What Does "Dyslexia" mean?

Dyslexia is a neurological condition, meaning your brain's wired differently.  There's no cure, but don't worry, it's not a disease.  

The International Dyslexia Association's definition:

What does dyslexia mean?

Dyslexia and Intelligence

Dyslexia and intelligence have no correlation.  In other words, there's no connection between them.  Some highly intelligent folks are dyslexic; some highly intelligent folks are not dyslexic.  Some less-than-intelligent people are dyslexic, while some aren't.

Dyslexia Statistics

According to the International Dyslexia Association,

  • AD/HD (Attention Deficity/Hyperactivity Disorder) coexists in an estimated 30% of people with dyslexia (Karen E. Dakin, M.Ed., and Gerald Erenberg, M.D.).
  • Studies indicate that 2-5% of students are intellectually gifted as well as learning disabled.  Dyslexia is the most common learning disability.
  • As many as 50% of individuals with a first-degree relative with dyslexia have dyslexia (Pennington, B. F. Reading Disabilities: Genetic and Neurological Influences. Kluwer, 1991, cited by Nadine Gaab, Ph.D.).

Dyslexia in Kids

I interviewed my Mom about growing up with dyslexia.  For her, the early signs of dyslexia were writing words and number sequences backwards.   For example, instead of writing 24, she might write 42. Her 1st grade teacher taught the class to read using phonics.  This method bored her classmates, but it was perfect for her.

my Mom's high school senior photo

As a child, she began to realize there was something different about how she learned.  She understood the concepts they were learning, yet she often arrived at the wrong answer. Her teachers told her to try to be less careless, not to be so lazy.  “Somehow I knew I wasn’t stupid, though,” she said.

Her parents speculated that she had bad eyesight.  They had her vision tested, and she was given glasses.  “That was supposed to fix everything, but it didn’t,” she remembers.  Writing papers in high school, she always received A’s for content and C’s or D’s for mechanics.  When she proofread her papers before turning them in, she couldn’t see the errors.

Teens and Dyslexia

I am another dyslexia case study.  I was always a bit different from other teens.  

my 12th grade yearbook photo

Timed, five-paragraph essay tests equaled stress.  Try as I might, I could never finish an essay on time and still do my best.  It felt as if there was something wrong with me, but I didn't tell anyone.  I earned low scores on standardized essays.  They frustrated me.  I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.  

Fast forward to graduate school.  In order to earn my masters degree, I had to take a three-hour examination that was nothing but essay questions.  I was worried about finishing this exam in the time allotted.  I had heard that students with learning disabilities were allowed extra time on exams, so I decided to get tested.  My university referred me to an educational diagnostician, so I called her up and made an appointment.  She gave me several hours of assessments, one after another.  They were actually kind of fun.  Some of them were quite simple.  Only later did I find out that on one of the simplest assessments, I scored in the 3rd percentile (meaning slower than 97% of people).

A few days later, the results came in.  She diagnosed me with visual dyslexia.  The report described it as the visual cortex communicating inefficiently with the other parts of the brain.  How she could know this without taking an image of my brain confounded me, but I didn't care.  A feeling of relief overcame me.  No longer did I have an embarrassing secret.  I had a name and an explanation for the difficulty I'd experienced.

Signs and Symptoms of Dyslexia

Please note that I don't have a degree in special education.  The following signs and symptoms are how I experience dyslexia.

  • I can't write numbers or words without making a mistake.  If I'm writing with a pen, I'll scribble out the mistake.  If I'm using a pencil, I'll erase it.
  • can't solve complex math problems when there's loud background noise
  • can't hear myself think when listening to music with lyrics
  • If there's a TV or a radio on, flashing screens, a person yakking on the phone, a dog barking, or a fly buzzing around, I can't do my best work.
  • Even though I'm bilingual, I'm an utterly useless interpreter.  My short-term memory cannot hold more than a sentence at a time.  And that's just consecutive translation.  There are two types of translation: consecutive and simultaneous.  The simultaneous type (in which two people are talking at the same time), on the other hand, drives me bonkers.
  • Learning to play the piano, I struggled to learn any song that wasn't in the key of C major.  I had to grab a pencil and mark every sharp and flat on the sheet music if I wanted my finger to hit the right key.

Math and Dyslexia

What does this mean when it comes to mathematics (also known as "maths" in some English-speaking countries)?  It means that word problems can present a challenge.  It also means that we will sometimes write the numbers in the wrong order.  It means that we will sometimes make errors when doing our calculations.  For example, with the problem "4 X 4 = ____," we may answer "8" because our brain tricked us into thinking the X was a + sign.

Dyslexia Strategies

The good news is that by studying hard, reading a lot of books, magazines, or newspapers, and employing the following habits, you can overcome your dyslexia. 

I'm not an expert in learning disabilities.  Rather, these ten strategies worked for me as a student with dyslexia.  Ultimately, they helped me to pass the A.P. calculus exam with a score of 4 when I was in 12th grade.

1) Draw a picture.

With many types of math problems, drawing a picture or diagram will help you to visualize it.  This will let you see yourself think.  Consequently, the problem will be easier to solve.


2) Visualize.

For simpler problems, this works for the same reason that drawing a picture works.  If you're like me, phrases like "west of . . . " or "then turn south" confuse you.  Here's a trick.  Study a map of the country or city you live in.  Memorize which sides are north, south, east, and west.  The next time someone says, "east of the post office," picture yourself at the post office, facing north.  Then picture a map of your country or town.  You know that east is going to be to your right.

unsplash-logoHoney Yanibel Minaya Cruz

3) Take your time.

If you have an IEP, advocate for extra time as one of your accommodations.  On important tests, take that extra time if you need it.  It's your right. 

4) Remove distractions.

A quiet environment can make all the difference.  You're entitled to do your homework, study, and take tests in an atmosphere free of visual and auditory distractions.  Speak up for yourself.  Anyone who doesn't respect this need is unreasonable.  Patiently explain to your family that your dyslexia requires a quiet environment in order for you to do your best.  If it's a teacher who doesn't respect this need, go to your principal (on your own time).  If it's a parent who doesn't respect this need, go to a library or another quiet place in order to work.  If it's impossible for you to find a quiet place to work, know that you will do much better in college than in high school because you'll have more freedom.  Also, white noise or mellow instrumental music can help block out auditory distractions.  A park, library, friend's home, or coffee shop might be less distracting than your home.

5) Use lots of paper, pencils, and erasers.

You will make more errors than your classmates.  So you check your work, and you catch your errors.  No big deal.  And in the process, you learn the math better than your classmates.  It's like life -- it's not about never making mistakes; it's about using our mistakes as stepping stones to our success.

unsplash-logoFrederick Medina

6) Show your steps.

Write out all your steps for each math problem in an organized fashion.  Don't skip steps, and don't do calculations in your head -- it increases the chances that you'll make an error.

7) Practice math every day. 

If you don't have homework every day, find some math to do.  Practice skills you haven't used in a while.  Math practice is like lifting weights for your brain.

8) Double check your work.

On important tests, do each problem twice.  If possible, do the problem two different ways.  If you get two different answers, you know you made an error.  Complete the problem again until you keep getting the same answer.  There's nothing wrong with getting a problem wrong on your first try.

9) Type on a computer keyboard instead of writing with a pen and paper.

For writing, the difference between using a pen and paper and using a computer is night and day.  If you've never taken a keyboarding course, take one.  It will save you thousands of hours in the long run.  At the end of the course (assuming you followed the directions), you'll type faster than the speed of sound.  If you have an IEP, advocate for "use of a computer" as an accommodation.  Also, with a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word, you can splice and dice your sentences and change the order of your paragraphs as easily as if you were painting with acrylics.  

10) Compensate. 

Use your strengths to your advantage.  They will propel you forward even when your dyslexia pulls you back.  What are your strengths?  Here is a list of various strengths I've seen in students. 

Are you/do you have/do you . . .?

  • a critical thinker
  • a creative thinker
  • a fast learner
  • a good leader
  • a good listener
  • a lifelong learner
  • a positive attitude
  • a problem-solver
  • a team player
  • a cheerful personality
  • able to work independently
  • an enthusiastic participant
  • an original thinker
  • artistic
  • caring
  • compassionate
  • cooperative
  • kind
  • know how to follow directions
  • make people laugh
  • mature
  • organized
  • patient
  • perfect attendance
  • punctual
  • reliable
  • respectful
  • responsible
  • sincere
  • skilled at _____
  • smart
  • stand up for what’s right, even if it’s not popular
  • thoughtful
  • work hard

My mother found ways to compensate for her difficulties.  She learned to recheck her math problems by doing them backwards.  She accepted the fact that she needed to allot six hours per night to homework.  She accepted that she would never earn 100%.  She became used to being unable to finish timed tests.  She learned to compensate by focusing on the quality of what she was able to finish.  She developed a tolerance for imperfection, she says.  In my totally super unbiased opinion, my Mom's writing is perfect, and her vocabulary is astonishing.

me and my Mom near Los Angeles in the early 1980s, photographed by my Dad

Dyslexia's positive aspects

What are the positive aspects of dyslexia?

My Mom says she’s more honest than other people in being able to admit when she’s made a mistake.  She also says that dyslexia has taught her not to punish herself for being imperfect.

Since dyslexics' brains are wired differently, we will sometimes approach math problems in different ways.  Don't be afraid to try something in a way other than how your teacher or the book taught you.  Sometimes you'll be able to solve a problem that your classmates can't. 

As I mentioned above, dyslexics should slow down when working on anything but the easiest of math problems.  This slower speed forces us to learn the math better than our classmates.

Finally, it trains you to work hard. 

What difference does dyslexia make?

Writing this article gave me mixed feelings.  I'm not convinced of the validity of the concept of learning disabilities.  Sometimes, I wonder whether diagnoses of dyslexia are evidence-based.  As you read above, the definition of dyslexia is vague and subjective.  When I was tested, they didn't take an image of my brain.  I only experience 3 out of 10 of the following symptoms of dyslexia, yet I was diagnosed with it.  One of the signs of dyslexia is bad spelling, but I won my school's spelling bee when I was only in 6th grade.   Yet I was diagnosed with it. 

Fran Levin Bowman, M.Ed. & Vincent Culotta, Ph.D., Copyright 2010

There's certainly a ton of money made in the field.  

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

For most of human existence, we were hunters and gatherers.  

These Rarámuri women in northwestern Mexico were kind enough to let me photograph them weaving baskets.

Electricity, computer screens, scan-trons, and expectations that a roomful of children sit still for hours and follow the directions of one adult didn't exist.  From the perspective of physical health, sitting for hours every day damages our bodies.  One way of looking at it is that "disabilities" of the brain such as dyslexia are more like symptoms of an unnatural society.  

Another way of looking at it is that our hierarchical educational system mandates one-size-fits-all assessments.  When this approach inevitably fails some students due to the nature of human diversity, we call them learning disabled.

This probably comes from the quotation from Einstein that "If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." If you know the name of the cartoonist, please let me know so I can give them credit.

For five years, I taught in brick-and-mortar schools; for six years, I taught at an online school.  The reality is that neither model works for some kids.  Sadly, many students drop out of high school.  

A bunch of companies get rich off U.S. taxpayer dollars by "helping" schools with low standardized student test scores.   Coincidentally, these companies help fund our elected officials' campaigns.  These companies pretend to act on cutting edge research, but they just recycle the same strategies with new names. Our Department of Education gives our "low-performing" schools a never-ending process of hoops to jump through.  Half of all K-12 teachers in the USA quit the profession within their first five years.  (The other half stay because they hone a complex skill set, because they love you as if you were their own child, and because they grow a thick skin).  

If you know the name of the cartoonist, please let me know so I can give them credit.

And the cycle continues.  Needless to say, it's absurd to categorize some students as learning disabled when our educational system is so dysfunctional.  That would be like saying there's something wrong with Saturn's orbit when the solar system had no gravity. 

In the grand scheme of things, your learning disability matters very little.  In high school and college, your attitude and habits will make more of a difference than whether or not you have a documented learning disability.

When you search for a job, employers want to know you can get along with different types of people.  They want you to be a problem-solver.  They want to be able to count on you.  They want you to have a strong work ethic.  

Your town, your state, your country, and your world need you to make them better.  Your homework is to figure out how you're going to do that.