How to access the written word and transfer your knowledge to the blank page
In this Studyclix guide, Dyslexia expert and founder of dyslexiasupport.ie, Sascha Roos, explains the challenges that dyslexic students face when reading and writing, and gives her expert advice on how to overcome them.
The challenges of reading and writing for students with dyslexia, and other learning differences such as dyspraxia and dysgraphia, can feel insurmountable.
You may perceive yourself as unable to keep up with your classmates, and not deserving of good results, as you do not know how to take in information or develop your answers on the page. You may not realise that these difficulties are aspects of your learning difference and not a fault of yours.
Students with dyslexia need more time to process the information they are receiving and may prefer alternative ways to access their learning and to produce their work. Once a dyslexic student is in secondary school, it is these frustrations that come to the fore, along with the challenges of a poor working memory, (see Sascha's blog 'Study Tips For Dyslexic Students' for more on that issue).
Reading Challenges for the Dyslexic Student
You may recognise your own difficulties in the following list:
- Needing to read a text several times to 'digest' its contents
- Unable to skim or scan for information - you have to read the whole piece again to find the relevant information.
- Proofreading is impossible - you just can't see your own errors
- Reading accuracy is affected by time pressure and stress
- The dense text of textbooks in several subjects and challenging new vocabulary make reading overwhelming
- Concentrating so much on deciphering the text you lose sight of its meaning
- Embarrassed and stressed by having to read aloud in class
"I'd skip a few lines. I'd see the word and just assume the wrong word and continue reading but it wouldn't make any sense." - Aoibhinn, 14
Solutions for the Dyslexic Reader
1. Be an 'active reader'
- Practice how to spot the keywords in a question and highlight them
- Read the questions first and keep them in your mind as you tackle a reading comprehension
- Make sure you have access to textbooks where you can highlight the key points, using a variety of coloured pens
- Use a bookmark, ruler or piece of card above the line you are reading to help focus your eye line
2. Find alternatives with help from home
- Ask someone at home to read questions and sections for you, to save you time and energy, and to avoid the chance that you may misread text when under pressure
- If you are bothered by the glare of a white page or computer screen and reading black and white print causes headaches and tiredness, then look into visual stress as a possibility, along with your dyslexia. Consider colour backgrounds, different fonts, and plenty of coloured paper and highlighters.
- If your school textbooks are not 'dyslexia-friendly' and are full of dense text and random graphics, then find alternative notes that are more appealing, such as the revision textbooks - 'Revise Wise' and 'Less Stress More Success'
- Help non-dyslexics to understand that you could spend hours reading textbooks over and over again, desperately trying to comprehend and absorb the information, but it just isn't going in. And sometimes this causes obvious stress, anxiety, and a feeling of just wanting to give up. It's not you being lazy or lacking concentration. Educate them!
- See if you are eligible for reasonable accommodations in your state exams, such as an individual reader. In exam situations, when a dyslexic is under added pressure, a minor misreading of a sentence can have major consequences. Having the right and fair support at exam time is invaluable for you when you are determined to achieve just the same as your peers.
3. Make use of assistive technology
Dyslexic students need technology!
- If you struggle at taking in and retaining information in a written format, but you excel at comprehending audio information, then the availability of text-to-speech technology will be extremely beneficial for you. Fortunately, there are many ways in which you can access information in the modern world. Digital texts are there for you - and can be read aloud via a text-to-speech function on your chosen device, such as your phone or iPad.
- Assistive technology, such as audiobooks, scanning pens, and text-to-speech software, can really enhance your literary skills and fluency, as well as give you equal access to information along with your classmates.
Check out Helper Bird which offers dyslexia-friendly features to aid reading fluency and productivity.
- Most textbook publishers offer their publications in digital format, allowing the text-to-speech option, so make sure you have that set up for yourself at home.
It doesn't really matter how the information gets in there as long as it does!
Writing Challenges for the Dyslexic Student
You may recognise your own difficulties in the following list:
- The mechanics of writing - you still can't get the hang of paragraphs, and commas remain a mystery
- You avoid more interesting words for fear of the difficult spelling, therefore your actual verbal intelligence is not reflected in your written expression
- The creative process - plenty of thoughts and ideas but you struggle to express these clearly and fluently on the page
- A writing block when sitting down to write - you just can't start or plan and structure
- Teachers keep telling you to develop your answers more, but you don't know how
- Note-taking is a constant stress - trying to listen and take notes at the same time, or copy notes with speed and accuracy
- And then you can't read your own notes because your handwriting is illegible
- You can't process answers fast enough in an exam situation, and your hand aches from slow, laborious handwriting
- The whole idea of having to write is stressful, instilling panic or avoidance, and you are exhausted by it all
"I really struggled with the syntax of a sentence. I'd have this great sentence in my head and I'm struggling to phrase it on the paper." Katie, Leaving Cert student
"I wasn't good at phrasing economically, I'd write around the point and not to the point." Molly, Leaving Cert student
"I'm looking ahead; I can't catch up with my own brain when I'm writing, so I miss out words." Sean, 13
Solutions for the Dyslexic Writer
1. Don't let the mechanics of writing put you off
- Use the most interesting words that you already have in your mind in your actual expression. Ask for writing to be valued for its content above the spelling and punctuation
- Eraser pens are more accessible and efficient these days, and can take some pressure away from the mechanics of writing
- Maintain a bank of words that you like to use, expand your range of vocabulary with a thesaurus and gather useful linking words
- Remember - just because you can't spell very well doesn't mean you aren't a good writer!
Roald Dahl preferred to write on a pad of yellow paper, slightly slanted. An assistant would proofread his work and deal with the spellings.
"Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me" - Agatha Christie, the best-selling author of all time
2. Become good at planning
- Get into the habit of planning all pieces of writing - have a quick brainstorm with a spider plan, and then break it down as a list of ordered points.
- Remember to have one point per paragraph
- Being able to talk through your ideas to someone else may help you clarify for yourself the structure of your answer
- Use techniques such as PQE (Point, Quote, Explain) to help structure your answers, and have a bank of useful phrases to give you confidence in your written expression. For example "Furthermore, the writer suggests...", "I can also vividly see...". "This leads me to believe..."
"It is just harder to get my ideas down on the page. I used to jump straight in and not know where I was going. But now I can plan it and know where I'm going with it." - Emily, Leaving Cert student
3. Find alternative ways to create notes
- Have some handy equipment conducive to note-taking - post-it notes, coloured A4 paper and flashcards, highlighter pens and eraser pens
- Get into the habit of using abbreviations, headings and subheadings and bullet points
- Learn to touch-type, particularly if you have dyspraxia or dysgraphia.
Touch-typing skills will allow you to focus on other aspects of the writing process (there are plenty of free online practice lessons)
- Let non-dyslexics know how lucky they are - they take it for granted that they can hold a phrase or sentence in their minds and write it down, as well as absorb the sense of what they are writing
- Find 'dyslexia-friendly' revision books with clear bullet points and good summaries to help order your own notes
- Request hand-outs of important notes in class and electronic alternatives
- When caught for time in class, take an image of the notes from the board so you can process this information in your own time later
- Speech-to-text software will be very handy for you, such as with Helper Bird, and available as a function on your phone and other chosen devices, giving you the opportunity to dictate notes and essays. You may like to negotiate with school to present your written work via this route. It could make a significant difference to the quality of your work and output.
- Try not to be resistant to any accommodations and assistive technology you are offered. Remember - appropriate accommodations are essential to unlock potential for a dyslexic student. They remove the barriers that prevent dyslexic individuals from expressing what they know.
And finally - there cannot be a right or wrong way to take in information and process that information. The right way is whatever suits you, just explore alternatives, and have confidence in how you prefer to learn.
I wish you every success,
You can find out more about Sascha and her book 'At Home With Dyslexia' at www.dyslexiasupport.ie
Illustrations reproduced by the kind permission of Danielle Sheehy, the illustrator of 'At Home With Dyslexia'