Thursday, December 13, 2012

Understanding the Dyslexic Learner's Weaknesses

Dyslexia Awareness Hotline
Dyslexia Awareness Hotline (Photo credit: Scott M)
by Candace Mondello

Dyslexic learners, or students, have many strengths, but for some reason the focus in the classroom seems to remain attuned on their weaknesses.

Perhaps this is because dyslexic learners weaknesses frustrate educators who don't understand how to address the situation effectively.

Also, it can appear to outsiders, that dyslexic learners as a group aren't trying their best, give up too easily, don't care about academics, or even purposely sabotaging their learning.

How Can this Group Be So Misunderstood?

Let's look closely at the specific weaknesses that plague dyslexic learners and discuss why these behaviors and practices can be misunderstood by educators and frustrating to the learner.

  • Auditory Processing: The misconception is that these learners aren't listening. They tend to be the students who constantly say, "What did you say?" or "What are we supposed to do?" Although this can be aggravating when trying to motivate a classroom full of students, it's not the dyslexic learners fault. As the teacher speaks, most students process the information immediately and are already taking action before the teacher has completed the instructions. The dyslexic student is generally five words behind in short sentences, ten or more words behind in long instructions. It's not uncommon for a dyslexic learner to still be contemplating the first few words of the teacher's instructions while the rest of the class has moved on. The best way to describe it is if you're in a foreign language class and the teacher is speaking exclusively in the foreign language. If you aren't fluent, you're only catching words here and there and trying to piece together the gist of the conversation.

  • Phonemic Awareness: Related to auditory processing, some, but not all, these students have difficulty differentiating the distinct sounds made by each letter. It's not automatic for them; they need to consciously remind themselves of each sound as they go.

  • Auditory Discrimination: Also related to auditory processing, some, but not all, dyslexic learners have difficulty hearing words in sentences correctly. Think of the comedians who replace negative phrases with another phrase: For example, the person says, "Mind your business." The other character says, "What did you say?" The comedian replies, "I said, I'd do the dishes." It's very typical for dyslexic learners to mishear instructions.

  • Memorizing: Dyslexics severely struggle with all memorizing: sequences (alphabet, numbers, lists), visual memory (like the memory game), and in math, multiplication tables. These students may be able to play instruments, but they will have trouble reading music.

  • Directionality: Most people think that people with dyslexia don't know their right from their left. It may appear that way, but that's not exactly the case; it more closely relates to their inability to memorize and interpret. For example, a dyslexic will have to concentrate hard to interpret mirror images. With their letters, like b, d, p, q, they forget which way they are supposed to go in the quick decision time they have. They will SEE the b just like everyone else, but when they go to write it down, they can't remember which way the stick and the round part go. They can confuse vertically or horizontally - so a b could be written as a "d," or a "p." A "d" might be written as a "b," or a "q." The dyslexic learner is constantly making decisions based on the mirror images of the letters. Can you imagine how frustrating and confusing this can be to a child?

  • Rapid Naming: Students with dyslexia will never be quick to answer questions. The process that they brain goes through to catalogue and retrieve information prevents them from performing quickly. It's best to warn these students ahead of time that you'll be calling on them to answer a question (and be specific what the question will be so they have time to process and prepare an answer).

  • Reading and Spelling: These are classic signs of dyslexia. The student who can't read or spell no matter how much an adult works with them. It isn't necessarily the inability to read, as it is the inability to perform quickly. A dyslexic learner will substitute similar words under pressure. For example, if the word in the story is pony, but this learner isn't familiar with the word pony, he or she may substitute "horse" because it fits in the context of the story. Dyslexic learners may also substitute a word that is shaped the same as the word they are trying to figure out - for example, if the word is "trait" they may say "treat" because that is a familiar word. Dyslexic learners focus on the appearance of words - meaning the overall shape of words than the actual letters (zeroing in on the above or below the line shape).

  • Organization: Dyslexics will stand out as students who are disorganized. But it won't be in just one area of their life, it will present in many areas.

* Time: Dyslexic learners are not able to estimate the time it takes to complete a project. They are usually far behind, appear to have not planned at all, or will become so engrossed in the task that they have no concept that they've done a task for hours.

* Space: Dyslexic students are often incapable of keeping track of their possessions. They are the ones with messing lockers, binders, backpacks, bedrooms, and have pockets full of "stuff." They often lose things: keys, homework, books for class, pen or pencil, and their agenda book. It is beyond their grasp to keep track of these things.

* Planning and management: Dyslexic learners minds are working so hard on keeping up with instructions, knowing which class they are supposed to be in, or which book they are supposed to have with them. If they have to follow rotating schedules, it can put their mind in overload.

  • Written Expression: Students with dyslexias have the bleakest writing in the class. They usually use short, choppy sentences with minimal descriptors; and even that minuscule offering took them forever to put on paper. But if an educator takes the time to talk with the dyslexic learner, they'll discover that this student fully grasps the concept, has a complete, fully developed response that he or she can convey with astounding accuracy. This practice alone causes educators to assume that they students are lazy. However, most often the dyslexic learners brain is moving way faster than their hand can document. So along the way, they edit their own explanations down to the most simplistic explanation - thus the short, choppy sentences.

  • Dysgraphia (or handwriting): Dysgraphia is simply (dys - difficulty with and graphia - writing); so, difficulty with writing. Dyslexics grip pencils with a death grip, their hands hurt, educators will often see them shaking out their hand. Their writing is hardly legible - sometimes the letters are cramped way too close together, other times the letters are huge and spread far apart. They also have a tendency to write up or downhill.

With a set of weaknesses like these, it's a wonder that dyslexic learners have been able to adapt and survive in classrooms where students are pushed to perform quickly, in teams, and with increasing accuracy. It appears to the dyslexic learner that mistakes are bad, so they tend NOT to be risk-takers - opting to stay within their comfort zone. In fact, they may have learned the hard way (by being ridiculed in class) to play it safe.

If you think your child or a student in your class may be dealing with dyslexia, show them some sympathy and take steps to provide scaffolding support for them to be able to demonstrate their intelligence.

Have more questions about helping your child get the BEST education possible? If your child struggles in school - this blog is your resource for finding the answers and getting results. Candee has been an educator in the public system for a decade. She LOVES helping parents connect with their child's education. Go to her website Dyslexia Testing Online and talk with her!!

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