Dyslexia: A gift and a challenge

The Gift of Dyslexia

The brains of people with dyslexia are wired differently. They are more capable of globally processing visual-spatial information. Put another way, they tend to be gifted in their abilities of holistic inspection. This means that they are able to see the whole picture of visual spatial information and hold the relationships constant, regardless of how it is moved or rotated in space. This is a significant advantage for working within a virtual space, considering three-dimensional modelling, and understanding abstract visual-spatial representations. These are the skills required to be successful in computer programming, engineering, architecture, surgery, virtual reality, and many other in demand careers now and in the future. It is for these reasons that a great podcast on dyslexia called codpast, has a feature called How Dyslexics Will Rule the Future. (See the link below)

Dyslexia – A description

Dyslexia is mainly a problem with reading accurately and fluently. Kids with dyslexia may have trouble answering questions about something they’ve read. But when it’s read to them, they may have no difficulty at all.

People sometimes believe dyslexia is a visual issue. They think of it as kids reversing letters or writing backwards. But dyslexia is not a problem with vision or with seeing letters in the wrong direction. Because people with dyslexia tend to see words as a whole and not in the individual pieces of letters (holistic inspection), they often have difficulty breaking them into the individual phonemes or “chunks of sound”.

A key sign of dyslexia in kids is trouble decoding words. This is the ability to match letters to sounds and then use that skill to read words accurately and fluently. One reason kids have difficulty decoding is that they often struggle with a more basic language skill called phonemic awareness. This is the ability to recognize individual sounds in words. Trouble with this skill can show up as early as preschool.

Common Characteristics of Dyslexia


  • Has trouble recognizing whether two words rhyme
  • Struggles with taking away the beginning sound from a word
  • Struggles with learning new words
  • Has trouble recognizing letters and matching them to sounds

Elementary and Middle School:

  • Has trouble taking away the middle sound from a word or blending several sounds to make a word
  • Often can’t recognize common sight words
  • Quickly forgets how to spell many of the words she studies
  • Gets tripped up by word problems in math
  • Makes many spelling errors
  • Frequently has to re-read sentences and paragraphs
  • Reads at a lower academic level than how she speaks

Dyslexia and the Brain

Learning to read changes how the brain is wired. The brains of humans are wired to develop language and speech. If babies are socially exposed to language from birth, they will learn to speak, almost automatically. This is not the case for reading. Children need to be provided with quite specific instruction and reading experiences at key developmental times for them to learn to read. We now know that exposure to a print rich environment is not enough. Direct instruction in letter-sound relationships, phonemic awareness, and reading and decoding strategies are essential for developing the brain connections required to become fluent readers. Through quality reading instruction and practice, we rewire our brains to become fluent readers. The brains of people with dyslexia take longer to develop efficiency in these pathways and require instruction and reading practice that allows them to over-learn the letter-sound relations. The good news is that we know what these interventions look like and that the brain is pliable enough to allow us to develop fluency in reading when these interventions are in place.

Experience it yourself

The Understood website is an excellent resource for finding information about learning differences. Follow this link below to experience what it is like to have a learning difference such as dyslexia.

Strategies for the classroom

So, what can you do in your classroom to help support your students with dyslexia?

  • Explicitly teach phonemic awareness, letter-sound relationships, spelling patterns, syllabification rules, and decoding strategies
  • Use a multi-sensory approach to teaching and practicing spelling, word patterns, and sight words
  • Allow for alternate mediums for consuming and producing information – podcasts, vlogs, etc
  • Allow students to use technology to help accommodate for their difficulties – grammarly, text to speech and speech to text software
  • Take a Universal Design Approach to instruction. What is good teaching for students with dyslexia is good teaching for a wide range of students. See lists of common accommodations here, here, and here.

A final Thought

While 40% of self-made millionaires have dyslexia, an extraordinary number of people with substance abuse and mental health difficulties, also have dyslexia and other learning differences. That is because the experience of school, when learning to read is difficult, can be devastatingly difficult. It is our responsibility as teachers to help students understand how their brain functions differently. We need them to understand the gifts, as well as the challenges, so they can leverage those gifts to overcome the challenge of their reading difficulties. Allow them chances to express and grow their gifts. Teach them about how their brain works. And get them the intervention they need to improve their reading. For inspiration and further information on this, see the excellent TED Talk by Kate Griggs below.

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