Do you see what I see?

By Carol Witney, LSU

As an international educator, I have often come across very bright, articulate, lively and energetic students  who are really struggling with literacy skills in English. In the UK with a native speaker, it would be natural for me to ask a few questions to try and determine whether the learner has always had the same problems throughout their learning experience, or whether it’s because they are learning a new language and facing a new situation with new challenges. More often than not, it’s the latter, but occasionally a student might give answers  indicating they need a different kind of support with their studies, or that they may have a reading disorder – specifically Dyslexia.

Dyslexia is pretty common in the UK and the other English speaking countries.  Data suggests 10% of the UK population are mildly or moderately dyslexic and 4% severely. Experts attribute this to the fact that English is a complex language with a deep orthography. This basically means that English doesn’t have a clear letter-sound correspondence and has a high level of irregularities compared to other languages like Spanish or Italian. This causes problems for native and ESL learners alike. Dyslexia is not currently recognised in Vietnam or in Australia as a learning disorder, so it’s difficult to identify this and also, to make provision.

A dyslexic will be dyslexic in their own language but it may not be so apparent (phonology, orthography and morphology are key factors) and could also be more dyslexic in another. For example, I have a close friend who is very mildly dyslexic in Russian, but has been diagnosed and assessed by an American educational psychologist working in Vietnam as being severely dyslexic in English. Her particular weaknesses in Russian were more related to an inability to manage time, short term memory, lack of sense of direction and visual disturbances of print. Although these caused her problems, they didn’t interfere with her daily study to such a degree that she overly concerned. She graduated with an honours degree and masters – both in biology.

As in the case of my friend, many people don’t know they’re dyslexic – they just know that they’ve always had problems with reading and writing,  or have had an awareness that they don’t think in the same way as everyone else around them. Even in the UK, and other countries that recognise dyslexia as a learning difficulty,  it’s not easy to find out if you’re dyslexic . Teachers may not notice or realise that their students are having problems and training for teachers during their PGCE is not mandatory in the UK (yet). At university level, it’s most likely to be picked up by language educators because they can see a deficit – reading and writing vs listening and speaking. My friends’ IELTS score the first time around was 6.0 writing, 6.5 reading, 7.5 listening and 8.0 speaking. This is how we found out about her dyslexia – because of the deficit!

So, what is it? Most people, when asked what dyslexia is respond with ‘it’s when someone writes their letters the wrong way round’ or ‘letters and words jump off the page’.

What it isn’t: It isn’t a condition where students just write ‘b’ instead of ‘d’. It isn’t a mental health problem and it isn’t related to intelligence – in fact many dyslexic students have above average IQ’s – Albert Einstein and  Steven Spielberg are two good examples.

What it is: It’s a condition that exists within a spectrum of Specific Learning Difficulties/Disorders ( SpLD’s) such as dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD,  and mild Asperger’s. It’s recently been discovered to be linked to the gene KIAA0319 and the most recent research links it to being neurobiological in origin. Key weaknesses associated with dyslexia are visual deficits, phonological deficits, focus and attention deficits, problems with short term and working memory, problems with brain processing speed, and difficulties with gross or fine motor control.

Not all dyslexics are weak across all of these areas and most will have developed quite complex strategies throughout their learning in order to cope with some of these problems. Even though the condition means that dyslexics have difficulties, it also confers strengths  and if you check out the link to famous dyslexics you’ll soon realise that creativity, determination, perseverance, problem solving, strategic thinking, and a global view are just a few of these.
So, what difficulties are we looking at? What does that mean for our students in higher education?

Well, the reality of this is that our dyslexic students will process information at a much slower speed than our non-dyslexic students, their short term and working memory may become overloaded, they may have difficulty retrieving facts under pressure (being asked a question in class/being asked to read aloud/sitting exams), they may not be able to follow more than one instruction at once, they may not be able to acquire automaticity, they may appear to be disorganised/forgetful and have poor planning skills, copying from the board will be inaccurate or slow, misreading information which affects comprehension…….and the list goes on!

On top of this, many of our students may have been told they’re lazy, stupid and less intelligent than everyone else around them by teachers, parents and peers, and over a number of years which ultimately affects levels of motivation, confidence and self-esteem.

So, how can we help our students?

  • Upgrade our own knowledge as parents and educators and raise awareness
  • Identify dyslexic learners and encourage them to seek help
  • Access to study skills advisors who can help with personal organisation/accessing information/note-taking/task analysis/learning and revision/exam skills/metacognitive awareness
  • Try using multisensory methods/overlearning
  • Use dyslexia friendly fonts on slides/make notes and handouts available before class/encourage dyslexia-friendly marking
  • Record lectures/provide video and/or audio books
  • Support students who need exam concessions
  • Teach coping strategies
  • Use assistive technologies
  • Create a dyslexia-friendly institute
  • Build self-esteem in learning

What can students do?

  • Get to know more about yourself as a learner – researching  learning styles may help – there are many online questionnaires http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html
  • Self-assessment – complete a checklist for dyslexia , do a screening test (SPOT test –   http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/
  • Read about it online – British Dyslexia Association ( http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/ )
  • Get advice to work out learning strategies
  • Change the font of documents and use coloured backgrounds/filters
  • Use assistive technology specifically designed for use by dyslexics
  • Full assessment if needed (but expensive)

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4 responses to “Do you see what I see?”

  1. sara says :

    Good information about IELTS it is very useful for students

    IELTS letter

  2. Sam Graham (@samgrah) says :

    “…many people don’t know they’re dyslexic – they just know that they’ve always had problems with reading and writing, or have had an awareness that they don’t think in the same way as everyone else around them.”

    This is important stuff! An example about a friend of mine:
    At university I had a friend who had always wanted to be a doctor. However, she started to have trouble with exams, specifically multiple choice. After being made to repeat a year, she sought help and was diagnosed with one particular type of dyslexia, qualifying her for extra time in the exams. Now she’s a doctor – an awesome one too, and it’s incredibly sad to think what might have happened if she hadn’t figured out what was going on.

    Also, why is dyslexia so difficult to spell?! I empathise here…I used to have a lisp and my name is Sam.

    • Carol Witney says :

      Hi Sam, thanks for your response. Yes, a couple of my friends have grown up thinking that there’s something wrong with them and it’s had a really bad effect on their development.
      It’s really important for us as educators to be aware and try to help students figure out what’s going on so that they also have opportunities to flourish.

      I’m happy to hear your friend had a very positive outcome!

  3. Ngan says :

    I love this article Carol. It gives me some strength to keep on my way.

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