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Literacy in America

The Untapped Gifts Your Dyslexic Student May Have

For a long time, people have referred to dyslexia as a learning disability, which is not exactly correct and has dangerous connotations. We talked to Dr. Livia Pailer-Duller, executive director of the American Dyslexia Association, about what dyslexia actually is and the advantages dyslexics may have in certain subjects.

Dr. Livia Pailer-Duller

Executive Director, American Dyslexia Association

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is unfortunately still often referred to as a “learning disability.”  To refer to dyslexia as a “disability” is ill-fated because it implies affected individuals are unable to learn, which is not the case.  

Past research on the causes of dyslexia has found dyslexia to be a genetic disposition causing affected individuals to exhibit different sensory perceptions. Due to these different sensory perceptions, dyslexics view and experience the world differently, causing their attention to diminish when confronted with symbols like letters. This results in errors while reading, spelling, and writing.  

Dyslexia is not so much a disability, neither in the physical, nor the cognitive or mental senses, that inhibits affected individuals from learning to read, spell, and write, but leads to a different way of processing information, which in turn results in a unique behavior during the learning process.  

Dyslexic individuals are often gifted and artistic, leading to significant accomplishments in arts, sports, and science — just not in reading, spelling, and writing where, because of their different sensory perceptions, these basic academic skills become unmanageable tasks.

What are the signs? 

Difficulties affecting dyslexic students might range across a broad spectrum of making different errors while reading, spelling, and writing, referred to as the symptoms of dyslexia, which are often unexpected in relation to their other cognitive abilities and only occur after beginning school.  

Dyslexic students can experience difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition, and poor decoding abilities associated with spelling. A dyslexic student’s writing is often characterized by errors in letter order, letter addition or subtraction, and a small written vocabulary because of the student’s fear of making mistakes while writing.  Handwriting is often poor with irregularly formed letters while the writing speed can also be slow.  

The dyslexics’ written texts can even be impossible for another person to read. Words may be written with highly phonetized spelling such as “shud’ for ‘should,” or with difficulty in distinguishing among homophones such as “their” and “there.”

How is dyslexia treated?

No manifestation of dyslexia is alike because not every dyslexic person’s sensory perceptions are affected in the same way. Some children show difficulty in visual processing, others with auditory or spatial perception, or any combination of these individual sensory perceptions.  Because of these different affected sensory perceptions, not every training program designed to improve the effects of dyslexia on reading, spelling, and writing performances works on any child. Consequently, the way of improving the symptoms of dyslexia needs to be adapted to match the dyslexics’ issues.  

In general, each dyslexic student will need help a) increasing their attention span while reading, spelling, and writing, b) sharpening their individual sensory perceptions, and c) practicing reading, spelling, and writing.  

Can teachers help?

Training efforts need to focus on activating multiple senses across the sensory perception spectrum (visual, auditory, and spatial) and should not be limited to just one area. While individualized training efforts focusing on the specific sensory perception areas in which the dyslexic students show difficulty are recommended, in practice, educators have to deal with dyslexic students in the classroom where a one-on-one training is often not possible.  

Educators might also not be able to set up an individualized training plan if testing is not available. Educators in the classroom should focus on instruction using multiple channels to activate visual, auditory, and spatial sensory perceptions by utilizing games and materials that cater to the multi-sensory needs of dyslexic students. Non-dyslexic students might also benefit from interactive instruction to boost motivation.

What are the unique strengths of someone with dyslexia?

Dyslexic individuals can exhibit above average creativity and analytical thinking, and may be gifted in arts like music, dance, drawing, and acting, and also in natural sciences and mathematics. Dyslexics may have superior talents in certain areas that require non-verbal skills like art, architecture, engineering, and athletics.  

Prominent dyslexics, who are thought to be dyslexic from reports of their struggles with reading and spelling, include Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein. Usually the outward manifestation of difficulties with reading and spelling are noticed stemming from a different mode of thought. Only the “problem” is regarded and not the “gift.”

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