Dyslexia’s two-edged sword

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Therapist observing bored sad girl with anxiety and child depression

Dyslexia can feel like a superpower or a ball and chain, says Louise Selby.

I am atrocious at packing. I can spend a whole day writing lists, losing them, moving things around the house, losing them, making cups of tea, losing them, and all in the name of packing. It’s extremely frustrating. The flip side of this difficulty with organising my physical possessions is that my brain is always whirring around with ideas and thoughts when I’m on the move. I do my best brainstorming while “packing”.

Dyslexia is increasingly being thought of positively, as a gift which brings strengths that many neurotypical people do not possess. Dyslexic thinking is now a thing. Dictionary.com describes it as an approach to problem solving, assessing information, and learning, often used by people with dyslexia, that involves pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, lateral thinking, and interpersonal communication.

Alex’s story is one example of this. Alex experienced humiliation in school when learning to read and write, but is now a highly qualified chartered geologist and associate director. I have worked with many children and teens who have displayed dyslexic thinking skills. Many are also creative, intelligent, and imaginative. I’m thrilled that people with dyslexia are increasingly enabled to celebrate their strengths, and the stigma that has accompanied literacy problems for many years is being crushed. However, I’m also concerned. Dyslexia is still a persistent, significant difficulty in specific areas, and I have met many children for whom the world of school is just one long, hard slog. In the words of Sara, aged fourteen, I don’t really have anyone who can relate to how frustrating it can be to have to read things over and over again until you can understand it or to have to rewrite things multiple times until it actually looks right.

Dyslexia causes difficulties with reading accuracy and fluency, spelling, writing, working at speed, holding information in mind while working on it, and processing verbal information. It can impact maths and other curriculum areas, and many dyslexics feel exhausted and challenged every day in school. In this real world, dyslexia can feel more like a ball and chain than a superpower. The trouble with stereotypes is that there are always exceptions. In my experience, some dyslexic children just do not display dyslexic thinking. They all have strengths, but in reality some struggle with spatial awareness, some are slow with generating ideas, and some have underdeveloped interpersonal communication skills. Moreover, dyslexia occurs across the ability range, often alongside other neurodivergent conditions, and not all children with dyslexia will grow up to be the next Richard Branson. Take Harry for example. Harry loves pizza and chips and adores books. Harry has autism and attends a wonderful special school. He is not your stereotypical dyslexic. Harry understands books, but has struggled to learn to read, in spite of huge efforts.

I am concerned that the difficulties that dyslexics have in school can be missed if we focus on stereotypes over needs, and if we do not adequately address the reality that every child has the right to learn to read and write. In Harry’s case, his assessment informed his teachers so that they were able to put specific strategies in place. Harry may not be the next Richard Branson, but I am thrilled to say that he has learned to read through hard work and informed intervention. What a superstar!

Psychologist Gavin Reid explains that asking the question what is the best approach for dyslexic children? can be unhelpful, as it leads to superficial or stereotypical understanding and detracts from the process of supporting individual children with their unique learning profile. Reid writes We know from experience of working with children with dyslexia that the individual differences that surround dyslexia can easily surpass the commonalities, specifically in relation to classroom teaching and particularly as they progress through school.

■ Reading and spelling take centre stage.

While we must find, use and celebrate the strengths that dyslexic learners possess, what’s most important is identifying individual needs and working to address them. Because in school, the reality is that reading and spelling take centre stage, and children with dyslexia are all too aware of their weaknesses. In real terms, the labels dyslexia and dyslexic thinking are far less important than the process of empowering an individual to learn.

So where does this leave teachers? Do dyslexic children possess innate abilities and strengths? Emphatically yes, and we should be nurturing and celebrating these. However, we would be doing them a huge disservice if we denied the fact that dyslexia is a significant and disabling difficulty, and if we did not provide the right teaching for dyslexic learners to gain the skills they deserve to be taught.

Back to my packing. I hate the fact that I find it so hard. Every time I travel, I become frustrated with my ineptitude. And don’t even talk to me about camping. I love the gifts and talents that come with this difficulty, but I want to improve. Children with dyslexia need teachers to know that, even if they appear to be coping, they find some areas of learning hard. They need teachers to know that school life can be challenging and exhausting. They need teachers to have the training and resources to teach them to read and write in a way they can learn. If schools can prioritise these things, we will all see our learners with dyslexia meet their potential and showcase their strengths.

Louise Selby
Author: Louise Selby

Louise Selby
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Louise Selby worked as a specialist advisory teacher in Hertfordshire Local Authority for 11 years, training teaching assistants and SENCOs. Her book Morph Mastery, a Morphological Intervention for Reading and Spelling, is published by Speechmark.

Website: louiseselbydyslexia.com
X: @louiseselby21
Facebook: @LouiseSelbyDyslexia
LinkedIn: louise-selby-dyslexia

1 COMMENT

  1. Where was all this when i was young . Am undiagnosed dyslexic w/ add. Am older now . My school years were an uphill struggle . My elementary school did have a speech therapist i did see . But there was no specialised teaching or help for us dyslexic kids . We were left to struggle along as best we could . This was in the 1960s American schools . With our numbers being what they are dyslexic kids like me were underserved and not recognised nor helped .

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