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The Impact of 'Dyslexia' (on student learning)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Some people with specific learning difficulties may demonstrate unusually high levels of mathematical, spatial, linguistic or creative ability. Dyslexic people can tend to excel in subjects such as engineering, architecture and design, and some have attributed this to the ways in which the brain may work differently in dyslexics.


The posting below looks at some of the issues involved in working with higher education students hwo have dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties. It is from Chapter 8, Students with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties by Stella Cottrell in, Special Training in Higher Education, Successful Strategies for access and inclusion, edited by Stuart Powell. First published in Great Britain and the United States in 2003 by Kogan Page Limited 120 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JN, UK 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling VA 20166-2012, USA. ?Copyright Stuart Powell, 2003. The right of Stuart Powell to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. ISBN0 7494 3610 7 (hbk) 0 7494 3611 5 (pbk). Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Difficulties and differences in processing sound, visual stimuli, symbols and movement impact upon tasks which require certain kinds of information processing, linear sequencing, timing and motor coordination. As a result, dyslexic people show, unexpected levels of difficulties in performing, at will and with ease, one or more relatively basic activities such as writing or reading text, music, dance notation or other symbolic representations; spelling; basic numerical computation; organizational skills; listening; speaking; balance and coordinating physical movements (Miles, 1983; Sharma, 1986; Fawcett and Nicolson, 1994; McLoughlin, Fitzgibbon and Young, 1994). There may be particular difficulties in combining non-automated tasks (Fawcett and Nicolson, 1994), such as listening, writing and spelling in lectures or seminars, or speaking and writing up answers on a flip chart in a group exercise, or balancing the body while working out a problem aloud during practical work.

Generally, higher cognitive processing skills which characterize university study, such as reasoning, interpreting, understanding, creating, and synthesizing, are not directly affected. Performance on higher level tasks may be indirectly affected if, for example, individuals cannot gain access to course material because they cannot process text by eye. In such a case, the dyslexic person is in a similar position to a partially sighted or blind person. Another dyslexic person is in a similar position to someone with hearing impairments. A dyspraxic or dysgraphic person may not be able to produce writing at speed, and in lectures or exams, with respect to writing may be in a similar position to someone with a missing or broken limb. Some dyslexic people experience combinations of more than one of these difficulties at certain times.

Dyslexic people vary greatly in their level of performance, and include those who have developed exceptional compensation strategies (Cottrell, 1996a) and the very gifted (Aaron and Guillemord, 1993; Vail, 1990; Everatt, Steffert and Smythe, 1999). Some people with specific learning difficulties may demonstrate unusually high levels of mathematical, spatial, linguistic or creative ability. Dyslexic people can tend to excel in subjects such as engineering, architecture and design, and some have attributed this to the ways in which the brain may work differently in dyslexics (Miles and Miles, 1993; Stein, 2001). Higher order thinking tasks can be easier for dyslexic students than apparently simple tasks, and some find university work better suited to their abilities than school work. Rote or 'parrot' learning is particularly difficult for dyslexic people, who tend to prefer 'deep understanding', and personalized and applied approaches to study. It is becoming well established in universities that being dyslexic or dyspraxic is not, in itself, a barrier to achieving the highest degrees (Cottrell, 1996a; Singleton et al, 1999).

From what has been described above, it should be clear that dyslexic and dyspraxic people tend to show unusual or unexpected patterns of strengths and weaknesses in learning and performance. Being dyslexic or dyspraxic does not in general mean that a person 'cannot' do something - given sufficient time, means and encouragement. Time is key. People with dyslexia who are capable of performing complex reasoning tasks at their own speed can fail on more basic tasks when working under timed conditions (Ellis and Miles, 1986; Seymour, 1986). It may take a dyslexic person much longer to learn and perform some of the more basic subskills of a task because of their processing difficulties, which can be experienced as extremely frustrating and embarrassing. Certain aspects of the environment may need to be altered in order to allow those with specific difficulties either access to information, or to reveal their knowledge and understanding. In this respect, dyslexia is similar to most other disabilities.

It is often not appreciated how hard and frustrating it is, and how much application is needed, for a dyslexic person to perform some of the more basic skills. Nicolson and Fawcett (1994) suggest that dyslexic children may take 10 times as long to learn some subskills. They found that dyslexic teenagers were more likely to be making errors after 10,000 trials on an eye-hand co-ordination task that non-dyslexic peers after only 100 trials (Nicolson and Fawcett, 1993); despite this, they performed as well as others a year later, after having had optimal conditions in which to learn. As a result of the unusual combination of difficulty and ability, dyslexic people have often received mixed messages about being both 'very bright' and 'very stupid'. Those who are obviously bright may have a life history of being dubbed 'lazy' or 'wilful'. This can have long-standing effects upon their readiness to 'try again', to 'do what they are told', or to take other people's estimation of them at face value. There can be deep emotional scars (Edwards, 1994), and in some cases, predictable behavioural problems. It is no unusual for dyslexic people to show either very high or very low levels of endurance, motivation and application, depending on how they have responded to, and been supported with, their dyslexia. Dyslexia induces tiredness, and dyslexic people can be prone to working very close to their stress and exhaustion thresholds for long periods. Conditions that are commonly stress-related are again more common in dyslexic people (such as asthma, skin conditions, allergies, migraine, working memory difficulties and auto-immune conditions).


Aaron, P G and Guillemord, J-C (1993). Artists as dyslexics, in Visual Processes in Reading and Reading Disabilities, ed D M Willows, R S and E Corcos, pp 393-415, Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ

Cottrell, S M (1996a) Lexically proficient dyslexic students in higher education, in Second International Conference on Dyslexia in Higher Education. Learning Along the Continuum, ed J Waterfield, Devon

Edwards, J (1994) The Scars of Dyslexia: Eight case studies in emotional reactions, Cassell, London

Ellis, N C and Miles, T R (1986) A lexical encoding difficulty I: experimental evidence, in Dyslexia Research and its Application to Education, ed G T Pavladis and T R Miles, Wiley, Chichester

Everatt, J, Steffert, B and Smythe, I (1999) An eye for the unusual: creative thinking in dyslexics, Dyslexia, 5 (1), pp 28-46

Fawcett, A J and Nicolson, R (eds) (1994) Dyslexia in Children: Multi-disciplinary perspectives, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead

McLoughlin, D, Fitzgibbon, G and Young, V (1994) Adult Dyslexia: Assessment counseling and training, Whurr, London

Miles, T R (1983) Dyslexia: The pattern of difficulties, 2nd edn, Whurr, London

Miles T and Miles, E (1993) Dyslexia: A hundred years on, Open University Press, Milton Keynes (first published 1990)

Nicolson, R I and Fawcett, A J (1993) Children with dyslexia automatise temporal skills more slowly, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 682, pp 390-92

Nicolson, R I. and Fawcett, A J (1994) Reaction times and dyslexia, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 47A, pp 1-16

Sharma, M C (1986) Dyscalculia and other learning problems in arithmetic: a historical perspective, Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics, 8, (3,4), pp 7-45

Singleton, C, Cottrell, S M, Gilroy, D et al (1999) Dyslexia in Higher Education: Policy, provision and practice, Report of the National Working Party on Dyslexia in Higher Education, University of Hull, Hull

Stein, J (2001) The magnocellular theory of developmental dyslexia, Dyslexia, 7 (1) pp 12-36

Vail, P L (1990) Gifts, talents and the dyslexias: wellsprings, springboards and finding Foley's rocks. Annals of Dyslexia, 40, pp 3-17