What do Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Antonio Gaudi have in common? Apart from being four of the most creative and inventive minds in human history they all suffered to a greater or lesser degree from some form of dyslexia. Which, according to Professor Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, is hardly surprising, as dyslexia is the most visible evidence that the brain was never wired to read. Contrary to popular belief, humans are not born already hard-wired to read and write, but each of us must learn the required codes and procedures from scratch, as structurally there is little to differentiate our brains today from those of our non-literate ancestors of 40,000years ago.
Wolf also identifies what I think is the crucial difference between the “fluent-comprehending” reader and the reader who is still securing his or her ability to decode, the crucial step from learner to mature reader, and that is the ability to decode so rapidly that the brain has time to think about incoming information. In other words, time is of the essence, even if it is only a matter of milliseconds. Many children with dyslexia literally do not have time to think in the medium of print.
Which is not to say that we should abandon all hope with struggling readers, but rather that we need to make the processes more explicit in our teaching. As Wolf says, children who are struggling to read aren’t going to be helped by a one-size-fits-all approach that is found in many schools but rather by teachers who have a toolbox of principles or strategies that they can apply with different types of children.
I will return to what I think these strategies are at another time, but for now here is a challenge which you can undertake in the privacy of your own home. If you are reading this post I assume you are an accomplished reader (naturally) but ability is all relative. Try reading the following passage aloud, pausing in the appropriate places and making sense of the passage as you think the author intended it. The extract comes from “A Visit to America” by Dylan Thomas:-
“Across the United States of America, from New York to California and back, glazed, again, for many months of the year there streams and sings for its heady supper a dazed and prejudiced procession of European lecturers, scholars, sociologists, economists, writers, authorities on this and that and even, in theory, on the United States of America. And, breathlessly between addresses and receptions, in planes and trains and boiling hotel bedroom ovens, many of these attempt to keep journals and diaries. At first, confused and shocked by shameless profusion and almost shamed by generosity, unaccustomed to such importance as they are assumed, by their hosts, to possess, and up against the barrier of a common language, they write in their note-books like demons, generalising away, on character, and culture, and the American political scene. But, towards the middle of their middle-aged whisk through middle-western clubs and universities, the fury of their writing flags; their spirits are lowered by the spirit with which they are everywhere strongly greeted and which, in ever-increasing doses, they themselves lower; and they begin to mistrust themselves, and their reputations – for they have found, too often, that an audience will receive a lantern-lecture on say, ceramics, with the same uninhibited enthusiasm that it accorded the very week before to a paper on the Modern Turkish Novel.”
I’m sure you enjoyed the flow of Thomas’s prose, but consider for a moment the extra time it took you to weigh up the possible meanings of the word “flags” which comes about two-thirds of the way through the extract. Now imagine how you would have read the extract if you had had to do that for every word. Dyslexia teaches us much about the complexities of learning to read and the adaptability of the brain if it cannot make the obvious connections.