Dyslexics, know your brain


Dyslexics need to understand how their brain works differently, if they are to fulfil their potential

It is an undeniable fact that in modern day society we are increasingly bombarded by words. The ever growing role of the internet in our lives is an important factor contributing to the onslaught. On a typical news website ten years ago, you would see about 12 headlines on a home page, whereas nowadays there are, on average, over 400 story or section links. Someone who spends their working day in front of a computer will see around 490,000 words every day. War and Peace is only 460,000 words (source: www.guardian.co.uk).

This shift in our lifestyles means that reading and writing are becoming a more central and important part of our lives. For the majority of the population, they are subconscious processes. Picking up a pen and writing a shopping list, glancing at a road sign or skimming a recipe book are actions that mix seamlessly into our day. It is easy to forget what a miracle it is that the human brain is capable of processing language at all, and that we are the only species on the planet that has managed to achieve communication on such a complex level.

For those with dyslexia, the complexity of reading, writing and spelling is much more apparent. In a dyslexic brain, the areas that interact to coordinate the manipulation of words are affected and work differently. The presence of dyslexia in no way affects intelligence; indeed, it can enhance lateral thinking and problem solving skills. This is demonstrated by the fact that a disproportionate number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. However in the early stages of development at school, it is paramount that a dyslexic student grows to understand the way that his/her brain works differently and learns to work with it in order to achieve success. Here are four key characteristics of the dyslexic brain that students and educators should understand:

Writing is a three-step process

Putting pen to paper makes huge demands on the short-term memory to move from one step to the next, which can be a real weakness for dyslexics. In the brain, the process involves:

  • synthesizing a thought. For example, writing a story about what you did last weekend, such as going to the park
  • working out how you are going to write it: “I…ran…fast…in…the…park”
  • the physical act of writing – finding the right words and actually writing them.

A dyslexic can typically do one of these 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 organise their thoughts and sentences into a structured piece of writing. Creating a structured argument is a bit like cooking whilst trying to hold all the ingredients at the same time. Sometimes ingredients can fall into the pot at the wrong time. This can lead to a spaghetti soup of ideas that pours out in a stream of consciousness.

To overcome this and train the brain to become more comfortable with synthesizing thoughts to write and structure, teachers or parents can use the talk to write method. This involves talking through a student’s thoughts, repeating until the structure of the thoughts are clear and only then thinking about writing.

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, we may pick up a sock and know instantly that it should be put in our 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 even explain why dyslexics’ bedrooms are often particularly messy.

A good way to help a dyslexic 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, Make-up and Pyjamas).

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 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 thinking that they have the right thing and be wrong. This is why, for example, dyslexics often confuse the word “specific” with “pacific”.

Dyslexics are creative

Because dyslexics can’t rely 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 (for example, “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 also leads to the ability to solve complex problems. The artist Michelangelo, the physicist Einstein and James Dyson, inventor of the modern vacuum cleaner, were all dyslexic, and 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. While a non-dyslexic sees failure as an indication that they can’t do something, a dyslexic will see it as a part of the path to progress. Olympian Steven Redgrave attributed his tenacity to his dyslexia. He tried and failed, but he knew that this was part of his learning process, and he did not give up until he won five Olympic gold medals. Understanding dyslexia and turning it as far as possible into a positive is the key to unlocking success, academic or otherwise.

Further information

Patrick Wilson, who is dyslexic, is the founder of the Tutor Crowd, which helps students with SEN do better in exams. Patrick’s particular teaching focus is dyslexia:


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