Dyslexia: The Teacher’s Hidden Problem

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August 31, 2017

What do you think of when I say “dyslexia”?

Most people’s minds would conjure up images of misspelled notes, back-to-front letters, illiteracy and just generally limited academic capabilities. It’s hard to imagine that someone with such afflictions could become a writer or even an English teacher, isn’t it?

Now, let me tell you something.

I have dyslexia!

Yes, this writer who currently moonlights as an English teacher is also a fully fledged dyslexic. However, I suffer from none of the above symptoms. The fact is, there is a lot more to dyslexia than just these stereotypical assertions.

In my case, I simply read and write things more slowly than others. Sadly, much like mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders, understanding and management of dyslexia here in Japan is, unfortunately, still lagging somewhat behind other developed nations.

Sadly, much like mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders, understanding and management of dyslexia here in Japan is, unfortunately, still lagging somewhat behind other developed nations.

Progress is being made, however. When I first came to Japan, my Japanese friend, who was a special needs teacher, advised me to keep my condition secret, especially as I was hoping to work in the English teaching sector. At that time, many in Japan didn’t recognize dyslexia as a legitimate condition. School students were often dismissed as stupid or lazy if they showed any signs of dyslexia.

Thankfully, this has changed a great deal in the 11 years since I first moved here.

A couple of years ago, I was actually invited to deliver a seminar to other teachers on how to best manage dyslexic students in the classroom. It was truly refreshing to be given the freedom to be open about my condition and to offer advice and support to others in this way.

As dyslexia has only become a topic of major study in Japan in the last few years, the statistics and research are still a little thin. However, most experts agree that around 25 percent of school students in Japan may have some form of dyslexia.

One of the interesting things about the condition is that for many dyslexics, writing in Japanese is easier than writing in English. For a long time, this helped to perpetuate the now widely disproved myth that Japanese people could not be dyslexic.

Japanese writing — its use of hiragana, katakana and kanji characters — is phonetic. English is not. Typically dyslexics struggle with non-phonetic languages. For example: Take the compound “-ough”. Some examples of words in English that use this compound are rough, thorough, through. All spelled the same way but pronounced differently. In Japanese, this kind of confusing pronunciation difference doesn’t happen. So, for dyslexics, Japanese is a much simpler language to read and write effectively than English.

From a teacher’s perspective, however, this can make identifying dyslexic students and helping them more difficult. I’ve also encountered the situation where (since the same spelling and word order errors present in English are not present in the student’s Japanese to the same extent) your Japanese colleagues may mistakenly dismiss possible dyslexia as simply a weakness in studying English.

As an English teacher, there are some signs you can look for. Remember, this is simply the advice of a teacher and a dyslexic speaking from his own experience. I am not a qualified professional in this field, nor do I claim to be.

One of the interesting things about the condition is that for many dyslexics, writing in Japanese is easier than writing in English.

Here are a couple of the most obvious signs:

1) Dyslexic students speak more clearly than they write

Japanese students, typically, are stronger writers than they are speakers when it comes to English. However, in the case of dyslexic students, this trend is likely to be reversed. Such students will feel far more comfortable and confident in expressing themselves through speaking English than they will through reading or writing.

2) Dyslexic students sometimes get irritable

Dyslexic students may become frustrated at their seeming inability to work as effectively as their classmates. Again, the trend is infrequent, but it manifests itself in uncharacteristic outbursts from otherwise well-behaved, intelligent students. It’s important to examine all probable causes for this irritability and whether or not it runs in tandem with academic underperformance in certain areas, such as written English. After all, there are plenty of factors that can make teenagers grouchy!

So the question is: what can we, as teachers, do to help them?

Of course, your school isn’t likely to take too well to your attempts at amateur psychiatry. So if you suspect a student is dyslexic, it’s probably best to have a word with your most trusted Japanese teacher of English at first, and then it’s up to them if they wish to take it further or not.

In class itself, there are some techniques you can use to help the student function better in class, without drawing attention to their issues.

1) Use colored paper

For some dyslexics, black print on a white background is hard to read. However, printing text onto colored paper makes the words “stand out more” on the page, and as such, it’s easier for dyslexic students to read it.

2) Take a multi-sensory approach

In your classes, think about multiple ways in which you can deliver the same lesson points to your students.

For example, take the approach of Hollywood actor Tom Cruise. As a dyslexic, he struggles to memorize lines of dialogue. So instead of using just a written script, he has come to rely more on taped recordings of the dialogue, which he would listen to and then recite back to himself to aid memorization.

I used a similar approach a few years ago when my students, some of whom I suspected were dyslexic, were preparing for their English speech contest.

In addition to editing the texts of their speech to make them flow more naturally, I also made digital recordings of each student’s speech, which they could then take home and listen to at their leisure. Not only does this help the student to better remember lesson contents, it also allows them to learn at their own pace, without affecting the overall flow of the class.

3) Always think of the bigger picture

While many dyslexics may struggle with the finer details of an assignment like spelling, punctuation or presentation, one of the positives of dyslexia is that in many cases, students have a stronger than average ability to see and understand the bigger picture in a lesson.

I remember when I was in school, some of my teachers would become irritated at the way I would often second guess them and preempt the point of the particular lesson or lecture they were delivering. As an adult, I have learned that this was probably an early manifestation of my dyslexia. Good teachers — many of whom on reflection patently were not — should seek to harness this as an advantage in their classrooms.

Mind-mapping is also a great activity to use with these kinds of students if you can find a way to work it in. Such students tend to have very visual imaginations, and so giving them the means to present their ideas in the form of a diagram or a series of short statements and images can be a great help.

Overall, students with dyslexia in Japan do still face an uphill battle. Many teachers here simply lack the sufficient training and knowledge of how this condition works and how best to utilize these differences in learning approaches in the classroom. However, as is so often the case in Japan, slow but steady progress is being made. In the decade since I first came here, I have already seen change.

In the meantime, we as teachers need to continue to fight the good fight and do all we can to ensure all of our students have every opportunity to succeed.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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