Teaching English as a Dyslexic

Dyslexic

By Tristan Cotterill

The probability of you reading the title of this article is still less than the probability that I thought I would ever write it. Unfortunately, there are still a great many misconceptions about dyslexia. It is not an affliction or a disease and those of us who have it do not suffer. It is simply an individually unique way of living, seeing, and working in the world.

An observation I have had of those who know of their dyslexia is that they are always immensely proud of the moments when they overcame it, no matter how small. I am no different. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, and then later with a Master of Arts. Dyslexia is quantifiable and my personal dyslexia would never be considered severe, that, however, cannot take away my overwhelming sense of pride.

Scott Sonnon, a martial arts world champion, and author, puts the challenge of dyslexia so elegantly,

“I didn’t succeed despite my dyslexia, but because of it. It wasn’t my deficit, but my advantage. Although there are neurological trade-offs that require that I work creatively and smarter in reading, writing and speaking, I would never wish to be any other way.”

I was diagnosed at 18, too late for it to make any difference to my A-Level results. The diagnosis did not make me angry, or upset. Instead, it was empowering; it provided me with self-understanding and self-awareness of what I had and what I needed to do in order to succeed. From that moment on, my entire academic life fell into place. I wasn’t poor at doing exams, my initial dream of getting good A levels and going to a good university wasn’t unrealistic, I just needed time to come to the realisation that I was playing on the same playing field with a different set of rules.

Not allowing Dyslexia to hold you back takes work and plenty of it. Hours and hours of exercises, brain training, reading, and writing, all to build yourself up so that you may stand shoulder to shoulder with your peers. Once your English level is at the required standard, you stand above everyone, for you now have the advantages of dyslexia that others don’t. Maybe it is this, which makes me the EFL teacher I am, I am not just sympathetic to the challenges and struggles of learning English, I am empathetic.

As leading psychologists have begun to say, it is our EQ not our IQ that is more likely to determine our success. To paraphrase Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice

“Dyslexia is not a pigeonhole to say you can’t teach English. It is an opportunity and a possibility to teach differently. We have magical brains, they just process differently. Don’t feel like you should be held back by it.”

The term ‘outside-the-box-thinker’ is a common phrase used to describe someone with dyslexia. I, for example, do not see or solve problems in the same fashion as my students do. As with all aspects of dyslexia, this too comes with its advantages and disadvantages.

How a class understands can best be demonstrated on a bell curve. You will have students for whom your content is too advanced, and on the other side you will have students who are too advanced for your class. You aim is to teach to the height of the bell curve, where you can reach the greatest amount of your students.

As Spock says

“The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few”

Knowing how to engage the greatest number of students I believe, takes a combination of; training, experience, and a bit of prediction. There is no substitute for experience, and training is invaluable. However, what I will have taken from my training is something completely different to someone without dyslexia. Then there is prediction, and this is where my empathy provides me with an advantage. I am not just able to see where my students may struggle but, to understand why they do.

The other aspect as to how teaching English with dyslexia provides me with an advantage comes back to something I was told on my TEFL course

“Once you live in a non-English speaking country for a year, you are no longer considered a native English speaker.”

What it means is that your language degrades, as it is not used as often or in as much depth. The brain is not a muscle, but it certainly behaves like one and has to be used to maintain its strength. However, because I have already had to learn English the hard way it has not degraded the way I was informed it would.

It has been established that by living abroad you change your mannerisms, the way you speak, and act, in order to help with assimilation. Because of my dyslexia, for me to drastically change those aspects requires me to go through the arduous process of hours and hours of work.

The same work I had to put in, to get to where I am now.

While you will come across those who speak English on your travels, unless they are completely fluent then you will be required to reduce the speed of your speech. Now because my English has been so drilled into me, bringing it down to a suitable speed is taking a bit of time.

Overall I feel that my dyslexia is actually now in a position where it is benefiting my English, rather than limiting it. It is protecting my English from degrading, which in return allows me to maintain my personal high standards of English in the classroom.

I want to end by saying that if you are reading this, and are struggling with your dyslexia or any learning difficulty, I hope in a small part that this article inspires you; it does not have to hold you back.

Steven Spielberg said it beautifully:

“You will have dyslexia for the rest of your life, but you can dart between the raindrops to get where you want to go. It will not hold you back.”

I like to believe that by being a dyslexic English teacher, I am in some way honouring the potential of all students with learning disabilities everywhere. It is certainly not bad to be different, is it?

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