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Growing Up with Dyslexia: Additional Insight for Teachers, Parents and Students

Hello readers! As the new marketing content manager for Reading Horizons, I’ve been writing on the blog for the past few months and I know that I am just barely introducing myself—but I want to let you in on a little secret. My name is Sarah Young and I have dyslexia. My hope in writing this post is to give teachers additional insight, parents more hope, and provide students the coping skills they need not only to become successful readers but successful in all areas of life. If you find any of this information useful or inspiring, I encourage you to share it via social media or otherwise to those who may benefit from it.

My Experience with Dyslexia

Growing up with dyslexia hasn’t been easy. And just like many others with dyslexia, I also suffer from ADD (40% to be exact). Going through elementary school, middle school, high school, and even college; I had to figure out how I learned and what coping skills would work for me. If I could relive my school-aged years and have the opportunity to choose between having a “normal” brain and keeping my dyslexic brain, I would choose my dyslexic brain even with its additional challenges. Now that I understand my unique way of thinking, I’ve grown to love and really appreciate it. But if I could change one thing about my brain, it would be to increase the level of control I have over the amount of focus I can give to a given task or idea—although, I have also found ways to cope with focusing that I will share later on in this post. If I could go back and do it all over again with the coping skills I now have, I am convinced I would have had much better grades and a higher self-esteem during my developmental years.

Advantages of Dyslexia

Being dyslexic has numerous advantages that I have grown to love and appreciate. The following advantages have been especially helpful in school, life, and even in landing my dream job:

Creativity

I am very creative both artistically and in problem solving. For example: My sister wanted me to make some sort of carnival game for my niece’s first birthday party last October. She also gave a few qualifiers: (1) I needed to use cardboard boxes and existing art supplies; (2) it needed to look like Halloween meets a birthday party; (3) it needed to be colorful. These qualifiers made it seem like a recipe for disaster but I trusted that I could make something that would turn out great. It ended up being a cute ball toss game made up of, what some might call: “a pile of garbage.” Click here to see what I came up with.

Ability to Hyperfocus

Like many people with dyslexia, I love to daydream. A lot of people lose the ability to “dream” after a certain age, and even though I’m well into my 20’s, this is still a place my mind goes for refuge. In my own mind I have no limits and I feel free regardless of the day-to-day stresses of life. As I have grown in maturity I have also gained the ability to follow through with my dreams, which has blessed me with many unique life experiences.

Whether it be a specific daydream, hobby, or goal, I always need to have something to hyperfocus on. It helps me to find a sense of focus that carries on throughout all areas of my life. It becomes an anchor for the rest of my thoughts and helps me feel secure. Many people ask me why I’m so driven and it’s honestly because of my need to hyperfocus.

Curiosity

If I don’t understand the “why” behind an idea or fact, it will go in one ear and out the other: that’s just how my brain stores information. At a young age I must have intuitively understood this about myself because my favorite question to ask was always “why?” I recall many a time repeatedly asking my dad “why” after he had presented new information. Luckily, he always had an answer for me—even if it went on for quite a while, as it often did.

Good Listener

I believe that having dyslexia makes it easier for me to read people and to understand their intentions. This is something many people struggle with, which I didn’t realize until I was much older because it came so naturally to me. But as I listen to someone I am able to see the big picture and take it all in. I can listen to someone’s words while feeling with them (empathizing) while still paying close attention to their facial expressions and body positioning (gestures). I am able to “read between the lines” with little to no effort at a high level of accuracy.

Challenges of Dyslexia

Having dyslexia also has its disadvantages—or challenges to overcome. The following challenges have had the biggest impact on my grades and self-esteem as a student:

Ability to Focus

There were many times in school when the teacher would be giving instructions and I’d have to ask my neighbor to repeat them for me. It took me a LONG time to gain control over the way my brain focuses. I’d be sitting there in class trying to listen (I really wanted to listen) and my mind would drift to whatever was more interesting at the time. I could control my focus to a point but my will was often not strong enough to stay focused for a complete lecture. Only in the last 5-10 years have I figured out ways to trick my brain into focusing more fully during subjects that are less inherently interesting to me.

Test Taking

Testing was very hard because I’d have difficulty remembering the names of people and places; not to mention the sequence of events. It was a recipe for disaster because this is exactly what students get tested on! For example, my junior year in high school I took honors English because I wanted to learn more than I cared about the grade I received. We had a test pretty much every other day on the material we were supposed to have read. So I’d prepare and come to the class ready to take the test. Much to my disappointment, I’d get many of the answers wrong because the right answers were tucked away in my brain and I’d have a hard time retrieving them. When we’d go over the answers together as a class I’d instantly recognize the right answers once someone repeated them out loud and even remember the passages where I read the information in the first place. It was very frustrating to know that I knew the right answers but would still get them wrong anyway.

Organization

As a young child I was extremely disorganized! My room was always a mess and I had difficulty keeping track of time and school assignments. I would dread report cards coming in the mail because I knew that I’d get in trouble. In elementary school I pretty much got all C’s because I just couldn’t stay on top of everything. Every task, whether it was from a parent or a teacher, seemed entirely overwhelming to me. Looking back on it now, I recognize that there was a high level of anxiety because my brain processed tasks in terms of the big picture. I had a difficult time breaking these tasks into bite-sized chunks appropriate for a small child to accomplish.

Reading

I feel like English is my second language even though I don’t speak/read anything else. I guess my first language is interpreting pictures and emotions. As an early reader, it took me a long time to branch out away from picture books. I was afraid that without the pictures my comprehension would suffer and that reading would be pointless and boring.

When I read, I generally don’t really read the words in their entirety. I see the word more like a picture. I see the first few letters and the last few, and depending on the length of the word and the context, I know what the word is. It is difficult for me when I come across words that I’ve never read before, even if they are part of my spoken vocabulary.

My sweet parents—through no fault of their own, thought it was a good idea for me if we all took turns reading the Bible out loud as a family. At school I had no problems reading out loud in front of a class because I was not really reading, although I knew what the words were and could repeat the words on the page. But when we had to read the Bible at home, it was a struggle. I didn’t really know how to read because I was not taught how to read phonetically in school. I had tremendous difficulty sounding out the words in Old English because they were so unfamiliar to me. It was highly embarrassing and took a toll on my self-esteem.

Spelling

To this day I still struggle with spelling. To put a positive spin on things, I like to think of myself as a “creative” speller. On weekly spelling tests in grade school my average grade was a 7 out of 10 or below. Granted, I didn’t really study other than by doing the required spelling homework. The one time I did get 10 out of 10, my teacher really put me under her wing and helped me study. I guess that before then I figured I was just not smart enough to get 100% so why even try. Although I never studied again in elementary school for a spelling test, this teacher did do something very important for my self-esteem. I finally realized that if I applied myself I could be successful.

Coping Skills

The following are just a few coping strategies that I’ve found work for me. They make for a good starting point to find strategies that will work for you or your student.

1. Understand that the only person you can compare yourself with is you.

Don’t compare yourself with other people. Just because someone else got an A while you got a B does not make them “better” than you. Instead compare that B with your previous score of a B- and realize that as long as your grade is improving, it’s a success!

2. Realize that you might need additional time.

Realize that people with dyslexia sometimes need more time to digest and process information. With each assignment have your end goal in mind: is it to understand a concept more in-depth or to practice critical thinking skills? As you allow yourself to take your time you’ll end up with a better grasp of the material because, as a student with dyslexia, you’ll be able to see concepts from multiple angles at the same time.

3. It’s okay to have a different way of completing assignments.

I wasn’t always a decent writer. In fact, I used to hate it! I had so many thoughts and I couldn’t figure out how to organize them in a way I was happy with. I also felt constricted by starting at the beginning of a paper (the introduction) because that’s just not the way I think. Since then, I have learned that sometimes I just need to sit down for an hour or so to organize my ideas before writing. I’ve learned that it’s okay to start in the middle of a paper and organize it later.

4. Understand that grades don’t necessarily reflect how much you know or how smart you are.

Do not allow your grades to put a label on you. Give yourself a minimum grade expectation (i.e. nothing lower than a B) but have your main goal be to learn. You’ll end up getting more out of your education and let go of some of your anxiety and insecurities.

5. Take advantage of high focus intervals.

I know that I have a higher quality of focus in the early morning hours. When I had a paper due in college, rather than staying up late to finish, I’d wake up super early in the morning to finish up. I also learned to take an assignment with me wherever I went. Rather than waiting around, I could pull out an assignment and work on it then. If you’re in the “zone,” take advantage of it and keep working—power through.

6. Chew gum to regain focus.

This trick has helped me so much! If I’m in the zone and I get distracted, chewing gum is a great way to re-set and continue working, especially when I’m writing.

7. Find a quiet place to do homework.

It sounds so simple, but having a quiet place to work makes all the difference. To this day I still need a quiet place so I can concentrate even in my work environment. It also helps to have consistency in where you do your homework. That way anxiety goes down because you know where everything is and don’t have to reorient yourself to a new environment.

8. Make it your goal to find out the “why.”

When learning new information in school, especially in college, I’d have to trick my brain into thinking that something was interesting in order to absorb that information. I would think to myself: “Someone at some point in time thought this was interesting/useful and I am bound and determined to find out what/why that is.” Once I found out the “why” it made it much easier to stay on task for longer periods of time and gain a more in-depth knowledge of the subject matter.

9. Stop taking notes on every detail.

People with dyslexia have a hard time filtering information, especially when it comes to taking notes. In high school you may have to ask your teacher to put the slides online but in college I never even had to ask. I could access them whenever I needed to. I know this sounds pretty ridiculous but I first tried it out in a world music class in college, so I figured that if it didn’t work out I’d be able to catch up anyway. I stopped worrying about taking notes on every little thing and would only jot something down if I thought I needed to explore the topic on my own. I noticed amazing results! Because of the way my brain processes information, I retained most of the lectures. I could hardly believe it!

10. Use pre-tests to find out what you don’t know and study accordingly.

This was especially helpful when prepping for finals. The teacher wouldn’t tell you what would be on the final so you were pretty much expected to know everything you’d been taught throughout the semester. Often there are tests with answer banks at the end of every chapter. As you begin to understand what you don’t know, you’ll then have more focus as to where you should spend your time studying. If pre-tests aren’t available, you can always pull out your graded tests from throughout the semester and see what questions you may have missed.

11. It’s not just about how hard you study but about how “smart” you study.

Find out what format the test will be in. People with dyslexia tend to think that they have to know EVERYTHING about a subject in order to do well on a test. This can be overwhelming, which is why many students with dyslexia tend to give up and “check-out” before a test. Depending on if it’s open-ended or multiple-choice should indicate the level of mastery needed for a particular test.



12. If you don’t know the answer during a test, use logic to figure it out.

Students with dyslexia rely heavily on memorization, especially during tests. Relax. If you come to a question you don’t particularly remember reading about, use logic to answer the question. We all know people who score very well on tests and hardly have to study. They can get away with it because they’ve learned to rely on logic and we can too.

What Teachers Should Know

Students with dyslexia generally need more time to practice and digest new skills than other students. Growing up, I had to figure out what to study and what drills to do on my own. It would have been so much easier if my teachers would have given me optional drills I could do at home. What’s great about Reading Horizons is that there are practice tests built into the software so that students will know what they don’t know and are guided as far as what and how they should be studying.

Teachers should also treat dyslexic students with a fair amount of patience. Instead of being frustrated with them for their disorganization and poor time management, show them ways to improve. Give them systems they can follow so they can be successful at completing tasks and assignments.

What Parents Should Know

Be patient. For many dyslexic children any task can be overwhelming. When you want them to help out around the house, i.e. do the dishes, don’t just tell them; show them. If you can walk them through how to do a chore then they’ll be able to visualize it as a step-by-step (more manageable) process. Instead of seeing a pile of dishes as point A and clean dishes stacked nicely in the cupboards as point B, they’ll see point A as rinsing the dishes, point B as placing the dishes in the dishwasher, point C as turning the dishwasher on and then waiting for them to dry, and finally point D as stacking the dishes nicely in the cupboards. This will lower your child’s anxiety, not to mention give you a cleaner house and more peace of mind.

As parents, it can be hard to determine how many exceptions should be made for your child and for how long. It’s a very personal decision that I think needs to be made jointly between the parents, teachers, and the child in question. Personally, after reaching a certain age I chose to be treated just like everyone else. I understood that in the real world no one was going to make exceptions for me. I also accepted the fact that I probably needed to work harder than most to receive decent grades and I was okay with that. I knew I could handle it or at least I was willing to try.

My Success Story

I am where I am today because of the support of my parents, concern of my teachers, and love of my friends; and for that I say: Thank you.

As a young child I HATED school, I often faked being sick so I could stay home from school, be with my mom, and watch TV all day instead. When I was about 8 years old I was placed in a resource class for part of the school day. I HATED it. No one sat me down to tell me why I was there. I knew I had dyslexia but I didn’t know how that related to being in a special classroom. I’m embarrassed to say that, in my young mind, I labeled the other kids in the resource class as either disruptive or slow. I wish someone would have told me that there was nothing “wrong” with them and that they just learned differently. Because I was in that class I thought that I must have had something “wrong” with me too and that’s why my teacher didn’t want me in her class for the whole day. And that it would be easier onher if I wasn’t there. As a natural “people pleaser” this was very hard on my self-esteem.

By the time I was 12, I was no longer in a resource class but I did have the ability to ask for notes or extra time on an “as needed” basis. I still did not enjoy school except for the social aspect. I did, however, begin to gain confidence in my physical abilities. My mom finally agreed to put me in a gymnastics class—and I excelled. I began to compete in floor tumbling and would often get first place at local tournaments. In fact, there were only two competitions where I did not receive first place. Gymnastics came naturally for me and it felt great to finally be good at something. I figured that although my grades were mediocre at best, I must not be stupid after all because stupid people aren’t good at gymnastics.

In high school I really wanted to be a part of the cheerleading team because I thought it would be something else I could be good at. The only problem was that my grades were at a 2.4 when I needed at least a 2.5 GPA to tryout. Up until that point, my goal in school was to have no grades below a C- because then I could avoid getting in trouble with my parents. Now, I finally had a reason to try just a little harder in school. I still believed that my brain was somehow deficient but I also trusted that a jump from a 2.4 to a 2.5 GPA was something I could do.

I always knew that I wanted to go to college because it would make my parents proud. That was the extent of my motivation until at about age 16 when I realized that I might have a shot at being a cheerleader in college. That was something that if I could achieve would not only make my parents proud, but it would make me proud too. I began to hyperfocus on this goal. I would spend most of my free time in stunting or gymnastics classes and came to really excel in it. As a result of hyperfocusing on this goal, my grades also improved. I started high school with a 2.4 and graduated with a 2.8 GPA. I learned that as long as I had a goal or a dream I could hold onto, my focus in all other areas of life would improve.

I was a cheerleader at Salt Lake Community College for two years where I also had the opportunity to be the lead speaker for the “Know Greater Heroes” program there. I was able to speak in front of auditoriums full of elementary students to teach them the importance of staying away from drugs and violence. A lot of people are terrified of public speaking, but dyslexia enabled me to see an auditorium full of children (the big picture) instead of 2,000 individual students. I grew to love public speaking because it is something I can be very good at.

It wasn’t until I transferred to the University of Utah that my main goal became pursuing my education. It was a difficult transition for me because pursuing my physical talents is what carried me through school in the first place. But I knew that my program was highly competitive and that I’d really have to apply myself in order to be accepted, let alone graduate. It was possibly the most difficult thing I have ever put myself through but also one of the most rewarding.

My last year in college my self-esteem was higher than it had ever been. At least I knew I was ‘special’ in terms of creativity, presentation, and physical ability but still thought of myself as having an average or below average I.Q. I would often wish I was talented in areas that actually mattered (according to my narrow-minded point of view), I had no idea that my talents could actually transfer over into my academic and future occupational career. I was so used to fighting what appeared to be an uphill battle when it came to academia. I was used to the fact that I had to work harder than most for the same or similar grades on assignments to that of my peers.

It wasn’t until a caring teacher encouraged me to participate in a scholastic competition that my point of view changed. She told me that she thought I would be perfect for it. Luckily, my teacher was someone I regarded enough that I decided to give it a try. It was the Daniels Fund Ethics Consortium, where we split up into teams and were given an ethical business dilemma (case) and then had to present our solution to a panel of judges. To my delight, our team won! In preparation for the next phase of the competition, my team spent about 20 hours per week on the case on top of jobs and regular school work. During which time we had access to the Business School’s law professor to help us along in the process. I remember thinking: “Wow, my school values me enough to give me countless hours of access to the law professor, not to mention pay for me to fly out to Colorado! I must be smart; I must be someone ‘special.’ Again, to my delight, our team (the University of Utah) took third place out of eight schools in the regional competition!

At the end of my final semester in school I earned straight A’s (including some A-’s, but who’s counting). And I graduated from the David Eccles School of Business with a 3.2 GPA and my name engraved on a plaque hanging in the Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building for my contribution in the 2014 ethics competition. Shortly after graduation, I was hired on as the new Marketing Content Manager for Reading Horizons. I love what I do because my hard work goes towards helping people just like me who struggle(d) with reading. I appreciate my life experiences because they make me more effective in my marketing efforts. I now know that I am smart and that my unique way of processing information isn’t a disability but an asset.

Reading Horizons methodology includes a unique marking system—perfect for dyslexic learners. Find out more through the Reading Horizons Online Reading Workshop, a free resource for teachers.


Share Your Story:

What kind of coping skills help you/your students? Do you have any additional advice for parents and teachers? Share your thoughts by posting under the comments section. We’d love to hear from you!




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