Dyslexia, a disability or an ability to think differently? – Veronica Bidwell

dyslexiaIn this article Veronica Bidwell, author of The Parents’ Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties, explains the numerous ways that teachers and parents can support the learning of children with dyslexia.  She suggests adopting a holistic approach that engages all the body’s senses, examining the bigger picture before delving into the subject matter and recapping little and often with the aid of memory gadgets.  Packed full of advice and practical strategies for parents and educators, her book is a one-stop-shop for supporting children with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), ranging from poor working memory, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, through to ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), Specific Language Impairment and Visual Processing Difficulty. 

In an interview on Woman’s Hour this week Jo Malone, the brilliant fragrance queen, talked about her life and how she built and sold a multi-million pound company, battled cancer and then built up her new company, Jo Loves.

Jo mentioned her failure to succeed in school and the fact that she had left with no qualifications whatsoever. This, happily for the rest of us, did not deter the entrepreneur. Her fragrant oils, creams, candles, colognes and perfumes are loved and have made her a household name.

Jo did not dwell on her dyslexia but she did make the revealing comment that she regarded it not as a disability but more of an ability to think differently. What is very clear is that Jo is defined by her creativity and not by her dyslexia.

Indeed the recently published book Creative, Successful, Dyslexic by Margaret Rooke tells the stories of 23 well-known people who have excelled in the arts, sports and business worlds and have used their special strengths to achieve great success in adult life.  Like them, Jo has managed to harness her creative and entrepreneurial skills.

These stories are heartening and illustrate the way in which so many dyslexics seem to think differently, creatively and holistically. They show us that there can indeed be a wonderful silver lining with dyslexia.  But there is still the here and now.

Whether the dyslexic pupil is behind with reading, finding it hard to put pen to paper or struggling to retain new information and remember deadlines – be their problems mild or severe – these pupils need help and understanding

How can we help dyslexic pupils through those long and demanding years of school?

This is a big topic but here are eight ways in which parents and teachers can support the child for whom learning in the standard classroom does not come easily:

  • Multisensory learning.  We all learn through hearing, seeing and doing, but in school much information is transmitted verbally and this is often a handicap for the dyslexic pupil. The tried and tested way to support the young dyslexic pupil as he or she learns to read and spell is through a multisensory approach. When new things are to be learnt the creative teacher or parent can find ways of letting him engage by using more than one sense. Let them hear it, see it and do it. Our brains are fully engaged when our senses are activated together.
  • Holistic view.  Many dyslexics love to see the big picture before they are asked to learn or cope with details. It helps to see what a lesson or activity is all about, where it’s going and why it matters. If we can start with the whole then we can see where the details may fit in and why they matter. It is similar to seeing the illustration before starting on a jigsaw puzzle. Many successful adult dyslexics are brilliant at inspiration and vision. From Branson and space travel to Einstein and relativity, there are many great examples of a dyslexic’s vision.
  • Use visual cues and prompts.  The majority of dyslexics have difficulty with language-based activities but many are strong on visual skills. For these pupils the use of pictures, diagrams, mind maps and highlighters are all essential. These visual prompts can help to consolidate ideas and aid memory and are useful tools to enhance note taking.
  • Learning patterns, little and often.  Another common feature of dyslexia is poor short-term and working memory, making it harder for the dyslexic pupil to learn and retain unrelated facts and figures like the vocabulary for a modern language or times tables. The best way to overcome this problem is to make sure that this type of learning is done little and often. The pupil should learn a small amount, rehearse it at regular intervals and continue rehearsing and testing until it is well and truly stuck in memory.
  • Recap to avoid forgetting.  Poor working memory also means that information may not be retained efficiently. This is where recapping comes in. After reading a page or a chapter, or at the end of a lecture or lesson, take a few moments to recap the key points. What was it all about, what information was important? The pupil can make a note or quick mind map to aid later recall. This is a great habit to adopt.
  • Study skills.  Study skills are about how you learn and they are important for all students – but especially for the dyslexic pupil.  They cover methods for efficient and effective learning. No dyslexic can afford to waste time and energy on inefficient study.  Study skills need to be specifically taught.
  • Aide-memoires and technology.  We are surrounded by gadgets that can jog the memory, whether it is the next music lesson, when to hand in an essay or just setting a time limit on homework. For the majority of pupils the use of a laptop is essential. There is an impressive array of programs to aid study.   For example, ‘Speak and write’ programmes and special pens which will scan and read words aloud are especially helpful for dyslexic pupils.
  • Confidence.  Last but absolutely not least we need to ensure that our dyslexic pupils have many chances to engage in the activities in which they show aptitude, interest and originality. Alice is nine. She can barely read but she loves swimming and has made it into the county squad.  Jacob, aged ten, raised money selling his home-made fudge. He spent the money on wood for a skate board ramp. He is now an adult and is a successful entrepreneur.  It is vital to help dyslexic children to use their strengths and to build confidence in areas where they can excel.

Veronica Bidwell is an Educational Psychologist with expert knowledge of Specific Learning Difficulties.  She has been involved in education for over 30 years working with mainstream and special schools.  She has run a leading independent Educational Psychology Service and has assessed many hundreds of pupils and provided advice and support to pupils, parents and teachers.

Click here to find out more about The Parents’ Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties.

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