Here’s yet another brainy thing to be aware about because dum dum de dum, OCTOBER IS DYSLEXIA AWARENESS MONTH! Woo-hoo!!! (send in that confetti and SFX that people can do on their smart phones and I did once or twice by accident but can’t remember how). So here I am, making you aware.
I have necessarily been hyper-aware of dyslexia over the last few years, since it was revealed that my son Ed is dyslexic. He was in infant school when I first noticed that he wasn’t picking up the elements of reading as quickly as his twin sister. It was, at that early stage, put down to the fact that he is a boy and will naturally acquire the necessary skills a bit later than his sister. He was in grade two and still struggling when I decided that it was time I listened to my gut and get him assessed (moral of the story – mother’s gut feelings are superpowers, heed them well).
Anyway, fast track to now and I know a quite a lot more about dyslexia than I did back then. I don’t think it’s because I have a stake in dyslexia research that I find it fascinating, it just really is. I’m not going to launch into all the ins and outs of dyslexia because there are some very learned, well researched books for that. I just want to touch on the things that seem to be little known, and the things that I’ve observed in Ed. (Please note that by its nature every case of dyslexia is different.)
Brains are malleable. We can change them for as long as we are alive and for as long as we keep plying them with information and action. Brain imaging research shows that when we learn to read, the brain engages and strengthens three main parts that 1) help us connect letters or combinations of letters with the sounds they represent; 2) help us learn and eventually automatically recognise words as if they are a picture and 3) help us pronnounce words correctly.
In a dyslexic brain, reading will typically engage less of the reading parts of the brain. So when people say dyslexic people’s brains are wired differently, they really are.
How this manifests, in my experience which is limited to Ed, is that the automatic part of reading is much harder to come by. Ed’s brain won’t just accept, after a few repitions of a letter or combination of letters, that it represents a sound. His brain questions everything more and demands more of a pragmatic explanation of the code. For instance he asks the question, “Why should ‘ph’ make a ‘f’ sound? Why is ‘ai’ the same as ‘ay’ and ‘a_e’ and why does ‘ch’ sometimes make a ‘sh’ for fuck’s sake?” (He doesn’t say the FFS sake bit, although I’d forgive him if he did because FFS). While the rest of us just blissfully accept a whole set of rules whose origins are often obscure and whose laws are downright erratic and really fucking annoying, Ed’s brain is asking perfectly reasonable questions to which standard teaching practices don’t have an answer for (or, I should add, the time to find the answer).
Whilst he is still puzzling over why the fuck ‘ea’ makes the same sound as ‘ee’ but you don’t put shoes on your feat, everyone else has just accepted it as gospel, their ‘normal’ brains lighting up to take a little visual image of whole words to store up for future use and they move on to the next level.
For learners of the English language, which has its origins in various parts of the world (due to Anglo-Saxons conquering or being conquered as well as a whole set of idioms and quirks and misspellings) we have 26 letters and a grand total of 44 sounds (phonemes). The rules that preside over the formation of these phonemes are many and varied, and that’s before we even start adding our piles of suffixes and prefixes. How fucking unfair is all that to a dyslexic brain?
And then, while they’re struggling to fire up the right parts of the brain, their advanced and ‘normal’ reading peers are now able to engage the emotional part of the brain that connects with comprehension. They are being entertained and moved and educated by books. Ed is still trying to work out the difference between ‘through’ and ‘thorough’ and how to put together all the consonants in ‘strength’. Reading is effortful and far from fun.
But there’s another (shiny) side to the dyslexia coin. Dyslexic brains, while not lighting up their reading parts as well as they might, light up like proper beacons when it comes to tasks that require spatial awareness and practical problem solving. I read somewhere that 50% of NASA employees are dyslexic, hired for their excellent spatial awareness, insightfulness and out-of-the-box-thinking. They have a wonderful ability to see the bigger picture – in three dimensions. This is not just braggy lofty talk, they actually do. Non-dyslexics summon around 150 images per second while dyslexics can process 1500 to 4000 images, often in three dimensions, also known as pictorial thinking. Their powers of observation are advanced. I see this in Ed everyday. “Dad’s ute’s at the dairy but his motorbike’s gone so he’s probably at Renwood moving cattle” he can say after a fleeting glance from our moving car. Or “these plates are the same as the ones in that restaurant we went to that time at Port Douglas (four years ago)”. His observant brain will bode well for him if he chooses to be a farmer and needs to spot ailing cows, hidden calves or faulty irrigators from great distances.
This is why the use of explicit and multi sensory methods are so effective when teaching a dyslexic person to read and write. Ed has been learning this way with an external tutor/speech pathologist and with me for almost three years now and while progress isn’t happening at miraculous speeds, it’s happening; he is making improvments all the time. Dyslexia isn’t curable, but we can break language (or numeracy) up and make new shapes with it, turn it into something that makes sense to the dyslexic mind until the pictures are formed to make reading automatic. These brain-shaping skills (which by the way work brilliantly for non-dyslexic learners as well – I use the multisensory, explicit approach with all my children) will arm our children with the necessary tools to aid learning for the rest of their lives. They are methods that I would argue should be used in every classroom from kindergarten.
I’m not going to dress it all up in fancy happy clothes too much though, dyslexia is HARD WORK for all involved. There are times when I cry for Ed, when I lament the hours I spend repeating myself, when I get impatient and when he’s had enough and just wants to STOP LOOKING AT SOUND CARDS. There are heart sinking moments when it looks as though he’ll never catch up with his friends or when he’s forgotten something we’ve repeated hundreds of times. There are times when I feel too tired to read aloud to him or answer his questions, when it seems like it would be easier for us both if we just pretended nothing was wrong. I won’t pretend I’m pleased to have a dyslexic child. The world, especially the world of education, just isn’t set up for them.
But we have to accept it, put our heads down and push on. There are far, far worse things (like brain cancer click here to give generously). Ed’s happiness is paramount and while the skills his teachers and I give him won’t make him a world-class reader, I do believe that they will give him the best chance at lifelong well-being. And as an added bonus, once he’s battled through the current education system (and my pestering), he’ll know all about determination and hard work, to the point of it being the norm.
So anyway, sorry that this is a pretty humourless post. I just don’t really find dyslexia very funny. But if you see anything lit up red around your district, it’s not a Dark MOFO revival, it’s dyslexia awareness people being proactive and brilliant.
PS if you suspect dyslexia in yourself or a loved one, try one of these marvellous links for support, they regularly save my walls from me banging my head on them.
PPS shout out to Cameron, Kirsty and Liz who I think made a donation to Brain Cancer after my previous post xxx
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein (Scientist, dyslexic)