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What is Dyslexia?

There are many theories about what dyslexia is and a lot of people spend a lot of time arguing about who is right. Below is a comprehensive definition from the BDA (British Dyslexia Association).

Recently some researchers have proposed that dyslexia confers on its owner some interesting and unusual talents and abilities that allow them to excel, not despite of their dyslexia BUT because of it.

"Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which is neurobiological in origin and persists across the lifespan.

It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed and the automatic development of skills that are unexpected in relation to an individual’s other cognitive abilities.

These processing difficulties can undermine the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills, as well as musical notation, and have an effect on verbal communication, organisation and adaptation to change.

Their impact can be mitigated by correct teaching, strategy development and the use of information technology".

BDA, 2007

Some typical examples of areas of difficulty include:

Reading difficulties

  • Slow reading speed;
  • Inability to scan text;
  • Inaccurate reading, omission of words;
  • Loss of place when reading;
  • Difficulty in extracting the main points;
  • Perceived distortion of written words;
  • Visually irritating glare from white paper or white boards.

Writing problems

  • Spelling difficulties;
  • Confusion of small words such as with/which;
  • Omission of words;
  • Awkward handwriting, slow writing speed;
  • A marked discrepancy between verbal and written performance;
  • Verbal expression being of a higher standard;

Other difficulties

  • Numeracy - difficulty with mathematical formulae, weak computational skills;
  • Oral skills - Lack of logical structure in oral presentation, difficulties with mispronunciation and word retrieval;
  • Memory - Short-term memory may be less effective; inefficient working/short-term memory can cause problems when following instructions;
  • Concentration - High levels of distractibility; short attention span; high levels of energy needed to concentrate;
  • Organisation - Poor awareness of time; problems with time management.

Only some of these characteristics will be evident in one individual and not all people with dyslexia will display the same range of difficulties.

Recognising Dyslexia

Lecturers need to be aware of how problems may present themselves as not all students with dyslexia are identified before beginning a course of study at an institution of higher education. The following information highlights some examples of difficulties and behaviour characteristics of dyslexia, which a lecturer or tutor may be able to identify.

In the lecture

  • Oral participation of a higher standard than written work;
  • Verbal expression may be disorganised and not succinct;
  • The student has short concentration spans and appears restless;
  • The student is easily distracted and appears not to pay attention;
  • Problems with note taking;
  • Instructions are easily forgotten;
  • Low self esteem.

Written work

  • Performance in written work does not seem to reflect what the student knows or be of the same standard as their verbal expression;
  • Poor spelling, especially several spellings of one word;
  • Untidy and disorganised written work;
  • Illegible handwriting that the student also has difficulty reading;
  • Appears not to have proof read work;
  • Reversal of letters or numbers;
  • Misinterpretation of an assignment question;
  • Ideas are not fully explained and important points are missing;
  • Poor use of grammar and punctuation.

If you think a student may be dyslexic the Dyslexia & Disability Services can provide more information and advice.

Examples of Adaptations to Teaching and Learning Situations


  • Where possible, provide photocopies of lecture notes and OHTs at the beginning of the lecture. Taking notes can be difficult with a slow writing speed, weak spelling and/or poor organisational skills;
  • Present an outline of the important points and structure of the lecture. The most relevant information can be difficult to distinguish from the less relevant and providing a structure overcomes some organisational difficulties;
  • When introducing new words write them clearly and leave them visible for as long as possible. This facilitates the correct copying of words and spellings;
  • Consider allowing students to record their lectures with minidisk or tape recorders. This removes the barrier to learning caused by students with dyslexia trying to write and listen at the same time. Similarly the use of a laptop computer for note taking could be allowed.


  • Comment on errors using short sentences as opposed to single words. A single word with no explanation may have little meaning to the student with dyslexia;
  • Try to analyse mistakes and provide feedback as much as possible. Through the review of errors students can improve their skills and address problem areas;
  • Low self-esteem can be a problem for students with dyslexia, especially mature students. Try to be positive and where possible draw attention to the strengths of a piece of work.

Other areas of support

  • Give clear and implicit instructions, where written instructions are given, back them up orally;
  • A dyslexic student's verbal abilities may be of a high standard, expressing ideas fluently and comprehensively. However, reading aloud may be difficult and stressful, this should be discussed with the student;
  • Bright white paper can produce a glare for some students, if possible some handouts could be provided on off-white or coloured paper on request;
  • Assume nothing.