Dragonfly Teaching Rotating Header Image

What is Dyslexia? (A difference in the way the brain works)

                 What is Dyslexia?


Dyslexia is caused by differences in the way the brain works.

Differences are not unusual … people who are very musical have brains which are different to those who are tone deaf; some people pick up second languages with ease whilst others don’t; being able to draw is not an ability which comes easily to us all.

Dyslexia means ‘a difficulty with words’ which guides us in the right direction. Words are used when reading, writing and speaking but there are other points to consider:

  • Because all activities that use words are performed using a number of pathways in the brain, different brain designs will affect learning in different ways.

In the case of reading, for example, dyslexia may cause a difficulty in remembering the look of a word from one page to the next (visual memory weakness). For another learner, their dyslexia could cause a difficulty remembering letter-to-sound rules or word pronunciation (audio memory weakness).

A third learner may be able to read words, but struggles to follow the meaning of the words as they build up to form a meaningful text (this is caused by a weakness in the word-to-meaning pathways in the semantic centres). A fourth learner may have difficulties tracking words left-to-right across the page (muscular eye-tracking difficulty) which hampers their reading development.

Learner five may have difficulties in two of the areas above.

Learner six may have one large area of difficulty. Learner seven may have a little difficulty in a number of different areas. And all of these learners will have a variety of different skills that may, or may not, help them to compensate for their difficulties.

The Modalities Model highlights four key areas of difference within the brain that appear in dyslexic learning profiles.

  • audio modality weaknesses:

Difficulties identifying the details of sounds within words; difficulties screening out noise distraction; difficulties retaining material presented via listening.

  • visual modality weaknesses:

Difficulties identifying the details of shape / differences between shapes; easily distracted by visual movement / overloaded when presented with very ‘busy’ visual displays; difficulty retaining material presented via visual messages.

  • kinaesthetic weaknesses (kinaesthetic = muscles / psycho-motor skills):

Poor / weak penmanship can be due to kinaesthetic weaknesses. Copying from the board uses muscle-memory as the eye’s muscles focus on the board, then onto the page, then back to the board again. If muscle-memory is weak, the brain has to work hard to refocus the eyes each time. Speech enunciation can be affected by weak kinaesthetic skills … the brain finds it hard to recall / retain / apply the complex movements of muscles required to enunciate speech.

  • semantic weaknesses (word-meaning and word-association):

When we hear / see / think the word ‘smile’, it prompts the brain to start priming associated words linked to meaning. ‘Laugh’, ‘giggle’, ‘joke’, ‘tickle’, ‘grin’, ‘teeth’, may all be primed, preparing the listener / reader / speaker to more easily handle the topic in hand. People who have semantic priming weaknesses often struggle to recall the right words … “y’know the thing we got when we um went to that er place that, y’know, where we met that person …” It isn’t that they don’t know a word, but it talkes longer for it to rise to the surface. This also means that new words will often take longer to become embedded into the learner’s vocabulary.

One individual may have a different pattern of weaknesses and strengths to another.

Another consideration is that …

  • Reading, like any skill, must be practiced to develop and extend abilities. Success breeds success.

If you hate football, you are unlikely to reach a skillful standard of play because you just aren’t motivated enough to develop the range of skills necessary to master the game. If you find reading difficult (and all your friends are finding it easy), you soon loose interest and enthusiasm. Once struggling readers start to switch off, their reading progress will show signs of failing too.

To increase reading experience (especially when learner is reluctant to read), use different type of texts such as horoscopes, tv guide, sports pages, recipes, cereal packets and maps.

Provide access to reading by telling learner unknown words (then return to look at the spelling later on if you wish). Interrupting a reader to ‘sound-out’ or ‘break-down’ a word interrupts their focus and attention on the meaning of the text.

Reading is driven by meaning. Loose the meaning of text and you will loose the motivation, purpose and interest in reading.

Furthermore, the brain uses meaning to guess forthcoming words. (See ‘Why do some people find reading easier than others?’)

  • The nature of letters and words which make them difficult for dyslexic learners is also shared by the language of maths. Therefore, some dyslexics struggle with numeracy too.


  • For the individual child, they are often as confused, frustrated and anxious as their parents about why it is that most of their classmates find some things much easier to do than them.


The more confused and anxious they are, they less willing they are to trust, to enjoy and to apply themselves. They also soon realize the type of difficulties they have. As one child told his mum:

    ‘Don’t ask me to do my best:

    My best is in my head and I can’t get it out.’

Being dyslexic can make you feel stupid. It lowers your confidence and makes you look for ways of avoiding or hiding from uncomfortable situations. You often feel excluded and isolated. You know that adults around you are disappointed in your progress. You are disappointed too. Even when you try really hard, the skills of literacy (and sometimes numeracy) can be difficult to master.

  • However, whilst the difference in the dyslexic brain can affect the way it masters literacy skills, it can also offer positive opportunities for skills that non-dyslexic brains are less able to achieve with such ease.

Dyslexic brains tend to have very good lateral thinking abilities, creative skills and problem solving skills. They are masters in the ability ‘to see things differently.’ They are usually very empathetic – care about the feelings of animals, strangers and family members. They frequently display entrepreneurial skills from an early age (often finding ways to make extra pocket money or devising fund-raising ideas for good causes).

Parents often report other traits in their dyslexic children: a determination to achieve something they set their hearts on, and an excellent long-term memory. (Can’t remember what instructions they were given for homework, but can remember events surrounding their 4th birthday with ease.)

Returning to literacy …

  • The irregular and confusing nature of English spellings means that dyslexics, already struggling with ‘a difficulty with words’ are faced with many words that are difficult to spell.

History, fashion and invention have made English spellings a miss-mash of different letter-to-sound patterns (there and their; rode, road and rowed; through and threw) and menny wurds hav spellings which no longer match the way they are spoken.

The irregularity of English spellings (and the lack of strategies taught to help dyslexics learn them), make it even harder for them to achieve success.

Some words about speech …

  • When we speak, our mouths utter sounds which other people recognise as words. If I want a drink, I might say “A pint of beer, please,” or “Gissus a pint o’best, Charlie.” Our choice of words and the tone in which we speak all contribute to the meaning of our speech.

Because dyslexia is a ‘difficulty with words’, some dyslexics find it difficult to quickly and accurately recall and produce the word(s) they want to say.

It becomes a tip-of-the-tongue moment (um, er, y’know, the thingy …), or a mis-spoken word (‘horse’ instead of ‘house’ or ‘plate’ instead of ‘bowl’).

Speech has to be learnt by the brain, stored by the brain and then recalled by the brain as the different words are needed.

If any of these pathways is weak, the individual may have difficulties speaking fluently. Anxiety will make this worse so always give individuals time to think about things they want to talk about, and reduce anxiety by avoiding stressful events such as a sibling all ready to interrupt or a crowd of onlookers.

  • We must also recognise that dyslexia is still a topic which brings about many different definitions, attitudes and viewpoints. Even within one school you will find different views about how, why and when to support dyslexic learners.



If we wait until they are failing before putting in support and alternative teaching resources, the more work we need to do to get them back on track.


Dyslexia means ‘a difficulty with words’. These difficulties can affect the memory of spoken words (speaking and listening); the recognition of written words (reading); learning and recalling written words (spelling); transferring thoughts into a structured display of words (writing); retaining and applying mathematical symbols and terms (maths).

Confidence, motivation and success are very closely linked. Without opportunities for achievement, experience and progress, any learner will struggle to develop an interest and enjoyment in skills which are vital to their Western education and employment.

Dyslexic brains are wired differently to non-dyslexic brains. Some will be slightly different, others will be hugely different. By understanding their learning styles we can teach them in a way that they can learn.

If your child is struggling with reading, don’t make them break down and sound out words they don’t know … just tell them what the word is and move on. This keeps the brain focused on meaning and gives them access to positive and rewarding reading experiences.

You can return to the word and explore its letter-to-sound rules and riddles after the page is finished, if you wish. But keep the focus on meaning to make home-reading engaging, rewarding and a friendly shared experience.

The English language is difficult to master, so it doesn’t take much to tip a learner into failure. Good readers and spellers often fail to recognise just how irregular and confusing English can be.

There are positive attributes afforded to the dyslexic learning style. They are often good at seeing different ways of doing things, have creative skills and an understanding of other people’s emotional needs. They learn from an early age that life isn’t always as easy as some people make it appear and often develop a determination to achieve success using strategies and effort which outshines their peers.

Sally Collard DipSpLD(Hornsby)