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April 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 7
Differences, Not Disabilities
Students with dyslexia have unique capabilities. Teachers can help them apply and develop these aptitudes in learning.
"He would be the smartest lad in the school if the instruction were purely oral." – Dr. Pringle Morgan (1896) in the first clinical report of dyslexia.
There is a quiet revolution taking place in our understanding of dyslexia. No longer seen as a disease, disorder, or defect, dyslexia is being embraced as a common learning difference affecting some 15–20 percent of the population whose bearers have distinctive strengths as well as specific preferences in modes of learning.
It's not hard to see why this change in perception has taken place. Dyslexics are overrepresented in innovative professional groups such as entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers (Lemon and Shah, 2014; Logan, 2009; Wolff & Lundberg, 2002). The top designer at Apple, Google's first chief information officer, the highest-grossing film director of all time, and the inventor of the first compact disk are all dyslexic.
Along with revelations that dyslexia-associated differences in brain wiring can be associated with advanced abilities as well as difficulties comes new research showing that dyslexia-related differences can be seen in children before they start reading (Vandermosten, Hoeft, & Norton, 2016). In light of such findings, experts are increasingly arguing that dyslexia is more appropriately conceived of as a difference rather than a disease, disorder, or even disability (Armstrong, 2015; Eide & Eide, 2011; Rae, 2013; Rothstein, 2012; Schneps, 2014; Venton, 2011).
But for students with dyslexia to develop their unique capabilities and not become demoralized in school, teachers need to be aware of their needs and preferences. As a group, for example, dyslexic students may be more negatively affected than other students by classroom cultures oriented around rigid definitions of "performance." In a recent study, for example, researchers studying elementary school students in Greece found that classroom cultures characterized by statements like "In our class, getting good grades is the main goal" can have deleterious effects on the reading achievement of students with learning disabilities, creating a "maladaptive motivational context" (Sideridis, Stamovlasis, & Antoniou, 2015). By contrast, classroom cultures that emphasized the importance of working toward mastery of content ("In our class, trying hard is important") were found to have a positive effect on the reading performance of students with disabilities.
Researchers have found that, at the college level, students with dyslexia benefit from "deep" approaches to learning such as evaluation, organization, discrimination and extrapolation (Dupre, Gilroy, & Miles, 2008). Dyslexic college students are also more likely to use study aids, such as marking and underlining texts, mindmapping, and participating in study groups, compared with their non-dyslexic peers. It may be that college students with dyslexia develop these strategies because reading and rote memory are effortful for them. Regardless, such compensatory strategies can become strengths, and students' adoption of them can be seen as "evidence of a commitment to high-quality educational outcomes" (Kirby et al., 2008).
In an unpublished review of more than 100 dyslexia students (ages 7–17) tested in our private practice learning clinic, we found a typical "discrepant" pattern showing high scores in creative and higher-order thinking tasks such as recognizing verbal similarities (fluid verbal reasoning) or matrix reasoning (fluid nonverbal reasoning) (Eide & Eide, 2014). As a group, dyslexic students had lower than average scores in processing speed, spelling, and timed recalling of basic math facts. Understanding the cognitive peaks and valleys associated dyslexia is a key to understanding how to teach dyslexic students, as well as how to foster emotionally healthy school experiences to nurture their growth.
For our book, The Dyslexic Advantage, Brock L. Eide and I reviewed an extensive body of research literature that dates back to the first clinical case of dyslexia in 1896. We also interviewed many adult dyslexics (some of whom were parents of the children we were testing in our clinic). From this information, we identified clusters of abilities and career aptitudes among dyslexics. We summarized these as Dyslexic MIND Strengths. Here's a breakdown of what we found, along with some tips on how teachers can give students opportunities to cultivate and exhibit these aptitudes:
M-strengths are abilities that help individuals reason about the physical or material world. They consist primarily of abilities in areas that can be termed spatial reasoning. Some of the most famous buildings in the world (like Lloyd's of London and the Sydney Opera House) were designed by people with dyslexia, while dyslexics are overrepresented in schools of engineering (Lemon & Shah, 2014). In experimental studies, dyslexics have also been shown to outperform nondyslexics on tests of spatial rotation and navigation (Attree, Turner, & Cowell, 2009; Von Karolyi, 2001).
In the classroom, teachers can support their students' M-strengths by using manipulatives to present concepts and by providing hands-on projects that make learning memorable. Evidence-based multisensory instruction, such as outlined in the Orton-Gillingham reading program (Rose & Zirkel, 2007), generally involves the use of many different hands-on learning activities and physical objects to help students breakdown and visualize new information. Multisensory learning is not just for the early grades and reading; it's also valuable for instruction in mathematics, science, and foreign languages.
I-strengths, or interconnected reasoning, help individuals see how different ideas, objects, or experiences are alike. I-strengths help people see things, people, and events from different points of view. I-strengths are valuable in any type of creative activity, including inventing or designing a product, writing a novel, or making scientific discoveries. Teachers can foster I-strengths in students by allowing them to think from unconventional perspectives, study phenomena that combine disciplines, and exercise their creative, divergent thinking. Sandra Kaplan's Depth and Complexity framework, for example, may have been designed with gifted and talented students in mind, but many aspects of this interdisciplinary curricula work well with dyslexic thinkers.
N-strengths, or narrative reasoning, help individuals construct a series of mental scenes that can be used to recall the past, explain the present, or simulate a future or some other place. N-strengths can be seen in the work of Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize- winning dyslexic poets and authors like Philip Schultz and Octavia Butler, as well as in the groundbreaking films of Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton. Teachers can foster dyslexic students' N-strengths by recognizing that the challenge for many of them lies in translating the vivid stories in their heads into written words. To do this, they need time, organizational strategies that seem natural to their ways of thinking (for example, mindmapping, talking before writing, or drawing), and assistive technology like word prediction, speech-to-text, and spellcheck where needed. N-strengths can also be a helpful support for lessons that require a great deal of rote memory. In general, dyslexic students learn well with elaboration and context. Mnemonics used to help students memorize facts by rote often use colorful stories to make the information memorable.
Finally D-strengths, or dynamic reasoning, are abilities that involve seeing patterns and trends that can help make predictions about the future. D-strengths are very strong in entrepreneurs, inventors, and successful businessmen and women, and dyslexic people are prominent among successful entrepreneurs in the United States (Logan, 2009). (Dyslexic men and women helped found such famous businesses as Kinkos, Virgin America, IKEA, and The Body Shop.) Teachers can foster the D-strengths of dyslexic students by giving them opportunities to deal with complex systems that change over time. Fields like geology and paleontology are commonly associated with the use of dynamic reasoning, but social networks, complex games, and the study of history and culture also provide opportunities for students to exercise and leverage their skills in this area.
Focusing on the Dyslexic MIND strengths is not just about giving students opportunities to excel. These strengths can also be harnessed in the classroom to support students with dyslexia in areas in which they commonly struggle, such as rote memorization, reading, and writing. An MIT group recently reported on neural-adaptation differences between dyslexic and non-dyslexic subjects that could help explain why students with dyslexia struggle with conventional approaches to instruction (Perrachione et al., 2016). The findings give further weight to the argument that providing alternative modes of learning—through visualization, drawing, storytelling, and multisensory techniques—may improve dyslexic students' access to curriculum content.
By developing an awareness of dyslexic students' strengths and unique needs, teachers can make powerful changes in the course of these students' lives. Listen to this recollection of a dyslexic individual who is now an adult:
I would spend … all evening studying for a spelling test. I had a teacher who would call students up to pick up their paper starting with the lowest scores first. When my name was called out first, people would point and laugh like it was a big joke. I knew I was trying really really hard so I thought I must be a stupid kid.
He credits two high school teachers with turning him around in school:
In high school there was a revolution in my brain … I had 2 teachers, one history and the other biology—[who] TURNED ME AROUND. They told me I HAD GOOD IDEAS—I just couldn't spell them right. That was huge for me. They opened the door, I went through, and started running (Eide & Eide, 2011).
This individual, Jack Laws, went on to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, then to finish a master's degree in wildlife biology. He is the author of Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada and, more recently, Laws Guide to Drawing Birds—despite the fact that he still struggles with spelling. It's not a stretch to say that he owes his success in part to teachers who recognized his condition as a difference as opposed to an insurmountable obstacle to learning.
Dyslexic students can be found in every classroom, although many may not be formally identified as such. Teachers have tremendous potential to affect these students at a time when they are at greatest risk for low self-esteem and underachievement. As the Irish poet—and probable dyslexic—William Butler Yeats is said to have stated, "Education is not a filling of a bucket, but a lighting of a fire." By attending to dyslexic students' unique strengths as well as their challenges, teachers can light that fire in these students' lives.
Armstrong, T. (2015). The myth of the normal brain: Embracing neurodiversity. AMA Journal of Ethics, 17(4), 348.
Attree, E. A., Turner, M. J., & Cowell, N. (2009). A virtual reality test identifies the visuospatial strengths of adolescents with dyslexia. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12(2), 163–168.
Dupre, L., Gilroy, D., & Miles, T. (2008). Dyslexia at college (3rd edition). London: Routledge.
Eide, B. L., & Eide, F. F. (2011). The dyslexic advantage: Unlocking the hidden potential of the dyslexic brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.
Eide, B. L., & Eide, F. F. (2014). Unpublished clinical study.
Kirby, J., Silvestri, R., Allingham, B., Parrila, R., & Fave, L. (2008). Learning strategies and study approaches of postsecondary students with dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41(1), 85–96.
Lemon, T. I., & Shah, R. D. (2014). Dyslexia in high performers: A study across 4 degree disciplines. European Psychiatry, 29(1), 1.
Logan, J. (2009). Dyslexic entrepreneurs: The incidence; their coping strategies and their business skills. Dyslexia, 15(4), 328–346.
Morgan, P. W. (1896). A case of congenital word blindness. British Medical Journal, 2(1871), 1378.
Perrachione, T. K., Del Tufo, S. N., Winter, R., Murtagh, J., Cyr, A., Chang, P., et al. (2016). Dysfunction of rapid neural adaptation in dyslexia. Neuron, 92(6), 1383–1397.
Rae, C. (2013). Dyslexia: A difference, not a disability. Santa Barbara Independent. Retrieved from www.independent.com/news/2013/nov/20/dyslexia-difference-not-disability
Rose, T. E., & Zirkel, P. (2007). Orton-Gillingham methodology for students with reading disabilities: 30 years of case law. The Journal of Special Education, 41(3), 171–185.
Rothstein, A. (2012). Mental disorder or neurodiversity? The New Atlantis, 36, 99–115.
Schneps, M. H. (2014). The advantages of dyslexia. Scientific American. Retrieved from www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-advantages-of-dyslexia
Sideridis, G. D., Stamovlasis, D., & Antoniou, F. (2015). Reading achievement, mastery, and performance goal structures among students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 49(6), 631–643.
Vandermosten, M., Hoeft, F., & Norton, E. (2016). Integrating MRI brain imaging studies of pre-reading children with current theories of developmental dyslexia: A review and quantitative meta-analysis. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 155–161.
Venton, D. (2011). The unappreciated benefits of dyslexia. Wired. Retrieved from www.wired.com/2011/09/dyslexic-advantage
Von Károlyi, C. (2001). Visual-spatial strength in dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34(4), 380–391.
Wolff, U., & Lundberg, I. (2002). The prevalence of dyslexia among art students. Dyslexia, 8(1), 34–42.
Fernette Eide is cofounder, with her husband, Brock L. Eide, of Dyslexic Advantage, a nonprofit that promotes the positive identity, education, and achievement of people with dyslexia. She has been a consultant to the President's Council on Bioethics and a visiting lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
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