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Know yourself! – living with dyslexia

Authors: Anne-Marie Montarnal Published:

This article was originally published in Elm's predecessor media, LLinE.The path to coping with dyslexia leads from self-awareness to self-advocacy. The author's grassroots viewpoint is inspirational for teachers working with diverse learners.

While dyslexics have difficulties in reading and writing, many are found to have better than average spatial awareness skills.

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Introduction – the many faces of dyslexia

Many definitions for the learning difficulty dyslexia exist. Many people believe that they understand the nature of dyslexia immediately, however the complexity of this learning difficulty as well as the interventions needed are difficult to describe in a few words. This is the reason why it is useful to reflect on several definitions of dyslexia :

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. “(Lyon & Shaywitz, 2003)

This definition is approved by the International Dyslexia Association and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

As a founder member of the French Dyslexia Parent Association and mother of a dyslexic son, I consider appropriate support and accommodation for the dyslexic person of utmost importance, as well as early recognition of “at risk children” and early intervention. This also means appropriate provision and training for teachers and special education teachers in the field of learning disability. The two following definitions emphasize these points.

Cook Moats insists on the fact that

Dyslexia is one kind of language-based learning problem that can fall anywhere on the spectrum of annoyance to severe limitation. It affects more than reading and is usually experienced for life. And, it responds to expert, informed instruction, the provision of which remains our greatest challenge.” (2008)

Crombie’s definition also focuses on accommodations:

Dyslexia is a difficulty with literacy which results in a person requiring a set of accommodations to be made to enable them to demonstrate their abilities. Accommodations can be defined as a set of enabling arrangements that are put in place to ensure that the dyslexic person can demonstrate their strengths and abilities and show attainment.”(in Clark, 2003)

Early support for dyslexia is crucial

If the right help is not quickly implemented,  the dyslexic pupil’s suffering arises immediately. I know this from experience with my own son:

In the first days at his first school my son became very depressed; he looked desperate when he came home from school, and during the night he had horrible nightmares, dreaming that he would be killed, getting up from his bed, crying, running away, once he was about to climb through the open window of his room to escape on the roof of our house.

Active citizenship at stake

Low self-esteem, feeling of learned helplessness, anxiety, depression, truancy, and sometimes even suicides, all these negative outcomes of dyslexia are known, as well as the difficulties that dyslexic adults experience if they failed at school or during higher education, with difficulties finding work without any qualifications, and dropping out of society.  Several studies have confirmed the high level of dyslexics in prison.
With adapted teaching, dyslexics will improve their reading and writing but they will still experience  some difficulties compared to non-dyslexics.

Therefore, it is essential that dyslexics of any age should understand their difficulties. This means that a special educational needs teacher or a psychologist should explain to them “typical dyslexia difficulties”, and help them to understand and discover their “own specific difficulties” in order to find out their own “learning style”, to improve the way to compensate their difficulties and to lead them to metacognition.

5 steps to self-awareness

Adapted teaching includes research-based explanations which have to be given to dyslexic students, of any age, in clear language which can be easily understood. Here are some key points:

1. There are many dyslexics in every country and every language.
Some languages are more difficult to read and write than others.
5 to 10 % of the population is dyslexic. This means for example over 3 million in France alone.
Quoting Michael Kalmar chairman of the EDA: there are 50 million dyslexics in Europe.
The dyslexic student has to know that he is not alone in the world!

2. Genetic factors linked to dyslexia have been known for many years, and have been confirmed by recent research.
Franck Ramus argues: “ As we are not able to change the genetic factors, so we need to adapt the environmental factors”.
Dyslexics are likely to discover dyslexic relatives in their family.

3. Functional Cerebral Imagery is becoming more and more accurate, showing parts of the brain of dyslexic people working less at phonological tasks.
This makes the neurobiological basis of dyslexia visible.

4. Descriptions of dyslexic difficulties should be explained and it must be emphasized that dyslexia does not mean a lack of intelligence. It is important to mention the difficulties to construct and to use automatically the mental lexicon, at the origin of their reading and writing problems.
Baddeley’s  working memory model is very visual and easy to understand. It can be used to illustrate the working of memory to a dyslexic person.

5. Points which are often considered as weaknesses in childhood, may become strengths! Examples include managing time, space, organization and social relationships.
The dyslexic child is typically “lost in time and space” often late, having no notion of the passing of time, sometimes getting lost in their new school, with sequencing difficulties in using time tables for example,  difficulties in learning the names of the months in the right order or in tidying up his or her room.

Dyslexic adults, however, can become very well organized, perfectly ordered, and even gifted in the field of space organization, with good spatial awareness skills, becoming excellent architects, designers and painters.
Having suffered when younger, dyslexics may often be very sensitive and able to understand the feelings of other people. Social relationships can become their strength, and they can be excellent leaders.

In sum then, knowledge and information will lead dyslexic person to self-awareness, and understanding of:


  1. The difficulties they experienced in the past,
  2. The difficulties they may still have,
  3. Their own way of learning, their learning style, leading them to “metacognition”,
  4. What they have to do to compensate and to succeed, and how they can improve learning,
  5. Being aware of their strengths and their qualities !

From self-awareness to self-advocacy

Self-awareness in the best case leads to self-advocacy, which can be vital for instance in education and in the workplace. (Lyon & Shaywitz, 2003)
When my dyslexic son was 13 years, he had a substitute teacher for a day who called him to come back to the classroom during school break, and asked him the following question:

“What are you doing in this class ?”

Without hesitating, my son began to explain the kind of difficulties that dyslexics have!

“Self-disclosure is an important consideration: How might you help a young person with dyslexia achieve this. Consider how important it might be to spend time focusing on this aspect!” says Gavin Reid (2009-2012).

Technology helps

So far I have argued that early support for dyslexia is crucial. This first step of support should be informing the dyslexic of his or her conditions and lead to self-awareness and ultimately self-advocacy. Teaching techniques should be adapted to each dyslexic learner’s individual needs.

The final important point I wish to mention is the wealth of technological help – ICT – available for the dyslexic.

Different kinds of assistive technology exist, including:

• text presentation with convenient fonts, styles, bold type, color, interline spacing,
• spelling correction applications  with word prediction,
• using graphics to present information, instead of lines of text, for example mind maps
or Conceptual Charts, which can be found by default even on many conventional computer programs,
• Text-to-Speech software for reading (TTS) can help many students read and listen at the same time, doing it more effectively and efficiently.
TTS provides a synchronized presentation of speech and text, synchronized auditory-visual representation of documents, which enables slow readers to read faster, increasing the time they can sustain attention to reading and improving also text comprehension. (Elkind & Elkind, 2007)
• Using Speech Recognition software requires some initial training but once mastered, this type of software allows the user to dictate text straight to the computer. These applications may be used by for example in the classroom to take notes, or to write a text.
• Books on Tape
• Computerised pens that scan hand-written or printed notes and transfer them onto a computer or an audio file. (live scribe pen)

Finally, back to my dyslexic son. He is now a gifted cabinetmaker with his own workshop. He constantly uses speech recognition software for his detailed estimates. That makes him really very happy.

Read more:

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Clark,K. (Ed.) (2003). Count Me In:  Responding to Dyslexia. Glasgow/Edinburgh: University of Strathclyde/SEED.

Cook Moats, L., Ed.D. Demystifying the “D” word : Why and how the term Dyslexia should be used. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Volume 34, N°1, Winter Edition , 2008, 7-8

Elkind K., Elkind J. (2007). “Text-to-Speech Software for Reading” IDA Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Vol.33,N°3, Summer Edition.

Lyon, G.R. Shaywitz, S.E., & Shaywitz, B.A. (2003). A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 1-14

Reid, G. (2009-2012).DYSLEXIA, a Practioner’s Handbook – fourth Edition 2009- 2012  pp. 26-27.



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Anne-Marie Montarnal Dr Anne-Marie Montarnal is a retired ophtalmologist. She has been involved in the association Parents of Dyslexic children for more than 30 years, belonging to the founder members of the EDA European Dyslexia Association. She has published three books on the subject : Le tiroir coincé ou comment expliquer la dyslexie aux enfants [The twisted drawer or How can dyslexia be explained to children] ; Mon enfant est dyslexique, concrètement que faire ? [My child is dyslexic, what can I do concretely ?] Adultes dyslexiques, des explication, des solutions. [Dyslexic adults, explainations, solutions] French Publisher : "Tom Pousse" Contact: Show all articles by Anne-Marie Montarnal
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