexia, reading a simple paragraph of short words is slow and agonizing, even worse if they are asked to read it aloud. Reading comprehensions are difficult because the learner forgets what they have just read.

Dyslexia is an information processing difficulty, primarily affecting reading, spelling and writing. In English, students have problems with phonological processing (linking sounds to words), visual processing (seeing words and letters) and working memory (remembering what has just been said). The learner can also have problems with organization, sequencing and number skills.

Signs that a learner in your class might have dyslexia include:

  • Written work is poor compared to their speaking ability
  • Reading slowly, hesitantly, and misreading words
  • Difficulty matching sounds to letters
  • Seeing and writing letters as flipped or reversed e.g. ‘b’ as ‘d’ or ‘p’
  • They say that letters move around or are blurred on the page
  • Forgetting what they have read or just been told
  • Problems being punctual
  • Daydreaming or seeming to ‘switch off’
  • Easily getting tired when reading or writing

But what’s the real problem?

The main obstacle for many of these learners is not dyslexia. People with dyslexia can succeed in life. For many, the main problem is that difficulties in class can cause them to lose confidence. They label themselves slow and stupid. They become demotivated, misbehave, give up, or become stressed.

Typical learners’ comments are:

“I thought I was stupid; I couldn’t keep up; the teacher didn’t care.”

“I ask them to explain; they explain again using the same words; I don’t understand and they get angry.”

Teacher encouragement and support is vital for these learners at these times. It is very important not to jump to conclusions about the meaning of a particular behaviour and to try to understand why it’s happening.

The gift of dyslexia

Dyslexic thinking has strengths. Learners with dyslexia are holistic thinkers; they see the big picture, make new connections. They are creative, with good 3D spatial reasoning. They succeed in the arts, become entrepreneurs or work in areas requiring innovative thinking. It’s important to work with these strengths in our learners, allowing opportunities for creative, big picture thinking. The English curriculum provides plenty of scope to do this with projects, problem-solving scenarios, drama and stories.

And a final note…

Remember that you have great influence over these learners’ lives. You don’t need to be a specialist teacher, but you do need to work with your learners to understand why they are having problems and give time, support, and encouragement.

A final example from history – “His teachers said he was mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift in his own foolish dreams.”

That foolish dreamer was dyslexic and…

his name was Albert Einstein.

We need dyslexic thinkers. Let’s try to keep them turned on to learning!

For more on dyslexia and teaching strategies, join my upcoming webinar entitled “Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?” on 9th and 18th October, and read my follow-up blog, which will be posted in a few weeks’ time.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

14 thoughts on “Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?

  1. Thanks for this. What does (the brilliant) J. Hird have to say? Andrew Garvey

    • Hello Andrew and thanks for the (undeserving) compliment. And in a word, I agree wholeheartedly. However, despite the best intentions and support available, there is no quick and easy fix. And with the current UK government doing its utmost to make life even more difficult and stressful for dyslexic learners (eg spelling and grammar being penalised in ALL GCSE subjects, and the spoken component of GCSE English, carrying 20% of the total marks, being scrapped mid-course AFTER students have completed this) the challenges are perhaps bigger than ever.

      • Hi Jon
        Yes, the challenges do seem to be great. I would say, however, that the education system has always posed problems for learners with dyslexia.Those who succeed often say that the difference was made by a particular teacher showing them understanding and support . in my experience not enough attention is paid to the emotional aspect of the problems faced by learners with dyslexia and yet it seems the teacher who can build self-esteem despite the exam system will be the teacher who helps the most.
        Marie

  2. You say, “The English curriculum provides plenty of scope…” Are you speaking in general terms of English classes, or are you referring to one specific ESL curriculum?

    • Hi Susan
      I meant the teaching of English either as a second language or first language. We often use drama activities, we often ask learners to be creative and do role-plays, write collaborative stories, make up raps and chants etc. Another favourite type of EFL activity is the problem-solving type. All of these allow learners to use their creative, problem-solving abilities and – particularly if done in groups and teams – gie learners with dyslexia to show their strengths.
      Marie

  3. This is something that I am embarrassed to say I have given little thought to. Are there any texts that EFL teachers could read to better familiarize themselves with the condition and how to assist students with it?

    • Hi Mark
      There is not much around at the moment. A recent publication ‘ Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Difficullties’ by Judit Kormos and Anne Margaret Smith ( MM Matters publishers) is a bit technical but has some good ideas. The British Council will be bringing out an on-line SEN course for teachers of English and one of the units will by on dyslexia in ELT. Units can be taken separately. See http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk ,
      where there is also a webinar by Sally Farley on teaching students with dyslexia in the ELT classroom.
      There are some useful videos on youtube – I would recopmmend a video called ‘left to write..dyslexia’ , but there are lots of them.
      Am working on some materials myself so watch this space!
      Hope that helps
      Marie

  4. Great post, very motivating!

  5. Pingback: Upcoming OUP Webinar: Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift? | ESL Review

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  7. Pingback: Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift? Part 2: Teaching Strategies | Oxford University Press

  8. Reblogged this on trish burrow elt and commented:
    Really helpful advice on teaching students with dyslexia from Marie Delaney.

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