Introduction to Dyslexia and Spelling

Whilst this course is not going to go in depth about dyslexia as a stand-alone subject, we do need to recap what dyslexia is and how it affects learners so we can have the empathy and understanding needed to support struggling spellers.  Additionally, if you can get spelling support right for children and adults with dyslexia, you can get spelling support right for ALL learners.

The difficulty with defining what dyslexia is arises from how complex the condition is. You could have 50 people in a room who have all been diagnosed with dyslexia and they will all have individual differences as to how their dyslexia affects them. They will all have different strengths, and they will have different ways in which their dyslexia limits them.  However, many organisations have tried to define dyslexia and to narrow the definition of it.

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

About. (2002, November 12). International Dyslexia Association.

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia. A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well-founded intervention.

In addition to these characteristics:

The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) acknowledges the visual and auditory processing difficulties that some individuals with dyslexia can experience, and points out that dyslexic readers can show a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process. Some also have strengths in other areas, such as design, problem solving, creative skills, interactive skills and oral skills.

British Dyslexia Association. (2010). What is dyslexia?

Whilst these two organisations have a very precise and useful way of defining dyslexia,  this precision has smoothed out the individual differences as we have mentioned, and also cannot encapsulate the emotional impact of what it is like to have dyslexia and be educated in our modern-day school institutions.

Let’s break these dyslexia differences down and explore them further.


Cognitive Processing: This is the term that describes what happens in our minds when we create new information. It is when we use the knowledge we already have to understand new information and when we link things together in our minds (making connections). Cognitive processes can include; attention, reasoning, perception, learning, synthesising, rearranging and manipulating stored information. It also includes our memory storage systems and thinking about how we think (metacognition). It is how the brain organises the steps and sequences of all of these actions.  Processing can be quick and unconscious, or it can be slow and deliberate.  It is all about how and what we do with the information in our minds. Cognitive processing also involves our working memory (we find out more about this later) along with what we mean by processing speeds.

Some people with dyslexia are incredibly skilled at problem-solving with sensory and visual cues from their environments. These visual and sensory cues are what we find in day to day problems. These individuals might solve problems faster, have better solutions and make connections that people without dyslexia could not make.

However, we are discussing sensory and visual cues that match how people with dyslexia predominantly think. Reading and writing (or any information on a page) is a flatter linear way of thinking that requires a systematic approach to decipher meaning. Many people with dyslexia will struggle to process and solve problems with written information.  Additionally, many people with dyslexia will find it hard to follow instructions due to the strain on the working memory and the need to keep the correct sequence of the instructions in their mind.

Literary Acquisition: This is one of the areas where many people with dyslexia struggle the most. Whether it is decoding words (the skill required for reading), or encoding (the skill required in spelling in order to build words out of letters) or the physical act of writing. However, there are differences in how dyslexic children and adults find literary acquisition; some struggle with reading and need a lot of intervention, whereas others find it easy to read but struggle to write and/or spell.

Educational Performance: Children may have extreme differences in their educational performances. They may excel in sports, theatre, arts and creative subjects, but struggle with maths, English and subjects that require more language-based processing.  They may have exceptional verbal comprehension and oral skills, thus excel at the listening and speaking part of English but then struggle with the written parts. Many people with dyslexia will struggle with the parts of any subjects that require working memory and a good processing speed. People with dyslexia may need more time to read and digest written material before they can work with it. However, a slower pace is often not possible within school life.


Emotional Responses: There will be considerable differences in how children (and later adults) emotionally feel about their learning differences. Some may feel frustrated whereas others may feel withdrawn. Some children may be able to hold within their sense of self their accomplishments and strengths, whereas others may only focus on the area they struggle with and feel hopeless. We will cover more about the emotional world later in this course.

Strengths: Recognising the strengths of students with dyslexia is not just important for their self-esteem, it’s essential for their learning. You have heard of ‘play to people’s strengths’,  this practice is essential for the children and adults we tutor. If you can tutor in such a way that is in alignment with a dyslexic students strength, you will support them to identify which strategies to use for all of their academic learning. The key is to identify where the strengths are. Is the student visual? do they see everything they think about in their mind? Does this student have the gift of understanding everything as a whole? Does this student need to see how information is related before they can remember it? We will cover more on this later.

Education and Work Context: This is also linked to strengths. Some areas of a dyslexic student’s education will highlight their dyslexic symptoms (e.g writing and spelling). On the other hand, other areas of their education will minimise it (e.g public speaking). It is the same in the workplace. Employees will thrive in some places with problem-solving and coordinating events, whereas report writing may be more difficult.

For those of you who just want to know exactly how dyslexia affects someone, the above exploration may seem a little frustrating. For others, they will see (if they don’t know already) that dyslexia is a very complex condition and everyone experiences it differently.  Even the theories as to why people get dyslexia are not agreed upon as we shall see later. One person may struggle with reading, where the other person may be fine with reading but struggle with spelling. Some dyslexic people have difficulty with organising themselves and timekeeping, others don’t seem to have this problem at all. Dyslexia is also a spectrum. Some people can have very mild symptoms, whereas others have it in a very severe way.

What Causes Dyslexia?

There has been over a hundred years of research on dyslexia. From that hundred years, there have been many competing theories and not a huge amount of agreement between any of the researchers. However, there have been some schools of thought which have become various camps within dyslexia research. We will outline some of the main ones.


There has been some research that suggests that if a parent has dyslexia there is a 40% chance that their child will have it too. When both parents have it, there is a greater chance the child will have it. Many psychologists believe that dyslexia is hereditary and it occurs in the genes of a person like eye colour, therefore it is biological.


The researchers who argue that dyslexia has a neurobiological cause have done lots of brain imaging studies and laboratory experiments that describe and show differences between a dyslexic and non-dyslexic brain.  However, these studies are quite small and they are very hard to generalise because no two brains look the same. If you were to put everyone inside a brain scanner, you would see that all our brains are different. Some brains you would expect not to work well as they would look so strange, but they would work exceptionally well. There is often difficulty with trying to find physical differences in the brain, it’s more if the brain has been scarred or damaged due to a head injury where we can pinpoint the difference, but not even that line of enquiry is as accurate as it needs to be

Timing in the brain

Fawcett and Nicolas (2008) argue that dyslexia is caused by the back of the brain not working normally. At the very back of the brain, there is a part called the cerebellum. The cerebellum plays a role in our fine motor skills and timing. We call this timing ‘procedural timing’, it’s the timing and order of how we do things. Once the timing and order of things are established, it becomes automatic. To read, write and spell children need to be automatic, which we know as ‘fluency’. When children are not fluent, they continually have to work hard at literacy tasks and it often becomes too tiring to continue for long periods of time.

Fawcett and Nicolas have found that the cerebellum, which allows things to be automatic, works differently in people’s brains if they have dyslexia. It doesn’t allow their brain to organise the timing as it needs to, so they struggle to achieve fluency when doing more than one task. Reading and writing is a very complex task that involves doing more than one thing at a time.

Differences in Brain Symmetry

There is a popular myth that we are either left-brained or right-brained. This is a very simplistic view and it is a lot more complicated than this. However, there are some differences in the way dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers’ brains light up when they are reading inside a special type of brain scanner.  Children who struggle with reading and writing were showing less activation in the part of the brain called the ‘left posterior temporal cortex‘. This part of the brain processes sound and language. This means the left hemisphere parts of the brain are not helping with the reading as much as they could. This theory aims to describe differences in the visual, auditory and perception skills needed for reading and writing that dyslexic learners struggle with.

Processing Speed 

Breznitz (2008) talks about the ‘Asynchrony Phenomenon‘, which is similar to the above theory of timing in the brain theory in the way different parts of reading and writing are activity that are processed at different times. Brenitz argues that visual processing is happening a lot faster than the decoding of words. In terms of spelling, the hand and conceptual information are working faster than the cognitive information needed to order the letters.

Phonological Processing

There is a huge agreement amongst many of the dyslexia researchers that dyslexia arises from a deficit in phonological processing. This means there is a huge difficulty between the sound to symbol association. Letters are symbols. People with dyslexia cannot hear in their mind the sound a letter (or string of letters) should make. This difficulty processing sounds can also extend to filtering sounds, so noises in the room are not able to be separated from a teacher’s voice. Without being able to filter sounds, everything is being processed at the same time. Chevin  (2019) wrote a biographically based book on the phenomenon of not being able to hear words in his head.  He was able to articulate with his adult mind how he experienced his dyslexia, which inspired a huge amount of further research into the phonological processing deficit people with dyslexia seem to have.

Glue Ear

Peer (2006, 2015) suggests that glue ear in young children which causes some form of hearing loss under the age of two can cause a delay in the emergence and expression of language.  It is believed that the glue ear can affect phonological processing. The research diverges here, with some researchers thinking that being under the age of two means a critical window for phonological processing has passed, so the child is effectively phonologically brain damaged. The other side is that the child can still learn a ‘sound to symbol association’, but we need to teach the very basics of sounds that two-year-old children would normally have learnt before we teach any other literacy sounds.

Quick forgetters 

Dyslexic learners can often be seen to learn something quite well, but then forget it or act as if they have never learnt it in the first place. This is due to a short-term memory deficit, so they need to rely heavily on their long-term memory.  Long-term memory is more to do with semantic associations and understanding (the why of things) so fact-based and rote learning will not be retained well unless the dyslexic learner already has an intrinsic interest in the topic. There always needs to be a context to what the person is learning. Therefore, simple facts that are taken out of context will be forgotten. As we will see later, Sandman-Hurley (2019) argues that children and adults with dyslexia need to see the ‘why’ of words and the connections/history within them rather than just the sounds of words.

Adapted from Reid, G. (2009). Dyslexia: A Practitioner’s Handbook (4th ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.

Ronald Davids (2002) is a strong advocator of dyslexia being a gift. He argues knowledge of this gift because of his 30 plus years of working with and researching the minds of dyslexic learners.  Davis believes that dyslexia is a natural ability within the brain’s primary perception capabilities.

This does sound quite confusing at first, and confusing is the right word to use here, as Davis believes dyslexia arises from an enhanced ability to see things from multiple perspectives when trying to work something confusing out.  A child can unconsciously (so fast they cannot detect it ) alter images in their mind and imagine something from multiple angles (perspectives). They only trigger these multiple perspectives to try and work something out.

Davis gives the example of a kitten. A child can see a kitten and learns what this object is. Then, imagine one day a child sees just a tiny part of the kitten, let’s say it’s curled up so it looks like a fluffy ball. Davis says the child spins multiple images of the kitten from all angles until it sees the one that represents what’s being seeing in reality (the curled up kitten). Davis argues this perceptual ability to see things from multiple angles in your mind is a gift. This gift is what allows dyslexic people to see the whole picture and see things in depth. However, this ability to see things from multiple perspectives, does not help when trying to learn letters and symbols. The perceptual ability to flip things around in the mind causes chaos on the paper. In the mind’s eye, letters are backwards, upside-down and spelling is chaotic.  Due to the dyslexic learner not being able to resolve this confusion, Davis calls this chaos a ‘perceptual disorientation‘ which then brings stress on the student as they cannot stabilise the unconscious images in their mind.

Davis’ book ‘The gift of dyslexia, why some of the brightest people can’t read and how they can learn’  describes a method that Davis has devised to help stabilise a dyslexic students mind. This course is not going to cover these stabilising methods, but it is very interesting to read about, and many people have become practitioners in this field.

From Davis’ research, he describes that all dyslexic learners have 8 things in common:

  1. They can utilise the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions.
  2. They are highly aware of their environment.
  3. They are more curious than the average person.
  4. They think mainly in pictures instead of words.
  5. They are highly intuitive and perceptive.
  6. They can think and perceive multidimensionally using all the senses.
  7. They can experience thought as a reality.
  8. They have vivid imaginations.

What we are going to highlight here is thinking in pictures and not in words. This directly links to the lack of phonological processing above, but it offers a replacement for the sound, and that is images. Davis argues that all dyslexia learners have to think non-verbally with pictures and concepts. It’s a faster way of thinking and it is rooted in being able to see and understand something in a visual way at the same time.

This causes a problem with some of the words in the English language that do not have an easily accessible image. Words like about, also and the do not have images attached to them. If you saw the word ‘the‘ on a piece of paper, you will find it hard to imagine a picture of what that word means. These words without images are typically common frequency words.

If dyslexia learners are reading by encoding words into pictures, according to Davis,  common frequency words cause a blankness in reading or writing. This blankness then causes mental confusion which makes the dyslexia symptoms in the mind’s eye worse and the student has to overconcentrate which exhausts them quickly.  Grandin (2006) is an adult who successfully articulated what it is like to only think in pictures in her book ‘Thinking in Pictures, My Life with Autism’. This book is well worth reading to gain insight into just thinking in pictures.

It would be beneficial at this point to stop and further examine what we mean by a symbol to sound association. Reid (2009), Everatt & Denston (2020), Montgomery (2007, 2017) and Miles and Miles (1999) all describe how dyslexia is commonly viewed as a difficulty in symbol to sound associations, but what exactly is that?

The English language is a spoken language that uses 44 possible sounds. These sounds are called phonemes. For example, the ‘f” sound in fish is a phoneme, ‘Ph‘ is also an ‘f ‘ sound such as in the word photo and the ‘gh‘ sound as in enough is also an ‘f’ sound.

Look at the word phoneme, the start of the word is phon, such as in phone, phonics, phonograph. The word phon is a prefix that was an old Latin word  (came from Greek)  for sound, voice or speech. It’s the sound of our speech.

A grapheme is a word used to describe the letters that represent the sound/phoneme

So let’s take the word photo, specifically the ph part of the word. The sound  ‘f‘ is the phoneme, and the grapheme (in this example)  is made up of the letters p and h.

If we look at the start of the word grapheme,  it starts with the prefix ‘graph‘, which comes from Greek and means ‘to write’.

It is this symbol to sound recognition that dyslexic children and adults seem to struggle with, we call this phonological processing or phonological awareness.

Two schools of thought in helping dyslexia literacy problems

One: Is to go around the auditory processing difficulties, so as to not focus on phonics. This would require a return to the ‘look and say’ methods or other more visual reading and writing techniques.

Two: The other school of thought is to use dyslexia friendly phonics intervention, which increases phonological awareness and fluency.

This course is not arguing one is better than the other as that is an argument that causes a split in how dyslexia is supported, which is not helpful. Instead, educators should focus on being able to use both methods with the same skill.

Some children need to learn visually based ways of spelling to build a bank of words and, once that literacy confidence is switched on, can go back over the phonics and add that knowledge in and build greater fluency with unseen words.

Other students respond well to dyslexia-friendly phonics tuition and really progress with it. For them, other visual techniques would have got in the way of learning.

However, there are other students who, no matter how dyslexia-friendly you make the phonic learning, will not gain fluency with it and will fail to read and or write. Morgan and Klein (2001) use adult learners as a guide for how children respond to normal phonic tuition. Adults are able to articulate what children can’t, they have more life experience and have more capacity to say what works for them and what doesn’t.  Morgan and Klein have interviewed adults and found they get bored quickly and drop out of any literacy classes that involve phonics but will stay and progress with more visual and meaningful spelling instruction.  Additionally, the use of any worksheets failed to interest any of the adults.

This particular course is about playing to strengths, so if a child has stronger visual, morphological (you’ll find out more later), semantic and whole word spelling systems this course will help you teach to the child’s strengths. Dyslexia has been described by some researchers as not being a learning disability but as a teaching disability (e.g Morgan and Klein 2001), so it is important you are open to building your dyslexia spelling tool kit as much as you possibly can.

References and Further Reading. 

About. (2002, November 12). International Dyslexia Association.

British Dyslexia Association. (2010). What is dyslexia?

Chevin, G. (2009). Dyslexia: Visually Deaf? Auditory Blind? AuthorHouse.

Davis, R. D., & Braun, E. M. (2010). The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can’t Read…and How They Can Learn, Revised and Expanded Edition (Revised&enlarged ed.). Perigee Books.

Everatt, J., & Denston, A. (2019). Dyslexia: Theories, Assessment and Support (1st ed.). Routledge.

Grandin, T., & Sacks, O. (2006). Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism (Expanded ed.). Vintage.

Montgomery, D. (2006). Spelling, Handwriting and Dyslexia: Overcoming Barriers to Learning (1st ed.). Routledge.

Montgomery, D. (2017). Dyslexia-friendly Strategies for Reading, Spelling and Handwriting: A Toolkit for Teachers (1st ed.). Routledge.

Moody, S. (2020). Dyslexia: a teenager’s guide (1st Edition. ed.). Vermilion.

Morgan, E., & Klein, C. (2000). The Dyslexic Adult in a Non-dyslexic World (1st ed.). Wiley.

Ott, P. (1997). How to Detect and Manage Dyslexia: A Reference and Resource Manual (1st ed.). Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.

Reid, G. (2009). Dyslexia: A Practitioner’s Handbook (4th ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.

Sandman-Hurley. (2019). Dyslexia and Spelling. Jessica Kingsley Publishers