What does it mean to be dyslexic?


Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Darcy Bussell and Noel Gallagher are among the celebrity dyslexics mentioned on the website of the British Dyslexia Association.  But what does it mean to be dyslexic?  Pod Academy’s Lee Millam went to find out.

A new book, The Dyslexia Debate, says the term dyslexia is a broad and meaningless label.  The book also suggests that children are often labelled dyslexic when exhibiting a range of different reading difficulties.  One of the authors is Prof Julian Elliot from Durham University.

Julian Elliot:  One of the things that happens quite often when a youngster is struggling with their reading is that some well meaning soul will come along and say, ‘ Have you ever though that little Jimmy might be dyslexic? Perhaps you should send him off for dyslexa assessment and see whether he is.  If he is, great!’

There are all sorts of problems with that. Firstly, making a diagnosis of dyslexia is not scientific because the criteria used vary greatly from one person to another.  In other words, what one person thinks is Dyslexia, another person doesn’t.

Reading difficulties

So firstly you can’t make a decision in a clear , consistent way about whether a child is dyslexic.  Secondly, even if you do determine that a child is dyslexic, having done that there is no educational intervention or treatment which you’d do differently for that child than you would do for any other child who is struggling to learn to read.  There are some weird and whacky interventions but none of those have the support of academic scientific research.’

Lee Millam:  But having a test and a diagnosis for dyslexia can be a positive thing as we hear now from Patricia Simmonds.

Patricia Simmonds: I was diagnosed in, probably, 1997 when I went to college.  It was the first time I was diagnosed with dyslexia.

LM: How old were you at the time?

PS: I was probably 17 or 18.

LM: So you went through the whole school experience being dyslexic but not knowing it?

PS:  Yes, I did.  At primary school they didn’t give me any extra help, but they knew I had difficulties with reading and writing, so maybe the teacher might take more time working with me.  At secondary school I think they realised I wasn’t learning like the other children, I went to an all girls school, and my tutor realised I needed extra help with, again, my reading and writing.  And I believe I’d have been about 12 when I started getting extra support.  At times it would be in the classroom or I’d be taken out of the classroom and sit with a tutor and just go though some reading.

LM: So you were given extra support at school.  Did that help?

PS: Yes it did! It was still a bit difficult because I didn’t know why I needed extra help.  Nobody could explain it to me.  I knew I was struggling but it was as if I was different from the other kids in the class, because I had to be taken out of the classroom to get the extra help (which I really appreciated).

It was good to have someone who could spend one to one time with me, to go through everything, because I felt confused in the classroom when the teacher would talk about something and I’d have to sit down and present a piece of work.  And then I’d always struggle and I couldn’t quite work out why.  So  I found it helpful sitting with a tutor one to one and them going through things with me.

LM: So you were given this extra help.  How were you feeling?

PS: I was really pleased about it. I was thinking ‘fantastic, I can start to understand things or start to do the work a lot easier.  I was really grateful for the extra help, but it did make me feel outside the group.  I’d be taken out of the class for these one to one sessions, on occasion someone would sit in the room, but that was more embarrassing for me – so to be taken out of the class was helpful, but I’d miss what was going on in the class with the other students, so I felt a bit excluded.

LM: So when you were 17, at college, and you got your diagnosis  – how did it feel to finally get that diagnosis.

PS: It was a relief.  I felt as if I knew what was wrong with me, I wasn’t just the dumb girl in the class or the one that didn’t ‘get’ things or was slow.   I had a diagnosis of what, you might say, what was ‘wrong’ with me.  I started to learn how to manage it, how to cope with it.  Whilst before, I didn’t know how to manage it.

LM: What coping strategies do you use?

PS: I realised that the more I read, the easier it would be to recognise and remember words. I realised that I needed to have no distractions when I’m studying.  I grew up in a household of four other children so I needed to be in a quiet room to do any work.  I also realised I needed to give myself some time and to ask for help if I didn’t understand something.

Reading about dyslexia, having the tutor explain what it was, talking about coping strategies.  I was relieved that there is a name for whatever it is I’ve got!

Someone from Islington Education Dept came to my Mum’s house, saying maybe I had special learning difficulties and I should look at going to a special school to help with my learning.  And my mum was very upset by that, she said there was nothing wrong with me, I didn’t need to be in a special school. She had an idea of what ‘special school’ meant – a kid who lived nearby got a special bus to this school (I remember being curious about it and my mum said ‘that’s for kids with problems’). So when this woman suggested I should get on that bus my mum wasn’t happy at all!  She wanted me to continue going to a ‘normal’ secondary school.

In a way I’m glad she did that , but I’m disappointed that I didn’t get diagnosed when I was younger, it would have helped me with my exams, and understanding myself better.

LM: Now you’re working full time, how does dyslexia impact on your day to day work?

PS: I’m a counsellor, so I see clients one to one and sometimes that involves presentations, talking in a group.  I struggle with notes, I struggle with names  (even sometimes remembering my clients’ names). I’m very conscious of it.  So if I do short notes for a session I’d need to be in a quiet room, without distractions and then I can finish it in maybe half an hour.  But if I was in a room with colleagues talking amongst themselves I do struggle and sometimes then I’m not able to type what I want to say about the sessions.


Before seeing a client I look up their name – or if it is the first time seeing a client I’ll ask my colleague how to pronounce their names.

My memory isn’t too bad once I’m connected with the client, and had a few sessions – then I can often remember the client’s stories and what we’ve spoken about in the past.  But the challenge is writing down session notes.

LM: But it sounds as if you’ve found ways of coping.  Do you think dyslexia has,, or could, stop you doing anything you want to do?

PS: I don’t see dyslexia as a disability, it’s more like looking at the written word ina different way, or experiencing the world in a slightly different way.  My dyslexia means I’m a lot more creative in how I remember or how I experience things going on around me.  I sometimes use mind maps when I have to do presentations – I can remember a drawing or thing laid out in a certain way.  But it if’s just written it’s a lot more difficult for me to remember.  So if I go to places, I remember how to go back.  My mind has just learned to be  more creative, where I struggle with things like concentration, I’ve learned to manage things and cope, so I don’t think it should stop you from doing anything you want to do.


Another organisation you might be interested in is Dyslexia Action.

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