What Do Homerun Hitters and Students with Dyslexia Have in Common?
In a book I love, The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain, the authors point out that baseball’s top 19 homerun hitters are also in the top 100 for striking out; it’s all about perspective. Similarly, one could argue that students with dyslexia are struggling learners—or, you could take the view that students with dyslexia possess amazing strengths due to the different wiring of their brains.
As a parent of two children with dyslexia and a special education teacher, I believe that when it comes to dyslexia, most school experiences emphasize students’ strikeouts rather than the many ways they can hit the ball out of the park.
The very definition of dyslexia focuses on students’ struggles with reading and spelling. For example, the International Dyslexia Association definition explains that this disability is often “characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.” The organization Made by Dyslexia points out that those with dyslexia also have many unique abilities in areas such as creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills.
These assets offer educators and parents the opportunity to change the tone of our conversations with students who have dyslexia and use a much more empowering message. Just think how it might feel for these students to hear about their unique ability to hit homeruns, even though they also experience more strikeouts than the average learner when it comes to reading and spelling.
With that said, let’s look at some of the ways that typical learning experiences unnecessarily emphasize strikeouts and how we can turn them into homerun opportunities.
Visual Spatial Reasoning
Dyslexia is often characterized by students struggling—not only with the relationships of the letters and sounds, but also with reversals, such as b/d, p/q, or 6/9, as they read and write. The same thing that makes it difficult to distinguish between mirror images of similar letters, numbers, and symbols also may provide a unique ability for a person to visualize, see things in 3-D, and manipulate images and figures in their head.
For example, when teaching how to divide fractions, I could teach students a procedure. It would look like this: when you divide fractions, you keep the first fraction the same, change the symbol from division to multiplication, and then flip the second fraction over, a short-cut procedure that’s often called “Keep, Change, Flip."
This procedure sets up one of those “strikeout situations.” For students struggling with numerators and denominators to begin with, flipping the fraction may not be as simple as it seems to us. A better option is to use a visual model, or math drawing, to represent dividing a fraction by a fraction. This allows students to explore making sense of what is happening with the numbers and discover the short- cut of how to complete the computation through their experience. If we focus the learning experience on the thinking and concepts, students will develop better fluency than if we just teach the abstract, procedure.
(Diagram Image from Eureka Math Grade 6 Module 2 Lesson 3 Example 3)
Many students with dyslexia have another homerun-hitting strength: great episodic memory. They remember personal connections and experiences better than rote procedures, like “Keep, Change, Flip.”
In the fraction concept above, exploring and making meaning through a drawing creates a personal experience. I could capitalize on this strength even more by posing the original problem with a pan of brownies cut into 9 pieces with only 7 pieces left and ask if 3 students shared these how much would each student get. This would be even better if I had a real pan of brownies!
Across all subject areas, this strength in episodic memory means that students may think about concepts and recall them through examples and stories. Information or facts presented in isolation or disconnected multiple choice questions on a test often thought to simplify content for students can actually be more difficult without context. Real-world connections and concrete experiences can help students with dyslexia use their episodic memory to make sense of a new concept and apply their learning to new situations and problems in the future.
While personal connection and visuals can be a huge help, many students with dyslexia also benefit more from a series of coherent learning experiences than isolated practice. A strength in global thinking means that a person perceives the whole, or big picture, more easily than an individual parts. When reading, we might refer to global thinking as identifying the gist. This means that though students with dyslexia may struggle with comprehension for a short, isolated reading as they work through the phonics and decoding, their comprehension often improves given a longer text or sequence of short texts as they consider the overall theme or gist.
In math, students may approach each problem on a paper as a new and unique problem to solve, just as they may sound out each word in isolation in a text. The strength of global thinking doesn’t come into play until students can step back and consider the patterns and relationships across a set of problems or a sequence of lessons.
Participating in a debrief conversation at the end of a lesson, or series of lessons, can allow students the time needed to notice the deeper connections and “gist” of the concept. This global thinking opportunity is where students with dyslexia can hit a home run as they solidify and demonstrate their learning in a way that is not assessed by an isolated problem on an exit ticket.
Helping Students with Dyslexia Hit It Out of the Park
Bottom line, many of the things we do to make life “easier” for students—such as boiling a concept down to a rote procedure or simple facts, providing disconnected practice, and assessing students using isolated quick questions—may make the estimated 1 in 5 students who have dyslexia more likely to strike out. If we want to set these students up with opportunities to hit more homeruns instead, we need to provide instruction that involves visualizing objects and creating models. We need to help students experience content through meaningful personal experiences in connected sequences with opportunities see the big picture.
Our classroom instruction and practice should be designed to help students discover their own understandings and connections and encourage deep, critical thinking. If we make these type of changes, don’t be surprised (but do cheer) when students with dyslexia start leading the class in homeruns.