Saturday, 9 May 2015

GETTING IT WRITE - a note on dyslexia

Now here’s a funny thing: a woman admiring her friend’s newly decorated sitting room, exclaims, “I do like a dildo!” as she pats the dado rail.

A proud parent at a Parents’ Evening, says to the music teacher, “So you’re saying my lad’s a progedy?”

A woman walks into a cafe with her family and says blithely, “We’d like a table for three, please.”
“Three?” the waitress queries, looking over the woman’s shoulder to her family beyond.
“Yes, three,” the woman states firmly, then turns around at a muffled exclamation from her husband. “Ah, table for four,” she corrects herself, colouring.

To a greater or lesser extent we’ve all done it - put our feet in our mouths and come out the colour of plums. It took years for me to pronounce, anemone. We used to leave the car in the par cark, and as for the villages of  Wateringbury and Shilvinghampton, well, you could just forget me trying to pronounce those.

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As exams begin all over the country, there will be countless students sweating it out. It’s a testing enough time without any additional stress. My younger daughter recently sat her International Baccalaureate exam in Latin. She’s dyslexic and one of her main difficulties is maintaining concentration over a sustained period. Another, and common to most dyslexics, is her poor short term and working memory. So, when faced with Ovid’s: ‘prima dedit leges’, ('she first gave them laws') she translated it as: ‘she first gave them beans.’ As you do. At least the examiner can have a good laugh.
But there’s more to being dyslexic than these amusing little faux pas or difficulties with reading and spelling, as many adult writers know only too well. 

Our older daughter is also dyslexic. She has to work continuously if she has any hope of keeping up with her peers at uni. For her, spelling is not much of an issue, but speed of processing is.  Not only does she take longer to write an essay, for example, but tutorials, social gatherings - in fact anything that requires rapid processing skills - exhausts her. Imagine holding a conversation with somebody speaking Dutch. You hear all the words and you understand a fair few of them, but retrieving the complete meaning of those words, accessing information and then formulating a coherent reply in a matter of seconds (think how rapidly we speak to one another) takes an enormous amount of concentration. I’ve heard many versions of, ‘speak up’ or ‘spit it out’ said to students and adults for whom coherent speaking is a daily battle.  

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For dyslexic writers, the issues go beyond the obvious ones of spelling and reading. In fact, for many dyslexics, accurate reading doesn’t pose the primary difficulty.  It’s in those more subtle aspects, which used to be called high-functioning dyslexia, that the problems arise. Here are a few - note they are commonly interrelated:

  • Rapid word finding (verbally and on paper) leads to semantic errors, long-winded (going about the houses) answers, lack of precision, and is time-consuming and tiring for the individual. Difficulties can also lead to fumbling words, leaving someone feeling incompetent and foolish. Related to working memory, below.
  • Grammatical errors (there house; accept/except; affect/effect; who’s/whose) lead to a lack of clarity and work looks poorly edited and unprofessional.
  • Short term and working memory: (“Hello, Mrs Mason! a parent calls. It’s Ms Martin, and I expected to see you an hour ago,” the less-than-impressed teacher replies.) Forgetting names and appointments and commonly accepted cultural norms (days of the week, months of the year) looks sloppy, ignorant and unprofessional. 
  • Maintaining concentration means being easily distracted by external stimuli: ‘Ooo, was that a butterfly?’  or ‘Agh! Someone’s breathing/sniffing,’  or, by internal thoughts: ‘Did I lock the door?’ 

Errors can make for a lack of confidence. It doesn’t help if people are generally unaware of the sorts of mistake a dyslexic might make and form a judgement based on that. ‘Well, you should have used a dictionary/spellcheck/diary, shouldn’t you.’ Which translates as: ‘You are either too idle, ignorant or stupid to have corrected that simple mistake.’ All fine and dandy if you realise there’s a problem in the first place. You only know what you know (and even then you might forget).

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Nobody wants to go around feeling like a numpty, nor do they want to make excuses for their mistakes. There is nothing we can do about the physical manifestation of these difficulties. Practice does NOT make perfect (try walking on that broken leg and see if it gets better), but we can go someway to ameliorate the extent to which it hampers our work (put that leg in plaster and use a pair of crutches). 

  •  Accept there is only so much you can do to help yourself and ask for help.  I didn’t realise that blonde and blond applied to the different genders (actually, I didn’t notice the difference in spelling at all) until it was pointed out to me as an adult. A non-dyslexic can normally learn a spelling by seeing it (normal visual memory).  A common feature of dyslexia is that words might not be easily assimilated and continue to be misspelled.
  • The ability to spell, understand grammatical rules and organise your work is not a measure of your intelligence or your ability to write. You might feel a) lazy b) slapdash c) unintelligent, but you’re not - you are dyslexic
  • Spellcheckers are useful to a point, but they do not pick up homonyms - words that sound the same but have different meanings - witch/which; pair/pare/pear; two/too/to. And if your spelling is bizarre (bears little relation to the word you are trying to write) or you misplace several letters (substitution or auditory sequencing or visual discrimination), spellcheck simply might not recognise them. This is where an eagle-eyed friend comes in handy. I’ve found printing my MS and reading it out aloud helps enormously.
  • Remember, there are degrees of difficulty. Just because your dyslexia isn’t as bad as someone else’s doesn’t mean yours isn’t a pain in the wotzit to you.
  • Recognise your strengths and accept your weaknesses. Ask someone you trust to help you by reading through your work. Note the word trust. There are some individuals who boost their own self-esteem by undermining yours and pointing out all your errors. This is their problem - don’t let it become yours - and find someone else to help you. There’s bound to be something you can do to help in return.
  • If you muddle your words when speaking (a difficulty in auditory processing or sequencing and often worse under pressure) and it bothers you, avoid situations where this is a problem and concentrate on something you feel good at - Twitter, blogging, small-group teaching - where you can take time to express yourself.
  • Don’t be tempted to rely on people’s general acceptance that dyslexia exists as a reason not to check, check and check again anything you post. Most people’s understanding of dyslexia is wafer thin and you’ll be surprised (and hurt) by the negative comments you get if you make errors you could have avoided. You’ll still find mistakes slipping through, but you will know that it wasn’t for your lack of trying. 
  • Make a list of things you are good at. It’s too easy to focus on the things with which you struggle - and that’s a common tendency for most people, dyslexic or not.

So, you’ve read this and you recognise yourself and are wondering whether you might be dyslexic? Check it out here Adults | Dyslexia Action or here. Definitions | British Dyslexia Association or, for a check list, try this: Dyslexia Adult Checklist

Remember, you are not a) lazy b) slapdash c) unintelligent. If in doubt, CHECK IT OUT. Get assessed. An assessment by someone qualified and experienced in assessing and diagnosing dyslexia in adults can be life-transforming. Assessment isn’t cheap, but bursaries are made available by several organisations. 

And the upside of being dyslexic? For me, it’s a tendency to forget what I’m not supposed to be able to do, so I do it anyway.  In other words, think outside the box. ❀

Writing as CF Dunn, Claire creates romantic thrillers with a historical twist, drawing on a degree in history and a career in literacy development, to write stories that touch on people’s frailty and their unexpected strengths. She believes that everyone has a story to tell, and explores how the legacy of the past has an impact on the present and inevitably shapes the future.  

With a historian husband, two creative daughters and a quirky Corgi, she divides her time between running a specialist dyslexia and autism school they founded in Kent, and writing in Cornwall.

C.F. Dunn 
Romantic thrillers ~ with a twist

Twitter: @clairefdunn


  1. Having a daughter whose self-image was transformed by finding she was dyslexic rather than stupid alerted me to the complexities of this issue many years ago. It doesn't always, sad to say,help me to be patient with my husband who tends to take rather a long time to say things! Thank you for this illuminating post.

    1. Thank you, Aggie. It's all very well me talking about this issue from a dyslexic's point of view, but it must be difficult for someone who doesn't have dyslexia to watch while we stumble our words - verbally or on paper - in much the same way that I can sympathise with someone with ME, and go some way to imagine the limitations it places, but otherwise stand by and feel rather helpless. Your non-judgemental support in terms of editing and proofreading is priceless.

    2. Er...until I send in my bill

    3. As I said, such support is priceless...

  2. Brilliant Claire, you have described our whole family to a tee! No wonder our household is chaotic! In fact I think your article ought to be handed to every teacher in our schools. It is a wonderful explanation of Dyslexia. For years I have been trying to put to paper all the quirks of a dyslexic to help others understand why children find it hard to cope with this condition in school. Also why some adults are exhausted after a day at work when they have been tested by their difficulties with short and long term memory, recall, trying to find words under pressure, maintaining concentration etc. I hope you don't mind if I share this post.

    1. Maggie, I'm so glad if you found this helpful and many thanks for sharing this post. I hope that this goes a little way to highlight some of the difficulties dyslexics face on a daily basis, but I fear that I've merely scratched the surface of a very complex issue!

  3. Had written a comment - not sure what happened to it... basically also sharing the beast, our daughter struggled all through school with no diagnosis, and the usual useless assumptions by teachers that she was a socialite who needed to get down to her (we were advised timed!) homework. Thankfully she got it sorted at the university counselling centre ... we have dyslexia on both sides of the family, many ages and experiences ... Has anyone else observed how there are also dyslexic skills (or well developed other sides) - for e.g. good at maths, and various instinctive qualities?

  4. Oh, btw, we didn't KNOW we had all this dyslexia when daughter was at school - we only knew of one pair of second cousins ... since when it has all come together with sharing our, our siblings, and our children's, educational experiences ...

    1. Many dyslexics do have alternative strengths, although maths is definitely not one of mine! I sometimes wonder whether children have to survive school so that they can discover the things at which they excel, since the school curriculum often emphasises those things at which they struggle.

  5. Oh, btw, we didn't KNOW we had all this dyslexia when daughter was at school - we only knew of one pair of second cousins ... since when it has all come together with sharing our, our siblings, and our children's, educational experiences ...