I was 15 when I was diagnosed with dyslexia; it was during the summer before my GCSEs. A massive wave of relief came over me – but also anger. I realised that I was not stupid but had a disability that meant I learned and stored information differently from other people. I also knew that for ten years of my education, I had not been given the help I needed.
What is dyslexia and how does it affect me?
Many people think dyslexia is just bad spelling and difficulties with reading, but it is so much more than that. It affects cognitive (thinking and learning) processes, phonological (speech sounds and pronunciation) processing speed, visual processing, long and short verbal and working memory, reading comprehension, verbal ability, and concentration.
So, when reading text, I often see sentences slip over one another. Words change position and sometimes, new words appear that I have no idea how to pronounce. A blue overlay can help me focus and the concentration required to read a lot of text causes headaches. It takes me longer to process the information I am reading or hearing, making answering questions harder when under time pressure.
I also have a poor short-term memory and find it hard to remember lists and information when not repeated, and phrases change their order when I repeat or copy them. Finding the right words to describe what I want to say when writing is challenging, and I take a long time to write. Additionally, my language is basic and less academic or sophisticated as it is the easiest words I remember.
Similarly, my focus goes easily, and I repeat or skip words in sentences. The order in which I write can be messy, as I write what I think when I think of it, and paragraphs do not always link to each other. Grammar and spelling are not my friends; it’s easy to change tenses, add plurals and make basic punctuation mistakes. And I spell words as I hear them.
At a young age, my dyslexia went unnoticed but, as I was unable to reach expected speech developmental milestones, I had speech therapy. As I grew, I faced many challenges. In school, starting from year one, was taken out of class for ‘sounds right’, a group for children to learn how to sound out words. I was also removed from class to learn spelling – every year repeating the spellings from the year before, because I struggled to get them right.
I had separate reading sessions, where I’d sit one-on-one with a teacher trying to read simple books without stuttering, getting words wrong or repeating words. Even at this young age, I felt embarrassed stupid and frustrated as I felt I was not smart enough to understand what the rest were learning. It was at this time my mum first approached the school asking if something was wrong or if I could get tested. She was refused.
The impact of dyslexia on education
Constantly feeling I would never amount to anything, I didn’t put any effort into my education. When I was 11, my mum got me a private tutor and I studied English and French with her, as I was falling behind in classes. Every Saturday I had an hour lesson, starting with the basics of English – the things most people can learn in year one at school. The tutor suspected I had dyslexia and taught me in a way that ought to make sense to me and help me remember the information.
I managed to keep up in my studies, achieving an average grade in class, even when my test scores remained low. I now had a new sense of determination, as the tutor and my mother believed in me.
I made good progress and in upper school I excelled in class, as I finally put effort into learning. I found work easy and completed it fast. But my test results, in timed conditions, contrasted with my classwork and were significantly lower than predicted. I struggled to recall information and it took me longer to read the questions and understand what the examiner wanted.
Impact on mental health
I suffered anxiety, especially when I had to give presentations and read aloud in class, causing me to stutter, repeat myself and miss out information. I started to worry about my fast-approaching GCSEs. My mum was still asking the school to test me, but they didn’t and so, she paid for the £500 test herself.
I thought once I was diagnosed, I would get the help I needed. I was wrong.
The school asked me to have an eye test, which showed I had perfect vision. Then I had to undertake another test. They decided I should receive blue paper handout sheets, be moved to the front of the class, and have access to a laptop. They ignored the dyslexia report recommendations for additional support and extra time for exams. I felt frustrated and disheartened when many teachers didn’t apply what the school told them to do, and my worry about my GSCEs rapidly increased.
My GCSE results were disappointing and I achieved only two of my predicted grades. I spent results day on holiday, moping around a Spanish pool wondering what my next steps should be, and feeling discouraged about going into sixth form. I did join the sixth form and found a lot of my teachers wanted to help me. My tutor (who became head of learning support) ensured I had extra time in exams and a copy of the dyslexia report was sent to all my teachers explaining the help and support I needed.
Even at university I still feel frustration and embarrassment. For example, one lecturer, even after being aware of my dyslexia and its implications for learning, told me to read a self-help grammar guide and make sure I proofread my essays before handing them in. But overall the university is very supportive and there is a learning hub for students, where focused advice and guidance is provided.
Strategies for coping
I now have some techniques and strategies in place. I record lectures so that I can go back and write them up. I have an app on my laptop which reads out text, tools to highlight key information, an overlay ruler, grammar correcting tools and a microphone that records people speaking and can change it into text.
When doing presentations, I have cue cards to help me recall information faster. I try not to read or write when tired as I have less concentration and I make many mistakes. If I have to copy information, I put the text right in front of me, so I don’t have to keep changing my focus and risk changing the order of the text. I write and rewrite, proofread endlessly and use a thesaurus.
I often wonder if I could have achieved better grades in my exams if the diagnosis had been made earlier and the school took action sooner. I also wonder if I might have had more confidence in my work and learning. Even now, I doubt my abilities. I’ve had to teach myself how to learn whilst being dyslexic. But I made it into university, which at one point I didn’t think would happen. This pushes me to try harder and find a career, no matter my disability. Who knows what the future will hold!
Editor’s note: Leeds Trinity University provides a range of support for students with disabilities. This includes a learning hub for all students, including those with dyslexia. This offers support in many areas, such as essay writing and academic language, time management, revision strategies, handling statistics and data, effective note-taking critical thinking and research.