Dyslexics at the back of the class should they be at the front

According to a much-publicised study by Hull University, 55% of those failing SAT tests in UK schools are dyslexic. Yet this is an entirely avoidable tragedy. Dyslexic thinkers are among the brightest in our schools; what's more, with the right approach, the dyslexic thinking style contains all the ingredients of academic success. Imagine that someone who is only familiar with PCs suddenly comes across an Apple Mac computer for the first time. The interface would look different, and most of the programmes that person had on disk wouldn't load - because they were designed for a PC. So the person takes the computer back to the shop and complains that it is broken.

That, essentially, is what we are doing with our dyslexic learners. Last summer, we conducted some in-depth research into public attitudes to dyslexia. I'm afraid to say the results were not encouraging. One of the astonishing things we discovered was that 75% of the population claim to understand little or nothing about how dyslexic people think. With dyslexic thinkers making up an estimated 10% of the population, most people have either a friend, loved-one, relative, colleague or client with dyslexia.

So why are we so in the dark about how dyslexics think? Maybe it's because we've never thought to ask them. And that is one of the problems with the current definition of dyslexia as a disability in law. Disabilities are not interesting.

The word disability suggests a fixed, unchanging problem - something broken in a person that will never change or improve. If you are a doctor and your patient has lost a leg, you aren't going to spend too long looking at why and how it was lost; you're going to arrange for a wheelchair or artificial limb. So it is that we pre-assume that our dyslexic students will never succeed academically, or be able to access reading and writing tasks with ease and enjoyment. And we give them the educational equivalent of an artificial limb - coping strategies. Coloured overlays, text-to-speech software, spell-checkers, repetitive drill-based exercises, memory devices - we excel in devising ever more support systems which we bolt onto the dyslexic person, without ever asking ourselves the question: How does this person think? And crucially: Is this person's natural thinking style an untapped learning resource? In the same way that Apple Mac computers are designed to run Apple Mac programmes, can we design a dyslexic learning programme that honours and utilises dyslexic intelligence? As a dyslexic practitioner and consultant, I get to work and speak regularly with dyslexic adults, dyslexic children and their parents.

Here's what I know: dyslexic thinkers are imaginative, intuitive and/or curious people whose main learning tool is their imagination, intuition and curiosity. Dyslexic thinkers are sometimes referred to as "visual-spatial" learners - when all the detail of a learning task is laid out in a clear way, it's as if it can be "seen" in the mind - as a whole, and in all its details. And once a person has "got the picture" in this way, the "picture" itself can be manipulated to discover new possibilities - and that is another dyslexic strength: multi-dimensional and lateral thinking ability. No wonder that dyslexic thinkers are found in abundance in professions such as graphic design, architecture and engineering.

And that, according to a recent study, if you are dyslexic you are twice as likely to own two or more successful businesses than if you are not. But here's what's interesting. If you look at the main attributes of the academically excellent - for example those who come out of university with a first-class degree rather than a 2:1 (and, for my sins, I am one of that crowd myself) - you find the same key attributes: strong imaginative and intuitive ability, heightened curiosity, ability to "see" a problem in all its detail and then manipulate it. In my own dyslexia practice, I have come across something that I call the "Simpsons Factor" with a frequency too common to be explained away as coincidence. Time and time again, I and my colleagues find ourselves working with a "Bart" - a bright dyslexic child with reading and writing difficulties - only to discover that the same child has a sibling - a "Lisa" - who excels academically. If the same family - the same gene pool - produces dyslexic thinkers alongside academically strong children time and time again, then maybe the two thinking styles have more similarities than differences? Are our scholars just the dyslexics who got lucky with their learning experiences and so kept their dyslexic strengths without ever developing a dyslexic difficulty? That's not to say that every dyslexic thinker is a natural academic scholar, or would wish to take their versatile talents in such a direction.

But the elephant in the room is that as educators we have labelled a rich thinking style as a disability. And in doing so, we have disabled not only our dyslexic learners, but the teaching profession itself, which for generations has been blocked from truly engaging with the dyslexic thinking style - because they didn't know that it was a thinking style. Interestingly, some recent studies suggest that, when teaching methods are developed with the dyslexic thinking style in mind, they stimulate non-dyslexic learners in new ways too. Rather than having "special needs", maybe our dyslexic thinkers are in fact the litmus test of educational planning, showing us the way to new teaching styles which will engage and excite all of our learners - together.

The Learning People offer the Davis Dyslexia Programme throughout the UK, and see dyslexia as a gift. http://www.thelearningpeople.co.uk UK residents can sign The Learning People's Downing Street petition to reclassify dyslexia as a thinking style, not a disability. Further detail at http://www.dyslexia-gift.org.uk

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