Dyslexia and learning design (Podcast episode 7)

Earlier this month we sat down with Martin Bloomfield, author of Dyslexia Bytes, to talk about dyslexia and to explore what we need to know about it in Learning Design. This is an abridged version of that conversation. To hear it in full check out the episode on SpotifyApple Podcasts, or on our podcast homepage.

What is dyslexia? Can you define it for us?

I’d rather move away from the idea of defining and labeling dyslexia, and move towards the idea of dyslexia, not as a label, but as an experience. When we look at dyslexia as an experience, instead of telling dyslexics what they are and who they need to be, we start listening to people with dyslexia and understanding it from their perspective. 

This involves the act of trying to empathise. You can empathise with an experience, but you can’t empathise with a label or a definition. So rather than “You are a dyslexic person” think “You are a person who experiences dyslexia”.

What is that experience?

It varies with the context, so one experience that many dyslexic people have is not necessarily true of all of us. But, one experience that many dyslexic people do have is a difficulty in reading. 

There have been many studies to show that, for people with dyslexia, their eyes don’t scan the page of text in the way that non-dyslexics do. Reading can be trying, even exhausting. Another of the experiences that I think is very much overlooked is what we call executive function. Most people – let’s say 85–90% of the world – have what you could think of as an internal “personal assistant”. That personal assistant can put things in the right order or sequence, predict, plan, and map the day ahead. That personal secretary can say, “Okay, this starts now and ends … now. I need to do this first, this second, and I need to do this third.” 

People with dyslexia don’t have that personal assistant. We have executive functioning problems, which includes working memory sequencing – what you might call flexibility to cognitive change. This is an experience that people with dyslexia tend to share.

So how does the experience of dyslexia manifest itself? Is it the classic notion of letters moving around?

That isn’t dyslexia. It’s something very different called Irlen Syndrome, which is a visual processing problem. Dyslexia isn’t a visual processing problem or cognitive issue. If we talk about dyslexia as words moving around on a page, then we’re talking about it in the wrong context. 

How do you think that has come to be the go-to understanding of what dyslexia is?

First of all, there is a big overlap between dyslexia and Irlen Syndrome; something like 30% to 45% of people with dyslexia also have Irlen Syndrome. The other reason is that, if you’re trying to describe dyslexia, and you’re trying to describe the experience of reading, one of the things people do first is describe the convergence (that is the eye scanning over the words on the page), and the working memory (which is how to take in, and then use short term memory). If you’re describing it like that, it’s a bit like, “Well, the words and letters aren’t in the place I expected them to be.” So it’s very easy to conflate the two descriptions. 

One of the exercises I often give people is a GIF that includes a piece of text where letters and words keep disappearing. The task is to read the text and copy it down. It mimics the experience of convergence issues and working memory issues involved in trying to copy from a board if you’ve got dyslexia. But of course, it looks like things moving around on the page, so it’s very easy to think of it in those terms. 

So when we talk about dyslexia, one of the things we focus on is the non-standard way of receiving and producing literacy content. It’s very easy just to say, “Oh, well, words are moving around on the page”, when actually, that’s not what’s happening. There is something where words do move around on the page, and the two of them get very easily conflated. 

What should we be doing as Learning Designers?

There are effectively two things that we do when we’re designing for people who experience dyslexia. I call these remedial work, and empowering work. 

Remedial work

The remedial work is to identify what the difficulties are and to try to remove them. Those tend to be large amounts of text. 

  • If you’ve got paragraphs, then don’t use indented paragraphs – use block paragraphs so they’re separate from each other on the page. 
  • Make sure that the line length is a little shorter – about two thirds of the standard line length. 
  • Make the spaces between the letters are a little bit longer. This really helps people with convergence issues. 

Another thing we can do is give very clear instructions. For example: “First of all, we need to do this, and this is the amount of time we need to do it.” And then the next instruction, “Now we need to do this, and this is the amount of time we need to do this in.” If we don’t do this, we’re relying on working memory and sequencing, which are problems with executive function for people with dyslexia. So we can just remove those issues.

Empowering work

When it comes to the empowerment aspect, instead of giving complex instructions use infographics. People experiencing dyslexia think visually so we need to start presenting our information as visually as possible. 

When we start talking about things like infographics it gets neurological …

There’s something in the brain called the ventral pathways. One of the ventral pathways is called the ‘What’ pathway – it allows you to understand things. We know that people with damaged ventral pathways find facial recognition difficult. More than that, they find recognizing facial expressions and their meanings very difficult indeed. 

When we’re using infographics it’s very important that we try to embed the message in the image and the image in the message, so they are very closely bound together. When we do that, we directly access the ventral pathways in the brain, and that directly accesses comprehension. Otherwise, all we’re doing is presenting imagery – and that’s not necessarily going to help. But, if you make sure that the image and the message are embedded, then you find that people comprehend and understand. Once they do that, they retain the knowledge.

Can you kind of give an example of where you’ve seen that working really well?

I was doing some reading not so long ago on helping children understand basic phonemes and graphemes. Take the letter ‘d’.  First of all, the letter ‘d’ is written and next to it the text ‘dog’. That’s not an embedded image. The second image was the letter ‘d’ and next to it was a picture of a dog. There’s an image but it’s not embedded. The third image was a dog with its tail forming the letter ‘d’. That is an embedded image. The ‘d’ is no longer a purely abstract symbol.

Check out Martin’s post Inclusivity: Another look at Special Educational Needs on our blog.

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