As a student many eons ago, my first exposure to endless strings of words and letters was the History textbook. Unlike a typical English comprehension text, which would end by the third or fifth paragraph, there was no end in sight to your typical history textbook, which rattled on and on. Flipping between pages, I quickly fell into despair, because I couldn’t comprehend what was written within. I could read every word, but I try as I could, it simply wouldn’t register. Needless to say, on my 1st graded paper, I failed. I found it impossible to digest, enormous chunks of text, let alone remember facts, names, citing dates and events.
I did not realised I might have a mild form of dyslexia.
What is Dyslexia? Dyslexia is a type of specific reading disability due to a defect in the brain’s processing of graphic symbols. It is a learning disability that alters the way the brain processes written material. It is typically characterized by difficulties in word recognition, spelling and decoding. People with dyslexia have problems with reading comprehension.
The experience I felt, affected almost 15-20% of the general population that has a specific reading disability. Reading may seem easy and automatic for people who master it without difficulty. However, reading is a complex and challenging task for the human brains, so it should be surprising, many kids, including myself had to struggle to get by. While my history grades were nothing to be proud off, I actually had to thank the very same history teacher in helping me to overcome my ‘difficulty’ in reading.
On a very typical, humid day (I reckoned the temperature probably spike 34 degrees or so), my history teacher clearly wasn’t in a mood to read from the book for the next 2 periods, so she took a tape (yes, VHS video tape), and played a documentary on World War 2. While most of my classmates took the opportunity to have a quick nap in the dimly lit classroom, my eyes opened to a whole new chapter to history 101. Although it was mostly black and white grainy videos, much like the 1930s silent movies, narrated by a heavily British accent voice, for the first time, I actually ‘like’ history, because I was fascinated, yet awe by experience of going through 6 years of the bloodiest period in human history within 45mins. I wanted more.
It was this desire to learn more through pictures, videos and any other mean, I began to appreciate the textbook. For the first time, reading the chapters on bombing campaigns and ground battles, somehow translated into parts of movie scene. I was hook to historical movies and documentaries, but more importantly, I learnt of the secret in overcoming my reading disability, and for that I had to really thank BBC and Hollywood for making great documentaries and films.
By ‘O’ levels, I scored A2 in history with very little effort (and reading)
I have discovered, if you can’t comprehend one form of learning (through reading), then try visual-aided learning, so the next time you read the text, it would make more sense. Remember, most people diagnosed with dyslexia can in fact read, but can’t comprehend what they have read.
Dealing with this learning challenge can lead to frustration and self-doubt, especially when it goes undiagnosed for a long time. I suspect the fair lot of us, who initially conked out and failed at every history quiz to graded exams, had to suffer the same kind of emotional backlash. Our parents were not keen to find out why we can’t read, because they were more concern about why we can’t pass our exams instead.
If we can identify dyslexia early, children who have it can be taught to become successful readers. Some of the most brilliant people of our generation with dyslexia include:
- Alexander Graham Bell – inventor of the telephone.
- Lewis Carroll – author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
- Richard Branson – businessman, founder of the Virgin Group, which consists of over 400 companies.
- Albert Einstein – physicist who developed the general theory of relativity.
- Leonardo da Vinci – painter, scientist and mathematician.
- Jules Verne – science-fiction author.
- Tom Cruise – actor.
- Steve Jobs – co-founder of Apple Inc.
- John Lennon – musician, one of The Beatles.
- Jay Leno – talk show host and comedian.
- Jamie Oliver – celebrity chef.
- Kanu Reeves – actor.
- David Rockefeller – businessman and philanthropist.
- Steven Spielberg – film director.
Reading and Dyslexia
Most children begin learning to read by learning how speech sounds make up words (phonemic awareness) and then connecting those sounds to alphabet letters (phonics). By learning how to blend those sounds into words, they can instantly recognise words that the child is familiar with.
The typical reader will gradually learn to read words in an ‘automatic’ manner, so that the mental process focuses on comprehending and memorizing what they have read, which is the really difficult part face by a percentage of children around the world. Children with dyslexia have trouble with processing information especially in the language regions of the brain. For this reason, reading doesn’t become automatic and remains slow and labored. When a child struggles with these beginning steps in reading, comprehension is bound to suffer and frustration is likely to follow.
- Continued neglect – Ultimately reinforces the following emotions I felt in my struggle to comprehend the words and lines on my history book.
- Frustration – The child, despite having normal intelligence and receiving proper teaching and parental support, has difficulty learning to read
- Late development – The ability to crawl, walk, talk or ride a bicycle was much later, compared to other child with normal intelligence.
- Speech – Apart from being slow to learn to speak, the child commonly mispronounces words, finds rhyming extremely challenging, and cannot distinguish between different word sounds.
- Slow at learning – At school the child takes much longer than the other children to learn the letters of the alphabet and how they are pronounced.
- Coordination – The child may seem clumsier than his or her peers.
- Left and right – The child commonly gets “left” and “right” mixed up.
- Reversal – Numbers and letters may be reversed without realizing.
Fortunately, with proper assistance and help, most children with dyslexia are able to learn to read and develop strategies that allow them to stay in the regular classroom. While I did not benefit from being clinically diagnosed with dyslexia, I was one of the lucky few, who by sheer stroke of luck, self-discovered my hidden talent to absorb through visual learning.
In Singapore, the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) is guided in its definition of Dyslexia by the Ministry of Education, Singapore in their November 2011 publication “Professional Practice Guidelines for the Psychoeducational Assessment and Placement of Students with Special Educational Needs”. For more information and help with Dyslexia, visit their website at www.das.org.sg
Success Beyond Dyslexia
Dyslexia doesn’t have to be a hurdle to success. It doesn’t mean that you or your child’s teachers should lower your expectations for the child. If you think your child might have dyslexia, talk with your doctor, your child’s teacher, or a reading specialist. The sooner a reading problem is addressed, the sooner your child can get the proper help.