Dyslexia and Vision

I like to understand things through pictures and imagery: before the advent (some would say the tyranny) of print this was the norm, whether the pictures were described through the medium of storytelling or parables, or whether the visual form was preserved in paintings or carvings. The brain, basically, likes pictures: indeed the phrase “I see” can be synonymous with “I understand”. I watched a Billy Connolly video recently. At one point the audience were laughing uproariously at something, but not as much as Billy himself, who was doubled up with mirth. He said “Yes, you lot find that funny, but I’m getting the pictures!!”

The Climber on the Wall

One picture I use when I am talking about Dyslexia is of a climber on a wall, making his way slowly to the top. He has to concentrate on every handhold. If his attention is distracted he will fall to the bottom and have to start again. Other climbers on the same wall can be distracted, but they will keep a grip on their handholds and carry on again from where they are. They don’t have the processing and multi-tasking difficulties of the dyslexic climber, so they don’t lose their place. My wife is dyslexic: because of the way her brain is wired she has built the incredibly complex database which is the backbone of our business administration system, and she can extract from it any piece of information that a customer or the accountant might require. I feel about as familiar with the complexities of our database as I would with the cockpit of a Jumbo Jet. But I have learnt never to interrupt her while she is in the middle of a database task - even though she created it - because if I do she will have to start it again from the beginning.

"The Visual Empire"

It is now common knowledge (I certainly hope it is, as least) that the way to help our dyslexic climbers up the wall they face (and fall off regularly) in school every day is through regular and repeated multisensory reinforcement that will compensate for their processing deficits. We talk of different sensory “channels”, especially visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (often shortened to VAK). We probably tend to imagine the brain with a sort of menu, where V, A and K are choices of equal prominence. However if you look at “map” of the brain, coloured like the old political maps of the world with all the red bits that were British Empire, you will see that something like a quarter of the map would be the colour of vision and visual processing. The Visual Empire, even. Vision is actually the only set meal on the menu. In terms of size, audition is probably somewhere comparable to the sachet of ketchup. Yet some research was done not long ago across a population of school leavers in North Eastern England, who were asked a question something like “What is your predominant memory of your learning experience?” The great majority answered “Listening to the teacher talk”. Draw your own conclusions...

Children love writing in boxes

So we must do everything to teach and reinforce through the visual channel. My eldest daughter, also dyslexic, now a doctor, used to learn her A level science by drawing huge coloured mind maps all over her bedroom window, and if they weren’t big enough she used the living room patio doors. We just made sure she used dry-wipe felt tips! It worked. If a child can’t write an essay, will a cartoon or diagram help him (instead of driving you...) up the wall? The visual channel can be accessed in many ways. For example, dictation is a useful exercise for reinforcing phonics. But for a dyslexic with a phonological processing deficit it is a nightmare rooted in the very core if his problems: he can’t “see” which symbols to put with the sounds. (“What letters do I put with these sounds? Dunno! Oh no, now she’s on the next set of words. Everyone else is writing, and I’m still stuck here. Give up. Off the wall we go...”) But give that same child boxes to write in that gives him the shape of each letter and how many there are to each word, and the nightmare becomes an accessible puzzle. Children love writing in boxes. It’s a bridge from the auditory to the visual.

Crossbow Education publish a set of progressive “Box Dictations” books which take children right through the phonic progression in Box sentences. They don’t write on the paper, but in a dry-wipe pen on an acetate (or similar) which you put over the page, so they can experiment with different letter combinations until they get the right “fit”. Instead of hating dictation exercises, they look forward to them. Crossbow also does a set of “boxes fonts” for which enable you to create your own “boxes” exercises.

Getting the Picture

A completely different aspect of Dyslexia and vision is the whole problem of visual stress or Irlen syndrome. Up to 20% of the population are affected by it to a degree. Given the huge area of the brain that is connected to the visual process, this becomes less surprising.Irlen syndrome information and product details can be found elsewhere on this website.

We interpret the world primarily through what, and how, we see. We need to bear that in mind in our teaching and learning. I hope you’re getting the picture...

Bob Hext.