Sue Hall is author of the book, Fish Don’t Climb Trees. The inspiration for the title comes from Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
The idea behind Sue’s book or Albert Einstein’s quote is that our brains do not all work the same way. Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that acknowledges that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits.
Instead of teaching our dyslexic children to learn in a way most neurotypical children learn, let’s accept that dyslexia is a learning difference and work with what our children can do ie their strengths, rather than what they can’t.
Hear what Sue has to say in her TEDx Talk here.
Thanks CaringSG for the feature! It is an honour to be invited to join CaringSG’s pioneering group of CAREconnect champions to support fellow special needs caregivers.
We all have been there before, that moment when a bombshell was dropped on us when we received news about our children’s diagnosis, be it for a special educational need, a medical condition, etc.
What better way than to have a group of caregivers who have gone through similar experiences whom you can draw strength from and turn to for guidance.
A ground up initiative, CaringSG is a platform that brings together the various support groups and makes it easy for caregivers to reach out to other caregivers. It does not have to be a lonely journey.
Dyslexics tend to think primarily in pictures, as opposed to thinking in words. Very often, they do not have a monologue going on in their heads where they are thinking with the sound of words.
The illustration above would not be too far off from what goes on in a dyslexic’s mind when they are reading.
Because of the way they think, whenever they come across words whose meaning they cannot picture, typically the high frequency words, their mental imagery goes blank. A blank picture is the essence of confusion.
Having pushed through many of these high frequency words when reading, a dyslexic will eventually reach his threshold for confusion and becomes disoriented. At this point in time, he is no longer getting an accurate perception of the words on the page.
When asked what he just read, he will likely give you a variation of what the story is about. If he was reading a comprehension passage, the end result you see is the lack of comprehension, especially when answering implicit questions.
Photo credit: Vernon Leow
Google Willin Low and the search engine throws up a list of write-ups about him. A lawyer-turned-chef/restaurateur, Willin left his cushy career as a lawyer after eight years to pursue his dream as a chef.
While most people know Willin as the chef/restaurateur behind Wild Rocket, his flagship restaurant that has not only hosted our Prime Minister, celebrities and dignitaries, he was also named one of three chefs to change the Singapore culinary scene by The New York Times.
He is the originator of “Mod Sin” or Modern Singaporean cuisine, a term coined by Willin when he was studying in the UK and describes his style of cuisine.
I understand you have not been officially diagnosed with dyslexia. It was your brother, a doctor, who suspected you could be dyslexic. Could you tell us what led to that suspicion?
I was getting the names of people wrong again. I usually only remember the first letter of the names. For example, if someone is called Andrew, I will always say that person’s name starts with the letter A. And on one such occasion, my brother, a doctor, said “I think you are dyslexic!” And proceeded to ask me a few other questions before concluding that I am. And it was at this point that everything suddenly made sense to me.
As a student, what struggles did you face?
There were three subjects that I just could not follow as a student:
1. Chemistry in Upper Secondary, especially the periodic table. It was just a nightmare and my Chemistry teacher kept picking on me and taunting me. She made life hell for me. I guess you can say we did not have much chemistry (smiles). I learnt that in life, not everyone will like you or make life a breeze for you.
2. Economics in JC. I just could not follow any of the concepts. It was as though everything was taught in a foreign language. Later on in life as I ran my own restaurants, I understand all the economic concepts so easily and wondered why I never did well in Economics.
3. Accounting. I did a module in accounts in university and it was the worst thing ever. All the numbers and tables just looked completely alien. I think my professor passed me out of pity (laughs).
How did you manage to do so well academically and ended up reading law in university? Given the heavy reading involved, how did you cope?
Reading isn’t a problem for me as much as writing is. Chinese characters and numbers are much more difficult for me. I recall being in tears in kindergarten as I kept writing the mirror image of the Chinese character for knife (刀). Spelling is also an issue. I tend to spell words as I hear them. My parents blamed my carelessness. Since I didn’t know I was dyslexic, I just assumed everyone else had the same problems as me. I kept calm and carried on.
What got you started on your journey to becoming a chef? Was cooking something you have always been passionate about? How was that passion cultivated?
I love eating and I am a very fussy eater. When I was a student in the UK, the food at the halls of residence was dismal and out of necessity, I started cooking and soon discovered another passion, that I love making people happy through food.
How was your flagship restaurant, Wild Rocket conceptualised and what was the creative process that went into the creation of the dishes? I read that you love taking apart what is a traditional dish, rehash them and change it into something different while retaining the spirit of the dish. Was it something very spontaneous and instinctive to you?
Again, it started when I was cooking in the UK. I missed Singapore food but could never find all the ingredients I needed so I had to improvise with whatever I could get my hands on. The result never looked like Singapore food but always tasted like home. I call this cuisine Mod Sin and it stuck. Yes, creating dishes come quite instinctively and most times, I taste the food in my head first before I cook it and taste it in my mouth. And all my food creations start with drawings.
Dyslexics are known to be strategic, big picture thinkers. How do you think that might have helped you in your role as a chef/restaurateur?
Ah, another piece of the puzzle (laughs). I did not realise it was linked to my dyslexia. Yes, I am always looking at the big picture of what I want to achieve, whether it’s the Mod Sin cuisine or more specifically my restaurants, and it serves as a guiding principle for the steps I take thereafter.
As an adult now, do you struggle with things that dyslexics tend to be weaker at, such as poor working memory, slow processing speed and organisation of thoughts. Can you give some examples?
In order for me to understand anything, I need to organise it in a way that I can understand. I draw mind maps to see the overall big picture in order to understand the small details.
I also cannot concentrate on just doing one thing. I need to do many things at the same time. I suspect I may have ADHD. I manage by doing three things at one time so I can concentrate. For example, I will study Japanese, exercise and watch tv at the same time.
I will think in my head the correct telephone or account number but when I type it out it’s wrong. This happens regularly and I manage by checking and rechecking when I do online banking.
Verbal directions are most stressful. I cannot follow after the second step. To manage, I take videos of demonstrations on how to operate electronic gadgets.
Lastly, you were part of a movement called Life Beyond Grades, where its aim is to remind parents and children alike that grades do not define us. How did your parents encourage you as a child/student?
On the eve of my Secondary 2 geography exams, I was panicking because I was ill prepared. Dad told me it’s ok to fail, but important to learn from the failure. He said failing isn’t the end of the world so don’t worry, keep calm and carry on.
An interesting quiz that screens for ADD/ADHD. Very often, children with dyslexia get distracted easily, cannot sustain their focus and/or get fidgety. And because of this observation, they have been mistaken as displaying ADHD symptoms.
The DSM-5 (The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth edition) is used by mental heath professionals to diagnose ADHD. There were some changes in the DSM-5 for the diagnosis of ADHD: symptoms can now occur by age 12 rather than by age 6; several symptoms now need to be present in more than one setting rather than just some impairment in more than one setting; new descriptions were added to show what symptoms might look like at older ages; and for adults and adolescents age 17 or older, only 5 symptoms are needed instead of the 6 needed for younger children.
Deciding if a child has ADHD is a several step process. It cannot be decided just by observations alone. For many of the dyslexic children, once they learned how to control their disorientation, they will be able to stay focus more easily and do not fidget beyond what is expected for a child of that age.
Please note that the screening only serves to indicate the possibility of a person showing ADD/ADHD symptoms and is not meant to be a diagnostic tool. Try it!
Today, I want to touch on intervention programmes. This is one area that parents find mind boggling.
The key to helping a child struggling with dyslexia is early identification and intervention. Very often, I see the identification process being delayed because of lack of knowledge or parents did not pick up the red flags.
I went with my gut feel even when educators and doctors I consulted dismissed my concerns. These are people we deem as professionals and I fully respect them. But I have learnt that they may not necessarily be the best person to dispense advice. With persistency, I eventually spoke to a psychologist friend who pointed me in the direction of dyslexia and as a result, my daughter was diagnosed early and received intervention at 6 years old.
As far as intervention goes, different theories create different approaches. We should get it by now that dyslexics have an alternative way of thinking and learning. If we continue to look at dyslexia as a deficit instead of working with a dyslexic’s strengths, we are adding yet another obstacle to the child’s remediation journey.
To give you an example, because people still think the only way to decode a word is through phonics and if the child finds it difficult to process the sounds of letters or blending, they see it as a deficit and therefore, with all good intention, try to equip the child through drilling and repetitions.
Many intervention programmes target the symptoms and not the root cause. You may take the position that if a particular programme helps with a certain issue, such as the ability to recall and retain a spelling word learnt, why not? To me, the bigger question is, how about the child’s challenges in other areas such as decoding ability, reading fluency or comprehension? All these are necessary components of learning. Without a holistic approach, the child may seem to have made some progress in a certain area, but making progress is not the same as closing the gap. If a child is making progress, he or she may still be falling behind.
Therefore when evaluating any intervention programmes, keep in mind what we have learnt about how dyslexia develops. Find out if the programme works with a dyslexic’s strengths or is the focus still on what the child can’t do? How does the programme help the child resolve his confusion with common sight words? What is the approach to reading fluency and comprehension?
Many parents have the misconception that their child is dealing with some complex learning difficulties that will need long term intervention and that they will not perform as well as their peers. This need not be the case.
Dyslexia is a learning difference, not a limitation. It is a gift, not a disability. Approach correctly, your child can be remediated successfully. Of course, the child has to have the motivation to want to correct the problem and is able and willing to take responsibility for doing so.
To understand dyslexia is to know how it develops, not from the etiology angle, but how it happens functionally. Ron gave us an insight when he identified the 3 factors at work which led to the learning issue.
I have done up the flow chart above which hopefully gives you a clearer picture. It all starts with words/symbols that a dyslexic sees that confuses him. When he is confused enough, he will disorient and start to look from different locations mentally. The disorientation causes perceptual distortion which in turn produces the mistakes which we recognise as dyslexic symptoms.
Now that we realise the true nature of a problem, we need a solution, and Ron has developed a 2-pronged approach to correct dyslexia.
First off, since disorientation causes perceptual distortion of our senses which then manifests in mistakes, dyslexics need a way to ‘turn off’ their disorientation in order to have accurate perception. To this end, Ron has figured a way for dyslexics to mentally ‘switch off’ that disorientation when it happens, so that the individual will have a stable point of reference when looking at 2-dimensional text.
But having accurate perception is not enough. We need to resolve the root cause of confusion. Given that the source of confusion comes from trigger words (which are mostly common sight words), a dyslexic needs to master these words with all its 3 parts, in order for them not to cause any problem for the individual.
The 3 parts are (i) what the word means (which will be in the form of a picture to cater to the dyslexic’s picture thinking style), (ii) what it looks like (which is how you spell it) and (iii) what it sounds like (which is how you pronounce the word). A dyslexic may know what a word looks like and sounds like, but if he is missing the picture of what it means or represents, it will produce a blank picture and that adds to the confusion.
I like to use the analogy of a headache to simplify the problem/solution explanation above. Before the onset of a headache, one may feel tension building up in the shoulders, parts of the head, etc which we recognise as a symptom. To get rid of it, we typically pop a pill and the pain (symptom) goes away. However, if we do not fix the root cause of the headache (it could be due to life style, posture and so on), we will not be able to eradicate the problem.
Applying the same idea, if you address the source of confusion i.e. unrecognised symbols, then confusion will not set in. If there is no confusion, it will not trigger disorientation. If a dyslexic is in an oriented state, you can at this point begin to teach a child to learn and you will notice that the child will register what is being taught.
I always joke that there is only one thing consistent about dyslexics and that is, they are consistently inconsistent when it comes to learning. But once the obstacles causing the inconsistency are removed, then easeful learning can take place. The starting point is therefore not to teach a child how to learn (which many are doing by engaging tutors, sending them for enrichment classes and so forth), but to remove what’s preventing their ability to learn.
To quote Ron, he said “if you remove the reason why a problem exists....the problem ceases to exist”. It is on this understanding that I put my daughter through the Davis programme and I have not looked back since.
Just a quick recap, we’ve covered 2 of the 3 factors that explain how dyslexia develops, namely a dyslexic’s picture thinking style and perceptual talent.
The last factor that Ron talked about is a dyslexic’s special way of reacting to the feeling of confusion. He calls this disorientation. Ron said the symptoms of dyslexia that we see are actually symptoms of disorientation.
What is disorientation? It is a state of mind where mental perceptions do not agree with the true facts and conditions in the environment. Most people experience disorientation at one point or another. One example is, you are sitting in a stationary vehicle and another vehicle next to you moves, creating a false perception that you are moving.
For most of us, the disorientation we experience doesn't affect our day-to-day functioning. To a dyslexic, they disorient so frequently that it impacts their learning. So how does a dyslexic’s perceptual talent and disorientation help to explain the learning difficulties a dyslexic faces?
This is how. In response to a symbol a dyslexic sees that confuses him, let’s say the letter ‘b’ (see illustration below), he will disorient in order to identify the letter he is looking at. He will start looking mentally at the letter from different angles. When it is a real object, like a chair, it doesn’t matter which angle he looks at. It will still look like a chair. But when it comes to 2-dimensional symbols, like a letter or word, looking at it from different locations gives a different picture each time. The letter ‘b’ can be a ‘d’, ‘p’ or ‘q’, depending on where the individual is looking from.
So putting everything together, when a dyslexic sees a symbol which does not make sense to his picture thinking style, he gets confused and when that threshold for confusion is reached, it will trigger a disorientation and he will start looking mentally from different locations in order to figure out what he is looking at.
When this happens, sensory perceptions become distorted and the brain receives an inaccurate input. This then manifests itself in mistakes. The resulting negative emotions that follow lead to low self-esteem and the child starts developing coping mechanisms such as concentrating harder, pushing through, dependency on others, giving excuses and so on. The whole vicious cycle repeats itself.
Can you see how, if there is no solution to break that chain of causation, the child will continue to struggle and the learning gap gets wider and wider? In our next post, we will look at how to resolve the issues step by step. Don’t go away!
In our previous post, we looked at a dyslexic’s picture thinking style and how this can cause confusion for them whenever they encounter words whose meaning they cannot picture. 75% of a page consists of such trigger words and it’s no wonder when they try to read, they would make mistakes.
Today, we’ll look at a dyslexic’s perceptual talent. This is the ability to perceive multi-dimensionally. Simply put, a dyslexic can see an object mentally from many different perspectives, whether by moving their perception to different locations or by mentally manipulating and turning an object, much like rotating a 3D model in a computer to look at its other sides.
Matthew, the dyslexic metal fabricator whom I interviewed just before the start of Circuit Breaker, shared that when he was creating a piece of work, he could rotate the end product in different directions in his mind. He would sometimes have an exploded view of the product where he would pull everything apart and then figure out how to fit each piece back together.
Another mother whom I spoke with recently also related to me how her dyslexic daughter told her she is able to move her perception to different locations to view an object in her mind.
This perceptual talent that a dyslexic possesses allows the individual to think out of the box and to see the big picture. It enhances their performance and is an asset in many occupations such as architects, designers, inventors, scientists, engineers, actors and so on.
As with a dyslexic’s picture thinking style, this perceptual talent, while it is a gift, is also a source of learning problem. How so? Let’s hold our thoughts for now until we cover the last factor, and I’ll put the pieces together for you.
We have heard of many famous dyslexics such as Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Lee Kuan Yew, Bill Gates, Tom Cruise, Jamie Oliver, the list goes on. While having dyslexia won’t make every dyslexic a genius, it is definitely good for the self-esteem of all dyslexics to know their minds work in the same way as the minds of these great geniuses.
Ronald D. Davis, the author of the book The Gift of Dyslexia, taught himself to read at the age of 38. It was in this book that I found the answers to my daughter’s struggles and how to resolve them.
Ron said that dyslexia is not a complexity but a compound of simple factors that can be dealt with step by step. He figured out that dyslexia is a product of thought, talent and a special way of reacting to the feeling of confusion. Simply put, understanding these three factors helps to explain the anatomy of dyslexia.
Let’s now look at the first factor. Dyslexics tend to think primarily in pictures/images, as opposed to thinking with words. Picture thinking, typically at 32 pictures per second, is a lot faster than thinking with the sounds of words, which is typically 100-200 words per minute. This picture thinking style is not to be confused with the three learning styles, which are visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.
Thinking with words is sequential and linear in process, whereas when one thinks in pictures, they see things all at once without going through a step by step process (see illustration). This is why dyslexics are often good at problem solving and seeing the big picture. They show creativity in solving all kinds of problems and are good at seeing how things fit together.
But how does this picture thinking style cause learning problems? Essentially, when a dyslexic encounters certain symbols (and all words are symbols, so are alphabet, punctuation marks, speech sounds, math symbols and numerals), they get confused by those words (or letters, punctuation marks, numerals, etc) whose meaning they cannot picture.
To illustrate this, if I say the word ‘cake’, do you see an image of a cake or the word in your head? What about ‘rainbow’? Majority of us would see an image, dyslexics included. That’s picture thinking. If I say ‘from’ or ‘by’ or ‘if’, do you see an image or word? While most regular people will see the word, dyslexics will draw a blank. Ask your child and see what he/she tells you.
Many of the words dyslexics encounter which confuse them are often high frequency words that we use a lot of in the English language, such as ‘the’, ‘when’, ‘is’, etc. We call these trigger words. They are non-picture words which cause confusion for a dyslexic as the individual does not have a mental image of what the word means or represents, and many of these words have multiple meanings.
When a dyslexic is confused or triggered by a symbol, the individual will mentally move it around in his/her head and explore it from different perspectives. This leads us to the second factor, a dyslexic‘s perceptual talent, which we will talk about in our next post.