Dyslexic Students' Guide for Academics

Tips for teachers on how to aid dyslexic students' learning

Firstly, it is important to identify the misconceptions of dyslexia and how dyslexia goes unnoticed. This will help teachers become more aware of the nature of the problem and will help in addressing and formulating teaching styles.

Common misconceptions of dyslexia

  • All people with the disability reverse letters and words.
    • This is not true and some people with dyslexia experience only mild trouble with reversal of letters and words.
  • Dyslexic people are intellectually impaired or dumb.
    • This is not true as dyslexia is a type of learning style and is independent of intellectual abilities.
    • For example, there might be non-dyslexic students with a lower IQ and who learn slower than someone with dyslexia, who notwithstanding reading or spelling troubles, might still be able to pick up new ideas and more complex concepts.
    • Therefore, often methods adopted in helping dyslexic students learn better will aid non-dyslexic students as well. This is because dyslexic students are usually more sensitive towards bad teaching styles or structures than non-dyslexic students and can help pick up on these.

Why does dyslexia go unnoticed or undiagnosed?

  • Dyslexic students who are intellectually bright often don't perform badly enough for a teacher to identify they have a learning disability. This is undesirable since it does not help dyslexic students identify how they can improve in their learning.
  • Dyslexic students who are affected to a higher degree with dyslexia are often labelled 'slow' or 'dumb' and are not encouraged to seek help or to get a diagnosis for their learning disabilities.
  • Dyslexic students often react to their learning difficulties with frustration and a lack of confidence or motivation. Therefore, teachers easily confuse attitude problems towards learning with the student having an actual disability toward learning.

How dyslexic people learn or 'not learn'

In general, dyslexic people learn best through hands-on experience, demonstrations, experimentation, observation, and visual aids.

They have poor memory for sequences, facts and information that has not been experienced.

They are visual learners and think primarily in pictures not in sound, organising information in visual form.

Linking concepts with analogies or experiences are often highly effective with dyslexic students.

Practical tips for teachers in enhancing learning experiences

There is no cure for dyslexia since it is a learning style not a disease; however Dyslexics can correct their reading problem when aided with visual or experiential methods of learning.

  • Be encouraging and reassuring.

    Students with dyslexia often have self-esteem problems and are more self-conscious then others. This is due to having constantly made 'silly' mistakes growing up for example 'silly' spelling mistakes or other small errors with pronunciation that has made them feel inferior to others.

    Most undergraduate students with dyslexia might have 'typical' questions and doubts that other non-dyslexia students have but might fail to articulate since they feel that their queries are 'dumber' or that everyone else has the material figured out but they do not due to dyslexia, which might not be the case.

    Speaking to students with dyslexia before a course has commenced might be an effective way reassure them that you will not think they are stupid or dumb if they have questions.

  • Encourage articulating of ideas aloud.

    Students with dyslexia usually have a better ability to articulate their thoughts in speech rather than on paper (although expressing their ideas in words in general can be more difficult than a non-dyslexic person). Therefore, a style of teaching which is more interactive and which encourages students to think or reason aloud might help dyslexic students find a solution or formulate an idea quicker or in a more organised fashion.

    For example, during tutoring sessions, asking dyslexic students why they decided to use a method to solve a problem or why they derived that idea or thought, and then discussing it with them and showing where the error lies in their train of thinking would be more effective than just going through / explaining the right solutions

  • Give ample notice of public speaking or being called out in class which requires thinking on their feet.

    Due to a lack of confidence and heighten manifestation of symptoms under time pressure (see 'Symptoms' below), dyslexia students can perform poorly when asked to speak in public or think on their feet. It might well be that a very intellectual dyslexic has a high ability to think on their feet, but when confronted with public speaking might lose that ability completely.

    However, this should not deter a teacher from encouraging them to articulate their ideas and in fact, encouraging public participation in class can help to give them more confidence and help them to articulate and form ideas and thoughts better.

  • Use visual learning tools.

    Students with dyslexia have arguably better peripheral vision and are more visual in learning. Therefore, tools like mind mapping, using a larger area on the board or power point to organise information, will help them learn better. For example, big picture representation of information and the course on a single page.

    Dyslexic students are usually poor at remembering lots of information or facts, and therefore the visual learning method essentially helps them to link information in a way that they can picture as making sense. Therefore, if not given information in a visual form (e.g. a teacher hands out lecture notes in dot point form or the subject material is found in a textbook), dyslexic students should be encouraged to reorganise it in a visual way so as to organise the information in a way they understand. Teachers can also encourage dyslexic students to use dual monitors to learn as it spreads information across a larger area which helps with pictorial learning.

  • Be creative in teaching; make it an experience and use analogies to explain concepts.

    Students with dyslexia have excellent memory for experiences (rather than factual memory as mentioned above). Therefore linking concepts with analogies or experiences are often highly effective with dyslexic students.

    Similarly, accompanying a tutorial question with a lecture would be more effective in helping dyslexic students remember what has been taught in class. Using music, objects and gestures to explain concepts, ideas and the linking of facts can also be adopted.

Student holding sculpture
Using music, objects and gestures to explain concepts, ideas and the linking of facts can also be adopted.

Dyslexia literally means 'trouble with words'.

What is dyslexia and what causes it?

The cause of dyslexia has not been fully established, but the effect is to create neurological anomalies in the brain which bring about varying degrees of difficulty in learning when using words, and sometimes symbols. These anomalies can either be acquired (acquired dyslexia) by early ear infections which cause temporary hearing problems, or through congenital and developmental traits (developmental dyslexia).

Common understandings of dyslexia include:

  • Dyslexia literally means 'trouble with words'.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary defines dyslexia as a disorder involving difficulty in learning to read words, letters and other symbols.
  • International Dyslexia Association: Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Dyslexia refers to a cluster of symptoms, which result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. Dyslexia affects individuals throughout their lives; however, its impact can change at different stages in a person's life. It is referred to as a learning disability because dyslexia can make it very difficult for a student to succeed academically in the typical instructional environment, and in its more severe forms, will qualify a student for special education, special accommodations, or extra support services.
  • British dyslexia association: Dyslexia is a Specific Learning Difficulties (or SpLDs) which affects the way information is learned and processed. They are neurological (rather than psychological), usually run in families and occur independently of intelligence. They can have significant impact on education and learning and on the acquisition of literacy skills.

Dyslexia is a complex disorder, and there still much that is not understood about it. However, many researchers have attempted experiments that highlight the strengths and weakness of students with dyslexia. For example, whilst dyslexic students are often disadvantaged in reading abilities, scientists have produced a growing body of evidence that people with the condition have sharper peripheral vision than others.

Dyslexia is not limited to literary problems and can involve organisation of thought.

How can you detect someone who has dyslexia?

As mentioned above, dyslexia manifests in varying degrees of difficulty in learning with words. Therefore, dyslexia symptoms can be mild to severe and no individual will experience the same symptoms.

Often, people with dyslexia process information differently and are more visual in learning. Dyslexia is not limited to literary problems and can involve organisation of thought.

Dyslexia is often accompanied by strengths in other areas such as creative work, storytelling, sales, building and engineering.


    (It is also important to note that mistakes and symptoms increase dramatically with confusion, time pressure and emotional distress, or poor health.)
  • Difficulties with spelling, writing and reading caused by confusion with letters, numbers, words, sequences, or verbal explanations.
  • Reading or writing shows repetitions, additions, transpositions, omissions, substitutions, and reversals in letters, numbers and/or words.
  • Spells phonetically and inconsistently.
  • Initially has trouble or still has trouble with sight words (eg was, what, is, the).
  • Difficulty catching on to phonics or sounding out words. Mispronouncing words.
  • Tends to confuse words that look alike (eg was/saw, for/from, who, how, house/home).
  • Mis-reads or omits small words (for, of, with an, it) and word endings (-ing, -ed, -ly, -s).
  • Feeling or seeing non-existent movement while reading, writing, or copying. This can result in a fumbling of words (eg reading a road sign 'cross with caution' as 'caution with cross' and mixing up the progression of other phrases)
  • Seems to have difficulty with vision, yet eye exams don't reveal a problem.
  • Reads and rereads with little comprehension.
  • Developing headaches, dizziness or stomach aches after or during periods of reading.
  • Short attention span due to difficulty with focusing on words and processing information in a literary style. Seems 'hyper' or 'daydreamer'. Easily loses track of time.
  • Test well orally, but not as well in written tests. Difficulty putting thoughts into words verbally or in writing.
  • Poor short term working memory.
  • Sometimes have poor sense of direction, coordination and balance. Clumsy.

Talents and aptitudes associated with dyslexia

Whilst people with dyslexia are less incline to excel in language and linguistic fields of expertise, dyslexic people are highly creative, intuitive, and excel at three-dimensional problem solving and hands-on learning.

The discovery of such talents inevitably raises questions about whether these faculties translate into real-life skills. Although people with dyslexia are found in every profession, including law, medicine and science, observers have long noted that they populate fields like art and design in unusually high numbers.

Dyslexic people are also said to excel in visually intensive branches of science, engineering and other fields requiring a high level of spatial ability.

There is an interesting article published on 4 February 2012 in The New York Times about the upside of dyslexia. Here is an extract:

Gadi Geiger and Jerome Lettvin, cognitive scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used a mechanical shutter, called a tachistoscope, to briefly flash a row of letters extending from the center of a subject's field of vision out to its perimeter. Typical readers identified the letters in the middle of the row with greater accuracy. Those with dyslexia triumphed, however, when asked to identify letters located in the row's outer reaches.

Mr. Geiger and Mr. Lettvin's findings, which have been confirmed in several subsequent studies, provide a striking demonstration of the fact that the brain separately processes information that streams from the central and the peripheral areas of the visual field. Moreover, these capacities appear to trade off: if you're adept at focusing on details located in the center of the visual field, which is key to reading, you're likely to be less proficient at recognizing features and patterns in the broad regions of the periphery.

The opposite is also the case. People with dyslexia, who have a bias in favor of the visual periphery, can rapidly take in a scene as a whole - what researchers call absorbing the "visual gist."

Source: The Upside of Dyslexia

About this Guide

This Guide has been written by University of Melbourne students.

It is intended to provide academics with a student perspective on how their condition affects their studies at the University.

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