In my six years of work as a private tutor, if there is one element of my work that has truly re-shaped the way I conceive of the human mind and intelligence, it is the time I have spent working with dyslexic students.
Most of my work with dyslexic students has encompassed working with students aged between 9 and 21 years old. More recently I have begun to work with adult students on basic literacy skills.
Over the years I have read many books and articles on the issue of dyslexia in order to further my understanding. I am also registered with the British Dyslexia Association and receive their magazine. The British Dyslexia Association website is a great place to start for anyone looking to find out more about the issue.
For all of this research, nothing has been more useful than working with students themselves. As one might expect, as an English Language private tutor I see a disproportionate number of dyslexic students. In a given year, probably between 20% and 50% of my students are facing issues with dyslexia.
What is dyslexia?
Make no mistake, dyslexia is a disability. It is one which varies in severity from only mildly affecting students with things like spelling and punctuation right through to making it difficult for students to even learn to read. Having worked with so many dyslexic students, undoubtedly, the telltale sign is the enormous difficulty students experience when dealing with the written word. There are many other signs and symptoms, but I believe this is the most common and most limiting problem.
Writing, at it’s essence, is a highly symbolic activity. The inscriptions that we make on a page are merely symbols which point to a certain sound. When we put these symbols and sounds together, they create words. Words point us to a certain meaning – an object, an action or an idea. The central issue that dyslexic students have is that they are far less able to process letters as sounds and words. It’s almost as if they see the symbols in their purest form – as a series of straight and curved lines on a page – and do not make the jump to associate these symbols with a sound or meaning. Some severely dyslexic students have told me that they basically just see a series of lines and just cannot make the connection between those lines and spoken language.
The vast majority of our education system relies on using the written word and other types of symbols such as those used in Maths or Science. With this in mind, it is not difficult to see how, in years gone by, dyslexic students were simply seen as incapable or unteachable. Virtually everything about the way in which we educate human beings relies on the one faculty that dyslexic students have most trouble with. When we examine a dyslexic student in the form of a written test of some kind, we are essentially putting their disability under the microscope and probing away at it.
It is hardly surprising then, that many students develop phobias and emotional traumas relating to education and learning. It’s no exaggeration to say that for some students their education was a protracted form of psychological torture. I have heard stories from students educated in less-enlightened times, or in countries which lack awareness about dyslexia, which are frankly heart-breaking. Students have told me about being laughed at for not being able to read a word or being told they are useless by teachers ignorant of the reality of the condition. Even here in the UK, not all teachers are as aware or understanding as they should be about the condition.
How do Dyslexic students succeed?
Human beings are resilient, ingenious creatures and dyslexic students are perhaps more ingenious than most in their ability to develop coping strategies and alternative ways of being valued at school. It’s common to find dyslexic students excelling in any number of fields that don’t rely exclusively on reading and writing. Art, dance, sports, business, debating, and simply being a ‘class-clown’ are some of the ways in which dyslexic students typically find ways to excel in school and beyond. However, that is not to say there aren’t dyslexic students who also excel in English, Maths and Science – there are many – but they have to overcome certain issues. This is where the extra support provided in schools and by private tutors can be so vital.
It has long been thought that there was a link between dyslexia and creativity and recent studies seem to bear this out. In the book Creative Successful Dyslexic by Margaret Rooke, we see the remarkable diversity of achievements of dyslexic students in many fields. There are interviews with the legendary business tycoon Richard Branson, the former captain of the British rugby team Chris Robshaw and one of the only truly well-known poets in the modern world, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few.
Here is a link to the book
There are dyslexics excelling outrageously in many spheres – others you may have heard of include Stephen Spielberg, Jim Carey, David Bailey, Jackie Stewart and Whoopie Goldberg. There are dyslexics even in professions which truly rely on the written word such as journalism and writing – indeed some household names are known to have been dyslexics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie and the Nobel prize winning Gabriel García Márquez. The latter’s work, One Hundred Years of Solitude is frequently referred to as the greatest South American novel ever produced. I’d sincerely recommend buying a copy – it’s an utterly mind-blowing novel:
With all these superstars shining brightly in the firmament, you may even ask the question – is dyslexia an advantage in certain fields? It’s a fair question and I would say that, provided the individual has some basis to work from, dyslexics are often gifted in unusual ways. In my own experience, I find I am frequently shocked by the level of depth, insight and intuition displayed by some of my dyslexic students. It is often somewhat abnormal. A disproportionate number of the truly creative and genuinely original people I know are dyslexic. Dyslexic people have a range of intelligence, just like the rest of the population, so it is incorrect to paint dyslexics as a group of misunderstood geniuses. However, whatever their level of general intelligence, dyslexics are often misunderstood in school and the world of work and have to face unusual hurdles that non-dyslexics don’t face.
The flip side to this is that almost all of the re-sit students I work for at GCSE level English are dyslexic. Again some of these students are significantly above average in terms of overall intelligence but the condition clearly limits them. It’s frustrating for students who are able to give clear verbal answers with relative ease, but who struggle to convert this knowledge and understanding into written work. I have questioned whether it would be appropriate to assess these students verbally or at least offer a different, equivalent qualification in which student’s work was transcribed or tested verbally. Whether or not there are further changes at the level of the exam boards, with focus and consistent application students can overcome dyslexia. Indeed, the majority of the re-sit students that I have worked with over the years have gone on to achieve a pass grade.
I often think of my own work as a tutor working with dyslexia as one of an excavator uncovering a hidden treasure. Thanks to the research that has gone into this area there are a huge variety of techniques and strategies that can be employed by teachers and tutors even with a fairly low level of training in dealing with the condition. These strategies are the tools with which teachers and tutors can uncover the hidden gems within the minds of many dyslexic students. Naturally the work of the students themselves is the polish and elbow grease that allows hidden potential into sparkling achievements.