What I Learned from Dyslexia

If I had been born a little bit later, I might actually be a neuroscientist instead of a learning consultant. But as Neil deGrasse Tyson has often pointed out, bright girls in the 1960s and 1970s were primarily encouraged to become nurses or teachers. I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to blood, so I believed from the age of 12 that I would become a teacher. I had another powerful motivation for becoming a teacher, though, a far more personal one. I wanted to help other kids who struggled the way I struggled in the early grades.

At the age of six, while the rest of my class was successfully reading about John and Jane and their dog Spot, I couldn’t make sense of the printed words on the page. I was apparently pretty good at memorization, though, so my teacher didn’t immediately recognize that I wasn’t really reading “See Spot. See Spot run. Run Spot, run.” But as the rest of the class advanced to slightly more complex stories, I couldn’t keep up. My printing was horrible and slanted backwards. I often got simple math problems wrong and was a terrible speller. My second grade teacher recommended that I be placed in the “slow” class. Thank goodness my parents knew better.

My father was a self-taught engineer and my mother an avid reader. At an early age, dad started challenging me and my five siblings with logic and math problems that were used to hire engineers for his telephony consulting firm. My parents knew that I might be a little bit of a day dreamer and I liked to play “make believe” a lot, but I was anything but “slow.” So they met with the dear Sisters of St. Agnes who ran my school while I waited outside, probably immersed in one of my favorite fantasy worlds. The only thing I can remember about that hour was hearing my father’s voice through the door. “My daughter is not stupid.” I am not stupid. That line inspired, empowered and challenged me. I clung to it through all my challenges ahead and I became determined to prove to my father that I was as bright and capable as he believed me to be.

We didn’t know it then, but I’m dyslexic. We’ll talk about this and other “neuro atypical” ways of learning a bit later. Dyslexia and other, often related learning disabilities such as dysgraphia and dyscalculia weren’t on anyone’s radar when I was in second grade. So my family learned by trial and error what worked for me. My siblings took turns helping me with my homework. I loved reading to my youngest sister, because her books were easy for me to read and gave me confidence. Helping her learn to read was also helping me and I think I knew that instinctively. My mother spent hours teaching me to tie my shoes – something I still do a little differently than everyone else. By fourth grade, I had become an almost obsessive note-taker. I would re-write and refine my notes multiple times, before putting questions about the content on flash cards and practicing for tests. I used my penchant for imagination to pretend I was being asked questions and I answered them out loud until I could remember them perfectly. I loved art class, although I never managed better than a C. My drawings or paintings never looked much like what the teacher had told us to make, but I found the process of representing something with color and line liberating and often made crayon drawings or collages about things that interested me in other subjects, like history and English. I spent more time on my homework than most of my friends, but I also got better grades and genuinely enjoyed my classes. When high school algebra appeared to be almost incomprehensible to me, I asked my teacher if I could use my study hall time to take his afternoon session, so I could hear everything twice.

Today those strategies might be included in a Learning to Learn course, but back then I was just doing what I needed to do to get through grade school. It worked. I graduated at the top of my class and started studying to be a teacher.  As I look back on that experience, there were a lot of things taking place that are recognized best practices for the learning professional today.

Learning is social. Much of my learning experience was social and informal, taking place at home with my brothers and sisters, rather in the classroom.  I gravitated socially to other diligent students and we often did our homework together and just talked about what we learned in class. I guess you could say we were “nerds,” but we didn’t know it then. We were just friends with similar interests.

Learning requires multiple pathways to encode the information. Rather than focusing on a single way to learn, I used every method I could think of – listening in class, making pictures, hard writing, verbal recitation, flash cards/games, teaching others to ensure that I knew the material myself.

Learning is constructed by each learner and is therefore unique to that learner. When I found something really interesting in school, I didn’t just read the textbook. I looked for books in the library on a related topic. I drew a picture of it. I looked for connections between that subject and things in the house or in my everyday life. I even made up fantasies about it. I was Madam Curie discovering radioactivity, or Galileo’s daughter looking through is telescope at the moon. I was constructing my own understanding of each subject without realizing it on a conscious level.

Learning requires repetition. I discovered at an early age that I needed to repeat things many more times than we repeated them in class. So I repeated things out loud at home, on the bus, before I went to sleep at night, just to be sure I didn’t forget them before the test.

Learning is reinforced with reflection. As I was writing and rewriting my notes, I was reflecting on their meaning. If there was something I didn’t understand while I was reviewing my notes, I put a “Q” next to it in the margin to remind me to ask a question in class the next day. If I saw something that I found really interesting, I put an “I” for idea next to it. I still use this note-taking approach today in my journal. I’ve added one more letter – “A” for action to remind me of things I want to apply or take action on.

Visualization supports performance. I didn’t know the word “visualization” then, but I imagined my successful performance before every test or major assignment. Picturing a successful end result is something we know works for all of us.

Taking notes by hand helps you internalize and master content. If you’re not taking notes right now, do me a favor. Pick up a notebook or pad of paper and write this down – Taking notes helps you learn. Now say it out loud a few times. Keep that pen and paper handy any time you are reading or taking a course. If you are someone who loves to highlight your books, go for it; just remember that highlighting is not the same as taking a note. You still need to translate that highlighted line into something that is meaningful for you. Ask yourself why want to highlight a particular passages. That’s what you should write down in your journal or the margins of the book.

My unique brain has shaped my entire life and all the experiences that I treasure. I would never wish it away or wish to be something else, because then I would be someone else and not me. I hope you feel the same.

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