Writing With Dyslexia

by Miriam Darnell
Please read our article about reading with dyslexia

Dyslexics aren't impaired, they're special, unique, visionary. Their brains simply learn in a different way. What most people think of when they hear the word "dyslexia" is a reading disability. They think of backwards words and transposed letters. What so few understand about dyslexia is that it affects writing every bit as much as reading. The newest term for written dyslexia is dysgraphia - meaning difficulty with writing. Dyslexia also affects a person's ability to sequence, as is required for math and spelling, as well as their lifestyle in general, and the way they perceive the world.

In order to help children with dysgraphia, it is important to first understand the nature of dyslexia. According to Ronald D. Davis' The Gift of Dyslexia, this condition is not a disorder but rather a unique formation of the brain that causes a person to see the world in three dimensions rather than two.

For instance, imagine a book or any other three-dimensional object within your view. If you turn that object upside down, is it still a book? If you turn it on its side, is it still a book? Yes, because that object exists in three dimensions.

However, numbers and letters on paper are two-dimensional, so if you rotate them, they change their identity. A "p" becomes a "q," a "b" becomes a "d," an "m" becomes a "w" if you turn them upside down or side ways. To a dyslexic mind, this is highly confusing and frustrating.

The gift of dyslexia is being able to see the whole picture at once.

It's being able to make huge intuitive and creative leaps in thinking that lead a person to the problem's answer without having to take all the usual steps to get there. It's having the unique perspective to see all possibilities from all angles. It's being completely confounded by the small, mundane, rote, basic forms of learning, yet able to master the advanced, abstract concepts meant for older, more experienced students without even trying.

A dyslexic child who can't add two numbers together without a calculator, might be able to easily grasp physics.

Maybe he can't spell a four-letter word correctly, but the words that he uses in his daily language are quite advanced for his age. If able to dictate, this child might be the most poetic and verbally gifted child in school.

The world is a very exciting, colorful, multi-dimensional place for a dyslexic, until she is forced to decode or write a bunch of two-dimensional symbols on a two-dimensional surface.

In addition, dyslexia extends far beyond the classroom. Adults with dyslexia, like Shannon and myself, will tell you that this special structuring of the brain dictates exactly how you go about cleaning your home, how you remember directions to a friend's house, how you shop for groceries, even how you relate to the people around you. See examples below.

The most common difficulty that comes with dyslexia is the inability to, or difficulty with, a concept called sequencing, the step-by-step way in which most people solve problems and organize their lives.

Since dyslexia enables a person to see the whole picture at once, all the little details that help to form that picture get lost. All the steps that go into solving the problem are superseded by the need to have a whole perspective solution. In other words, puzzles are difficult while mazes are easy; algebra and chemistry are confounding while geometry and physics are second nature; spelling is a nightmare, but imagination and verbalization are plentiful.

Small details are easy to miss or forget, so when cleaning or forced to organize something, we tend to gather everything from the edges first and shove it all into one pile in the middle of the floor. Too many scattered things to look at on the fringe is visually overwhelming, and the lack of sequencing ability can cause the mind to shut down until everything is gathered into one place, to form a cohesive picture. Then sorting can begin.

To a dyslexic, the world is a series of pictures, images and ideas, not a bunch of steps that lead from one point to the next.

Dyslexics tend to have a great sense of humor and a love of fantasy/science fiction/imaginary worlds. They make wonderful artists, architects, computer programmers (funny enough, even though this requires a lot of sequencing), movie-makers, writers, politicians, doctors, photographers, craftsmen, scientists, psychologists, counselors, musicians, athletes, and teachers. Of course, dyslexics can do any job they put their minds to, just like anyone else, but they tend to have a special talent in the above career choices.

Anyone can learn to sequence well. For the dyslexic, it just comes a whole lot harder and slower. There are lots of books written about how to help a dyslexic child learn to read. I personally use comic books with my dyslexic readers. For more information on how the comic book reading system works, read: Reading With Dyslexia.

If your goal is to help a dysgraphic child with writing, here are some good tips:

  1. Make sure the child is very emotionally engaged in what he is writing. Always work from a place of strong interest. The story he's writing needs to form full color, moving pictures in his mind as he's creating it. It also needs to grab him emotionally. He has to care about his characters. The best way to pull the heartstrings is to put the main character through many hardships. Really beat him up. Make him think that all is hopeless, the way Harry Potter felt at the beginning of the first book in the series. Then give the character a triumph. It's the most classical way to get emotionally involved with a story. By the way, fan fiction is a great way to get started as a writer. If the child loves Harry Potter or Pokemon, let him write stories about that.

    Writing is extremely hard for the dysgraphic child. It's hard physically (fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination are most likely dysfunctional as well); it's hard organizationally (what to write first, second, third, etc.); it's hard from a perfectionist stand-point (if he's bright, there's no way he's going to be able to write on paper exactly what he sees in his mind - he doesn't have the skills yet); it's hard because it's an agonizingly slow and meticulous process - nearly impossible to sit still for if you have ADHD; and it's hard because of the three dimensional mind forcing itself to look at a two dimensional surface. Have some patience and understanding with this process. Most of these kids can tell a story just fine if you ask them to speak it aloud. It's the writing part that "hurts" (quite literally). The best place to start is to make sure he cares enough about what he's writing to make it worth the pain.

  2. Motivation is the key. Try the Legends of Druidawn system. If that's not of interest to you, find other ways to reward and motivate the child. You're about to ask her to do the hardest thing she's ever tried to do - make it rewarding!
  3. Allow the child to dictate as much as needed until he is emotionally engaged in the story and/or feels motivated enough to do some of the writing himself.
  4. Forget grammar and spelling in the first draft, and for a younger child, forget it altogether, unless you go over the editing with her. You can make the corrections while she watches and learns. Grammar and spelling should be learned as separate skills when trying to help children with dysgraphia. Focus first on the joy of creating stories or poetry that are emotionally engaging. Content first, then mechanics much later. Once the child is over the anxiety of the writing process, she'll be much more interested in fixing her story mechanically so that it's something she can be proud of. Keep in mind that many of the world's best writers are terrible with mechanics. That's what professional editors are for.
  5. Try getting the child an alphasmart or laptop computer. Teach him how to keyboard. It will take half the pressure of writing off for him to be a fast typist. Likewise, if the child learns computer programming, he will overcome his sequencing difficulties faster than you would believe. You have to sequence a whole lot in order to program a computer, and it's motivating to keep at it if the child is interested in computers.
  6. Use lots of colors and illustrations - have child search the internet for pictures that she can use as models for her main characters, settings, important objects, etc. Or she can illustrate her own work. Tape or paste the pictures onto the back of the written pages, or staple them, or keep them close by in a folder. Anytime you bring writing into pictures, you'll have the dyslexic's attention and engage her emotionally.
  7. Have the child search for appropriate music to accompany his characters and the scenes that he's writing. If he's writing about his bad guy, have him listen to some powerful bad guy songs or themes (i.e. Behind Blue Eyes by The Who, Darth Vader's Theme on the Star Wars sound tracks.). Movie soundtracks are the best place to look for mood-setting themes.
  8. Realize that if a child is tired and shut down, it's time to stop. Time to look for pictures, listen to music, take a walk outside and think about her setting, etc. It's not good to push writing when her mind is exhausted and shut down. No writer can function under these circumstances.
  9. Try partnering children up on writing projects so they can have fun with it together and feed each others' enthusiasm. They can take turns with the writing chore while they share ideas.
  10. Break large writing tasks down to smaller, easier-to-handle concepts. If a story needs to be written, start by outlining the plot in ten major plot points (see Writing Curriculum for details), or start by just creating a character for the story (see character sheet). Give the child small writing tasks that will eventually build up to the goal of creating a whole story. Remember that organizational skills are severely impaired. Things that might be obvious to you, might not be so clear to him. Even the concept that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end might not be fully understood by the child, regardless of his age.

In conclusion, remember that these children aren't impaired, they're special. They are here in this world to accomplish great things. They have some skills that you might never achieve unless you're dyslexic yourself. But they also need your help and your infinite patience so they can function in a world that requires a great deal of two-dimensional thinking.

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