Understanding Dyslexia

Dyslexia is NOT one simple problem.  It is not one kind of difference in the brain. It is a complex combination of problems.  If we could test thousand students who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, I don’t think we would find any two students with exactly the same levels and kinds of problems. Students are Dyslexic in many different ways.

Here is a beginning list – but each of these could be further divided.

  1. inability to distinguish one letter from another
  2. inability to accurately copy the letters
  3. inability to remember the shape of each letter
  4. inability to associate letters and sounds
  5. poor fine motor skills for copying letters and words
  6. inability to blend letter sounds
  7. inability to remember the sequence of letters in a word – poor spelling
  8. inability to read words in the proper sequence
  9. inability to remember and understand the words they read
  10. inability to grasp the meaning of a sentence
  11. inability to understand abstract words and concepts
  12. poor memory
  13. poor sense of time – poor time management
  14. poor sense of direction including telling left and right
  15. poor coordination
  16. poor organization
  17. inability to understand and follow instructions
  18. poor vocabulary
  19. in math: inability to understand basic concepts like “multiply”
  20. inability to understand word problems in math
  21. inability to remember math facts like multiplication tables
  22. inability to remember sequence of step to solve a problem

I remember when my son, Tony, was tested. The tester was puzzled because when they showed him a simple drawing of a house for several seconds, he could reproduce it accurately. When they showed him diagrams such as a triangle inside a square inside a circle, he also did well. But he was not able to copy a letter of the alphabet. He could remember pictures he could recognize and give a name to but letters apparently seemed to be random meaningless lines… and he was in third grade.

Tony could not remember names and shapes of letters or words, he couldn’t remember people’s names, and he couldn’t learn his spelling words, so you might conclude tha he had a poor memory.  Actually, Tony’s memory in other areas was excellent, especially when related to science.

He couldn’t remember if he should borrow (in subtraction) from the left side or the right side, but he could find his way around Boston better that I could.

His math abilities were also strange. He loved math. He could close his eyes and give you the correct answer to a problem but he could not do the calculations on paper. Sometimes teachers paired him up with a student who could read but not understand math. The other boy read the problem to Tony who explained what it meant and what they had to do to solve it and often he knew what the answer should be, but the other boy needed to do the calculations.

You probably know most of the areas where you are weak, but to have more detailed information, you would need to be tested by a neurologist.

 Problems in the classroom

Can’t Read Aloud: Most students who are dyslexic, even if they are are able to read, hate reading aloud. They are self-conscious about making what appear to be simple mistakes like reading “saw” instead of “was.”

Can’t Spell: Most students who are dyslexic, even if they learn to read, will continue to be poor spellers, although some do improve with practice. Most will also continue to have poor handwriting, although this, too, can be improved.

Can’t Take Notes: Most students who are dyslexic have problems taking notes in class. If they do take notes, they often cannot read their own handwriting. They may learn more by careful listening without attempting to write anything down.

Hate Essay Questions: Most students who are dyslexic do poorly on essay questions, often needing to simplify their ideas so they can write them more easily. They also have difficulty writing term papers.

Can’t Read Long Assignments: Most students who are dyslexic may be able to read short assignments but cannot read a novel that has been assigned. The first homework Tony read for himself was a one-page assignment in chemistry. He told me that big words like hydrogen are easier to read than little ones. I think that listening in class also made the information familiar and easier to read.

 Problems solving Word Problems in Math: Most dyslexic students have problems with word problems because they involve reading, visualizing the problem, and abstract concepts as well as computation.

What can dyslexic students do?

Tony, who is severely dyslexic, was tested twice by the school system and we were told that boys learn more slowly than girls or that his problem was a pushy mother.

We finally had him tested by a neurologist who said Tony was extremely intelligent and severely dyslexic – that he might never learn to read or write or spell – and that the school system MUST provide at least half a day of special classes with a teacher trained to help dyslexic students.

If you think the testing done by your school system didn’t get your problem right, get tested by an outside professional. This can make a huge difference in the education you get. The school system has a limited budget and saves money by providing just a little help from an over-worked special ed teacher.

You need to have an IEP or Individual Education Plan. This is generally created by the school and presented to parents to sign. First, your parents should NEVER  sign this until they take a few days to think it over. Do NOT believe that the school knows best.

If you have a really good Special Education teacher, ask him or her for advice after school. Ask what kind of help you really need. The school will suggest things like extra time on tests or even oral testing but what you really need is having someone teach you how to read. They should either give you an hour a day with a trained reading teacher – alone or with two or three other students with a similar problem. It is not OK to put you into a room with ten or fifteen students, all with different kinds of reading problems. Some schools will pay for a tutor to work with you after school. Some schools will pay for you to attend a different school for dyslexic students.

You have the right to attend your own IEP meeting. You might not understand most of what they are talking, but you should be able to tell them in a few minutes what you think you really need. Telling teachers and others just what kind of help you need is important. It is called “Self-Advocating.”

Never be ashamed to let others know you are dyslexic. Explain what it means to be dyslexic. Tell them that many famous people are dyslexic. It is possible to be dyslexic and still be very intelligent and able to learn. It might mean, however, that you learn in different ways.

For more on Dyslexia, read  Tony’s Story

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