People with dyslexia have trouble reading, spelling, articulating, memorizing and retrieving words. Thanks to improvements in brain imaging, scientists are actually able to see the biological differences between dyslexic and typical readers.
But never mistake dyslexia for a lack of intelligence. Rather, these dyslexic readers can be insightful thinkers, speakers and storytellers. In typical readers, intelligence and reading seem to go hand in hand, with one bolstering the other over time. But this isn’t true for dyslexic readers. Their reading skills, or struggles, have zilch to do with how smart they are. In fact, the very definition of dyslexia reflects a disparity between intelligence and reading ability.
Most books and articles about dyslexia will offer detailed examples of what dyslexia means. They’ll offer strategies for how dyslexic readers can improve their fluency, a key component to becoming a better reader. And you should read those. But I want to suggest a twist: What if we reread what it means to be dyslexic?
After all, if our society didn’t decide that reading was of the utmost importance and instead prioritized music, logic or interdependence, then we’d have a whole different set of labels to give to kids. So what if we look at it differently? Instead of asking how a reader should fix the dyslexia, what if we asked what a reader might gain from dyslexia?
Focus. Students who learn to overcome dyslexia are forced to develop a high level of focus. They need more time and fewer distractions to make sense of the words on the page. Over time, they may very well be able to surpass their peers in their ability to focus, since they have had so much more practice.
Work ethic. Struggling readers have to work so much harder for what comes naturally to many of their peers. While this can be immensely discouraging in the moment, the perseverance and work ethic they learn as students will serve them well in the real world. They won’t give up in the face of frustration.
Listening. I recall one student I worked with as a learning specialist. As I observed him in a history class, he leaned back in his chair, not taking a single note, as though he could not care less, while his classmates scribbled furiously. Afterward, I asked him to recall for me the highlights of the lecture. Not only was he able to relay all of the key points, but he showed keen insight and understanding as he linked the ideas in surprising and fresh ways.
Intellect. Some of the smartest students I’ve ever taught struggled with reading. The frustration of dyslexic readers is that they are able to comprehend deeply sophisticated texts, even if they struggle to decode them. (This is where audio books and extra time can even the playing field.) I’m not sure that dyslexia makes you smarter, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of our brightest and most creative thinkers see the world in novel ways.
Spatial awareness. Try this: Cut out a “P” from a piece of paper. Now, flip it over. It becomes a lower-case “q.” Flip it again with the long stem up and to the right. It’s a “d.” And it is a “b” when you flip it again. How amazing is that? Not all dyslexic readers do this flipping with their letters, but some do. To be honest, I see it as a strength. How sad for the rest of us to be so tied to our two-dimensional existence that we can’t playfully spin something in space like that.
Multiple perspectives. Similarly, many who struggle with disabilities are able to see things in new and different ways. Perhaps it’s the label of outsider. Or, with dyslexic readers, perhaps it’s that same ability to flip letters taken to a more abstract place. But I’ve often found that kids who struggle with dyslexia are able to think in those new and unexpected ways that can make them great leaders, artists and team members.
Creativity and determination. I think the best way to highlight this category is to help your child find “heroes” she admires. If she’s into art, find artists who struggled with dyslexia, such as like Walt Disney, Gustave Flaubert, High Newell Jacobsen and Tommy Hilfiger. Or, perhaps she’s into sports, so learn more about Bruce Jenner, Magic Johnson or Muhammad Ali. Charles Schwab, the wildly successful banking entrepreneur, has created a whole foundation to help kids with dyslexia because he suffered so much himself as a kid.
There is a long list of creative and innovative people who overcame dyslexia. Thankfully, they didn’t let their frustrations in school or reading dictate their lifetime successes.
When kids are labeled with a disability, it’s our job as parents and teachers to help teach them ways to overcome it. But I also think a part of that process has to be about shining a light on their strengths. Goodness knows there are enough moments in a school day that blast an unwanted spotlight on their weaknesses. Getting through school can be an act of heroism for some of these kids. So celebrate the hero in your life.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.