Math problem or trigger words? The majority of children could tackle a question like this with ease. However, to those children with dyslexia, they may stumble over such question. Why is that so?
Dyslexics tend to think primarily in pictures and images as opposed to words. When they encounter certain symbols (and all words are symbols), they get confused by those whose meaning they cannot picture. These are often high frequency words that we use a lot of in the English language, such as ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘by’, ‘to’, etc. When they cannot begin to think with that word in picture, they do not know how to make sense of a sentence.
So in the example question above, a dyslexic may be confused by the word ‘from’. The child may be able to recognise and pronounce the word ‘from’ when he sees it, but he does not know the meaning and so he does not know what he needs to do to begin to solve the question.
After much drilling and repetition to no avail to help the child understand the question, the child is then told by a well-meaning parent or tutor that whenever he sees such questions, he just needs to take the bigger number and minus the smaller number. By doing so, the child is taught rote learning, rather than have real understanding or true mastery of the subject.
If we could acknowledge the child’s picture thinking style, we can help the child master the meaning of ‘from’ and let him create a picture of what it means. According to the American Heritage Children’s Dictionary, ‘from’ means beginning at, starting with. Once the child understands the meaning, he can now picture what the question is asking him to do.
Subtract 79 from 139 means that he has to begin at, start with (ie from) 139, and then minus or take away 79, in order to derive at the answer. Visually, he would be able to put 139 down on paper, followed by the minus sign and 79 below 139 and then do his workings to get to the answer.
By extension, a dyslexic child very often can’t do problem sums not because he does not have the skill to do arithmetic, but because he does not understand what the question is asking of him in the first place, as he can’t think with some of the words that are in the question.
More than 30 years ago, Ron Davis had it figured out that dyslexia is not something complex but rather, it is a compound of simple factors that can be resolved step by step.
He explained that dyslexia is actually a product of a dyslexic’s picture thinking style, their ability to see things 3-dimensionally and their unique way of reacting to the feeling of confusion when they see symbols that they do not recognise (and all words are symbols). Because of these 3 factors at work, dyslexics encounter the difficulties we see in them when learning to read, write and spell.
This video illustrates what picture thinking vs word thinking is like and why dyslexics do not seem to recognise the same word which they learnt just seconds ago and as a result, produced mistakes in their reading, writing and spelling. It’s only by understanding this then can we tackle the root of the problem.
Ron said that once we remove the reason why a problem exists, the problem ceases to exist. How simple and logical is that? Once I understood Ron’s explanation, I knew instinctively that he had the right solution and I did not hesitate to put my daughter through the Davis intervention programme.
Q: Can you explain with an example, how a dyslexic gets confused when reading, and how that leads to disorientation when the threshold for confusion is reached, and subsequently mistakes are made in the process?
A: Let me unpack this for you by using Ron Davis’ step-by-step breakdown of what happens when a 10-year old dyslexic reads the sentence, “The brown horse jumped over the stone fence and ran through the pasture”.
The first word “the” caused the mental imagery to go blank, because there was no picture for it. A blank picture is the essence of confusion. Using concentration, however, the child pushes past the blank picture and says “the” and forces himself to skip to the next word.
The word “brown” produces the mental image of a colour, but it has no defined shape. Continuing to concentrate, he says the word “brown”.
The word “horse” transforms the brown picture into a horse of that colour. Concentration continues and “horse” is said.
The word “jumped” causes the front of the brown horse to rise into the air. He continues concentrating as he says “jumped”.
The word “over” causes the back of the horse to rise. Still concentrating, he says “over”.
The next word, another “the”, causes the picture to go blank again. Confusion for the dyslexic has increased, but the threshold for confusion has not been reached. He must now double his concentration so he can push on to the next word. In doing so, he may or may not omit saying “the”.
The word “stone” produces a picture of a rock. With concentration doubled, he says “stone”.
The next word, “fence”, turns the rock into a rock fence. Still with doubled concentration, he says “stone”.
The next word, “and”, blanks out the picture again. This time, the threshold for confusion is reached. So the child becomes disoriented. The child is stopped again, more confused, doubly concentrating, and more disoriented. The only way he can continue is to increase his concentration effort. But now because he is so disoriented, the dyslexic symptoms will appear. It is very likely that he will omit saying the word “and”, or just as likely that he will substitute “a”, “an”, or “the” instead. At this point, he is no longer getting an accurate perception of the words on the page. He is now expanding a tremendous amount of effort and energy on concentrating, just to continue.
The next word, “ran”, because he is now disoriented, is altered into the word “runs”. He sees an image of himself running, entirely unrelated to the picture of the hovering horse. Then he says “runs”.
The word “through” is altered into “throws”. He sees himself throwing a ball and says “throws”.
The next word, “the”, blanks out the picture again, even more confused, and still disoriented. His only recourse is to quadruple his concentration. In doing so, he omits saying “the”.
By now, his disorientation has created a feeling like dizziness. He is feeling sick to his stomach, and the words and letters are swimming around on the page.
For the last word “pasture”, he must track down each letter, one at a time, so he can sound out the word. Once he does, he sees a picture of a grassy place. Even though he is disoriented, because of the extra effort and energy he puts forth in catching and sounding out each letter, he says it right, “pasture”.
Having competed the sentence, he closes the book and pushes it away. That’s enough of that! When asked what he just read, he is likely to answer with something like “a place where grass grows”. He has a picture of a horse in the air, a stone fence, himself playing ball and a grassy place, but cannot relate the separate elements in the sentence to form a mental image of the scene described.
To everyone who saw or heard him read the sentence or heard his answer to what it was about, it’s obvious that he didn’t understand any of what he just read. As for him, he doesn’t care that he didn’t understand it. He’s just thankful that he survived the ordeal of reading out loud.
Do you see some similarities between what was described above and what you see in your child when he/she attempts to read?
The mistakes we see a dyslexic make when reading, such as omissions, substitutions, insertions and reversals, are as a result of disorientation.
Disorientation causes perceptual distortions in our various senses: vision, hearing, balance/movement and sense of time.
Just like the idea depicted in the picture, dyslexics need a way to ‘refresh’ their sensory perceptions so that they can turn off the disorientation, and have accurate perception.
In the world of learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, disorientation causes perceptual distortion which explains many of the symptoms of dyslexia.
When I was first shown this comic strip, I could see how it aptly illustrated what disorientation is like for someone with learning disabilities; experiencing an alternate reality.
You and I have also experienced disorientation. A classic example is when you are sitting in a stationary vehicle and another vehicle next to you moves, creating the false perception that you are moving.
The difference is that our disorientation does not so much as affect our day-to-day functioning. But to a dyslexic, they encounter disorientation so frequently that it impacts their learning.
This picture illustrates what dyslexics see when they are disorientated.
Disorientation is a state in which the brain is not receiving what the eyes see or what the ears hear; the balance and movement sense is altered and the time sense is either speeded up or slowed down. In other words, dyslexics experience perceptual distortions of their senses when they are in a disoriented state.
Dyslexics get confused when they encounter words or symbols they do not have a picture of (dyslexics are picture thinkers as opposed to word thinkers). When their threshold for confusion is reached, they will disorientate in order to try and make sense of the word or symbol.
When what they are trying to figure out is a real object, such as a chair, it does not matter where they are mentally perceiving it from when disoriented. The chair will still be a chair.
But if they are looking at symbols such as the letter ‘b’, depending on where they are mentally perceiving the letter from, the letter may appear to be a ‘d’, ‘p’, or ‘q’, therefore leading to mistakes when reading, writing or spelling.
There is a place that allows dyslexics to have accurate perception when dealing with texts and when they know where that place is, they are able to turn off the disorientation at will, and remove the feeling of confusion.
I am sure many parents can identify with the scenario depicted in the video below. It explains how a picture thinker and disorientation could lead to the challenges a dyslexic encounters, as well as suggestions you can adopt when communicating with them without getting frustrated.