sad boy with dyslexia

Dyslexia can make reading and writing painfully difficult

Dyslexia can severely affect your day-to-day life, but coping with it is well within your capabilities, if you’re like most dyslexics. You don’t have to let it define you, or change the way you live. It’s less often referred to as a disability or a disorder these days, and is seen by many as just a ‘neurological difference’ rather that a neurological disorder.

There is a tendency to think of anything out of the ordinary as a disorder, but that’s not necessarily the case. By that standard, anyone with unusual skills in the arts, or politics, or industry, or anything else really, could be regarded as having a disorder. Was Leonardo da Vinci somehow ‘disordered’ because he mastered so many arts and technical skills? Disordered, no. Gifted and highly skilled in ways that are way outside normal ‘boundaries’, yes. And yes, he was dyslexic.

Dyslexia covers more than just word blindness, as it used to be known. In fact, it can manifest in various ways – as difficulty in reading, writing, comprehension, and expressing oneself. It may affect up to as many as ten percent of the population.

Although dyslexics tend to be poor readers in childhood and youth, as adults they often read fairly well, although slower and more deliberately than is usual. Perhaps this is because they are forced to take extra care in reading, and yet gaining proficiency painfully slowly can bring its own rewards.

They also tend to find spelling very challenging. But spelling correctly and reading quickly, though they seem to non-dyslexics to be a sign of intelligence, are just learned skills that are often taken very much for granted. In themselves, they are no guarantees of high intelligence. To put it bluntly, you can be a very good speller and a faster than average reader and still not be very bright.

So just what is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing graphic symbols. The result is that a dyslexic person will find it harder to read, although he or she may perceive the letters just the same way as a non-dyslexic person does. The letters won’t necessarily appear to be arranged differently, although it is fairly common for dyslexics to report that letters seem to ‘bounce around’ or to confuse one with another.

The real difference is in the brain itself. A person with dyslexia will have trouble reading because their brain has trouble ‘decoding’ what they see. It’s a perceptual problem that causes learning difficulties, since the person has trouble coping with written material.

Phonological processing

The ability of the brain to change and adapt in response to behavioural and environmental changes. It used to be thought that the brain was physiologically static after a certain age, but now it appears that whole areas can change and develop in response to changing external conditions.

The ability to understand spoken language seems to be built into the brain, which explains why very young children can sometimes speak in complete sentences and hold sensible (if simple) conversations. Due to this innate ability, we tend not to recognise the individual sounds that make up words (the phonemes), but the words as complete entities.

In other words, when a child hears the word ‘elephant’, he hears and understands the whole word, not the phonemes, which in this case are ‘el’, ‘ef’ and ‘ant’. Reading and writing, on the other hand, do require some understanding of the phonemes. A person needs to be able to distinguish the various phonemes, and either put them together successfully (in the case of writing), or decipher them as entire words (in the case of reading).

This ability is known as phonological processing. One theory is that people with dyslexia find phonological processing more difficult than other people. Of course, it may be that the brain compensates for this by developing other areas more fully, who can say? The brain certainly has the potential to compensate; the areas of the brain that are thought to deal with language have a high degree of ‘plasticity’, the potential to alter their areas of specialisation as necessary.

Language inconsistencies

Another interesting factor in dyslexia is the person’s native language. If the language has clear and consistent spellings and grammatical rules, a person with mild or moderate dyslexia will find it much easier to cope with than within the confines of a less straightforward language. Spanish and Italian, for example, cause fewer problems than English, which is absolutely riddled with inconsistencies.

English … a minefield for dyslexics

Cough and bough, for example, have very different sounds, although the spellings are very similar. Laughter and slaughter are another odd pair. They just don’t seem to follow a logical pattern: the addition of a single leading letter changes the sound of the whole word.

Rough and buff are two more – their endings sound the same, but are spelt quite differently. Station, adoption, action, absorption, and a host of other words end in -tion. Fashion and cushion, on the other hand, while having the same ending sound, end in -shion. Complexion, just to confuse the issue, ends -xion, an unusual ending in the English language, shared with the likes of flexion, circumflexion, genuflexion and crucifixion. The ending of the word ‘axion’, on the other hand, while ending with -xion, is not pronounced the same at all (an axion is a hypothetical subatomic particle, and is pronounced ak-see-on).

The inconsistencies even creep into first names: Jeff and Geoff are pronounced the same but look almost entirely different. Ralph can sound like Ralf, or (if the person chooses the alternative pronunciation) Rafe. Capt. Mainwaring of Dad’s Army was always quick to point out that his name was pronounced Mannering. Beauchamp is Beecham or Bow-shom.

Place names too can be awkward for someone who is expecting the words to follow a consistent and logical pattern. Leicester is pronounced ‘Lester’. Warwick sounds like ‘Worrick’. Norwich sounds like ‘Norrich’, not Nor-witch. Gloucester must be a nightmare for someone expecting a sensible, pattern-based pronunciation! (It’s pronounced ‘Glosster’, by the way, if you’re not familar with it). Worcester’s another odd one (pronounced Wusster’). 

Worcestershire’s even worse! It’s pronounced ‘Wusstersha’ (who knew?) Greenwich is pronounced’Grennitch’. When you see the pronunciations spelled out, you suddenly realise how weird these words must seem to someone fully expecting language to obey the rules of logic. Yeah, good luck with that one!

Yes, English is certainly an odd language in some ways. A very rich language, and one of the most widely used on the planet, but one that must present great difficulties for people learning it as a foreign language. And for dyslexics!

MIT research shows the upside of dyslexia

Beating Dyslexia
BeatingDyslexia is a free dyslexia help website put together by dyslexics, for dyslexics. It’s for people who want to beat it, not just cope with it. It contains a huge and varied amount of helpful strategies and resources.Visit the site and learn more about the causes of dyslexia, and what you can do to beat it.

Recent research at MIT has shown that dyslexics have stronger peripheral vision, that is, they tend to take in more at a glance than non-dyslexics. This might account for their reading problems – they tend to see more letters and words at a single glance, barely giving them time to make sense of them. This is great for a non-dyslexic, as it aids faster reading (we tend to only focus on single letters and words when we’re learning to read, then we widen our scope to scoop more into our net). For a dyslexic, though, who perhaps has always had problems reading, it merely causes confusion. They’re literally seeing more than they can comfortably process at any one time!

It also seems that dyslexics can take in a whole scene more quickly and easily than non-dyslexic people. Perhaps this is why many of the great artists have been dyslexic. Leonardo and Michelangelo both worked on wide, sprawling canvases (or frescoes), and created detailed and intricate scenes, of the kind that would fill most people with dread at the thought of attempting them. Maybe dyslexics are more successful ‘big-picture’ thinkers than the rest of us!

In the MIT study, dyslexics were also more successful at perceiving images in photographs which had been heavily blurred. Add all this evidence together and you have a rather different view of dyslexia. It really does indicate that people with dyslexia are simply gifted in other ways, rather than ‘disabled’.

New font for dyslexics makes reading easier

Some of the difficulties that dyslexics encounter in reading are explained in this short video. A new font has been designed that has been shown to be much easier to read than a ‘normal’ font. The font, called Dyslexie, emphasises certain parts of letters and punctuation so that they are less likely to cause confusion. Subtle differences stop the letters appearing to flip over or upside down.

Dyslexie is free for home use and can be downloaded from this site.

Different people have different ways of coping with dyslexia. Some write in capital letters, since (for them, at least) it’s easier to write and read in all caps. Some do all their work at the keyboard, and set the typeface to a larger size, or a particular colour. Others use coloured pens, or write along the top edge of a ruler. Some people, I remember hearing, have found it helps if they wear glasses with different coloured lenses.

It’s worth reading up on the subject and experimenting to find what works best for you. Remember, there are many different word processing tools, and some have the option of changing the colour of the background as well as the typeface. Some people find it easier to read light text on a dark background.

Don’t just accept that reading and writing are hard for you. Put some effort into finding the method or combination of methods that are suited to you personally. Coping with dyslexia is within your reach, but only if you make the effort. And remember, being dyslexic doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent.

It just means you’re differently gifted!


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