Dyslexia; mental health matters!


Dyslexia impacts on the mental health of a child and its carers. The wellbeing of the dyslexic and their family is in the hands of the school, other educational setting, or work. Wield your power mindfully and with compassion.

I returned to education a couple of years ago. Whilst being a slow processor, with some learning challenges: memory, written expression, organisation, I’ve always loved school and learning. I loved my journey through education and have always held my teachers in high esteem.

In the course of my MA studies: a practical session, I was sitting next to a ‘fast’ processor. We were sharing the activity and it was something she was familiar with. She confidently dominated, taking charge and my brain went into shut down. As an adult learner, I was able to make a joke of it and ask her to slow down. I had to look through the work at my own pace, so that I could confidently process it.

What stayed with me was the sense of panic and also a feeling, only just suppressed, of inadequacy creeping in. As a confident adult, I had the inner voice to quash this negative voice, but many children aren’t robust enough, and have not learnt to develop a positive inner voice, they come to believe they are stupid, as implied and, that learning is not for them; they disengage.

The experience was in sharp contrast to some Kagan training I attended a year or two previously. Here, we were put into groups according to experience (i.e. mixed ‘ability’), this is how the Kagan structures are played out. I felt vulnerable as a learner when a page of maths (not my strong point) was given out without instruction. I sought the eyes of my friend in the room, we giggled at each other, felt reassured. What I really enjoyed was working with the person next to me who showed me what to do. The Kagan structures are just that – structures devoid of content which hinge around mixed ability groupings. The goal? Attainment for all. This kind of cooperative approach requires committment and skill. Then, it works.

Incidentally, this was some of the most enjoyable and influential training I have had.

Most schools now have ‘ability’ settings and dyslexic children are usually to be found on the lowest table.

Why is that?

They are often bright, articulate and love to learn. They do notice the ‘ability’ settings and these now start as early as Reception. Incidentally, I think these are as unhelpful for the ‘highers’, who start to feel entitled and lack resilience, as they are for the ‘lowers’, who often stop trying and are made to feel a failure.

How are the needs of this invisible disability being met? How is that impacting on the self-esteem of the individual: their behaviour, anxiety levels? How are they treated by other children in the class and what small slights must they suffer daily?

Self-esteem can be thought of as the gap between where an individual would like to be and where they are. Consider this: a reasonably bright, interested individual (sometimes VERY bright), who is struggling every day to do the simple things (reading and writing) that peers seem able to do without much effort i.e. automatically. Effort is key here.

In maths, dyslexics might struggle to remember symbols and language, plot layout, learn to tell the time and times tables.

Ask them to do something quickly and they may not be able to do it at all.

Given the fact that children naturally compare themselves and that this is being implicitly reinforced through ‘ability’ groups, it surely has to take its toll?

In a school or setting where dyslexia is not recognised, dyslexics are undermined: every day, every minute, every second.

The difficulties may not end with academia. In sport, where several instructions are given at once, involving an ability to orientate oneself, dyslexics may also struggle. In performances, they may find it almost impossible to remember lines or lyrics and will struggle to sit through hours of rehearsals.

Personal organisation may be poor; the coat may be left outside, the PE kit on the floor, the glue stick all over the table. At lunchtime, they may forget the sequences around queuing up and getting served, exacerbated by a pressured and noisy environment.

Please be patient.

Please don’t suggest your dyslexic learners need to ‘learn resilience’, ‘work harder’, develop a ‘growth mindset’, these are skills a dyslexic person generally has in abundance.

Bullying of dyslexic learners by peers may be subtle and ‘below the radar’; be aware and work to stamp out attempts to undermine these children, often amongst the most vulnerable in the classroom.

Talk with your class about dyslexia and what it means for the individual, give your dyslexic children a voice and help others to understand and not to judge.

If you want to improve understanding about dyslexia in your school, read here:

Start a conversation

Dyslexia: start a discussion


Dyslexic strengths

The first academic paper on dyslexia was published in 1896 in the British Medical Journal by William Pringle Morgan. Dyslexia was ‘discovered’ by psychologists, who, when presented with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, found that despite average or above IQ’s, they had an inability to read and write. These children had shared characteristics.

Read about dyslexia indicators here: BDA indicators

Read about the history of dyslexia here: Dyslexia Archive

Astoundingly, the existence of dyslexia is still debated and unlike other abstract social constructs, there seems to be a great resistance to even accepting its existence; let alone that there may be strengths attached to it. Why?

  • Is it because dyslexia is medical in origin but educational in treatment?
  • Is it because dyslexia is abstract and there is still no Universally accepted definition of it?
  • Perhaps it’s because dyslexia is so strongly associated with reading failure, yet dyslexics can be taught to read. (Yes, they can!)

Presentation of dyslexia is thought to be 50% down to genetics and 50% the result of the environment (see Morton and Frith Framework below, 1993).

Morton and Frith

Outside of school, dyslexics can be brilliant, bold, creative; when free of the expectations of reading and writing.

The modern concept of disability is that it is created by the environment. Early identification and support is key, if children ‘at risk’ are to succeed.

  • What is dyslexia anyway?

Like most abstract things, it’s only once you start to engage with dyslexia, and you have direct experience of it, that it becomes tangible and real.

When my son started to experience failure at school, I quickly engaged with dyslexia, with that came the realisation that in this current pressure-cooker education system of accelerated progress and ability groups, more children are failing and more children are displaying dyslexic-type difficulties.

I was, and still am, a slow processor. I couldn’t catch a ball, tie my laces, ride a bike. My mum re-taught me handwriting just before I started Secondary School, it was illegible before then.

This was the pre-curriculum days; all I remember doing in Primary school was writing poetry and reciting times tables. I have always been an avid reader and don’t remember being taught to read, only that I used to have a small card to move under the words as I read. Perhaps in the current system, I would be identified as being dyslexic?

Can you start to engage with dyslexia as a construct or concept?

  • Can you start to look at those children experiencing failure and appreciate that some of them may be dyslexic?

For signs of dyslexia in the classroom, read previous post: Dyslexia in class

‘All men, by nature, desire to know’, Aristotle.

In my experience, dyslexic children love to learn and to feel smart. Start to align yourself with their unique perspective and watch them shine with a megawatt intensity. Small adjustments: seating, pencil grip, use of a notebook, movement breaks; can have a huge impact.

Talk to the child, what works for them?

  • Simple activities such as the Alphabet Arc, can cement that illusive understanding that letters have names and sounds (the Alphabetic Principle).

see tips on the Alphabet Arc: Practical tips alphabet names.

  • Use those spelling strategies that help dyslexic learners to tap into the way they need to learn, leading to self awareness (metacognition). see here spelling and memory
  • Make learning as experiential as possible, let them talk, and when writing, give them the words to help them: less is more! (a few openers or conjunctions with a supporting visual, some tricky spellings with syllables written in different colours).
  • If reading is a difficulty, don’t crowd them but support reading instruction with paired and shared reading, as well as explicit instruction, to build engagement and enjoyment of reading.
  • Most importantly, give them a sense of ‘can do’, know that they will be more tired than their classmates and that they DO have to work harder to achieve less – how demoralising!

For more thoughts on reading, see previous post: reading and the PSC

It is likely that dyslexia will look different in every school; take the opportunity to have a discussion around this. What is the demographic of your community; jobs, beliefs, the nature of your relationship with them. What is the attitude of your Senior Leadership Team to dyslexia, your TA’s, Teachers,  Board of Governors, external professionals, any additional service providers, including sport and after school clubs?

Start to be aware of dyslexia and you won’t have to work to notice dyslexic strengths; they come naturally with an awareness of dyslexia.

Find Resources from the BDA here:

Dyslexia Awareness Week

Information from the BDA for educators here:

Practical Information

If you would like to have a discussion about dyslexia this year, here are some ideas:

Dyslexia discussion


a,b,c…easy as??



Michael Jackson sang that it was easy but for some of us, learning our ‘a,b,c’s’ feels impossible. Moreover, as everyone else is ‘getting it’; how does that feel for a young learner?

One of the key components of any SpLD intervention is the ‘alphabet arc’. Why?



Something that dyslexics typically do not grasp, without instruction, is that letters have a name and sound – of course they do!

In order to acquire this understanding, dyslexic children need to experience the alphabet, so that it becomes less abstract. This is essentially how dyslexics can thrive in all areas of learning. Their minds are apt to rotate abstract concepts, to take 360 views and see all possibilities. Simply saying this is ‘a’ because this is ‘a’ does not cut it!! They have to experience something; using their senses, which is where the multi-sensory learning comes in.

Cognitive Load Theory and Working Memory limitations are big topics in education. By taking in information via Primary biological information i.e. our senses; this decreases the load on Working Memory. It is more of an evolutionary approach to learning, information that just couldn’t be processed before, gets transferred to Long Term Memory!

Read more here: Evolutionary Upgrade of Cognitive Load Theory.

The alphabet arc is simply, as it says on the tin, alphabet letters arranged in order of the alphabet, in the shape of an arc.

So often, when I’m teaching the alphabet arc, students will say .

‘..but this looks like a…and if you do this, it becomes a…’

Encourage them to close that 3D, spatial thinking down – it is not going to help them in this task!

Look out for:

  • Children spelling by saying letter sounds, instead of using the letter names – well into KS2 and KS3 (because they don’t have automatic recall, or understand the difference).
  • Confusion between letter names and sounds. (see signs of dyslexia)
  • Confusion over orientation of letters, with many reversals.
  • Inability to sequence, or recite the alphabet.
  • Over reliance on phonics for spelling, producing some unusual attempts.
  • No knowledge of the 5 vowels.

Some insight.

A few months ago, my eight year old was sitting on the bed (between there and the bath we have our BEST chats).

He: ‘How do you spell ‘p’?’.

Me: ‘What do you mean?’, …unsure whether he needed the loo. (I always answer a question with a question, as it’s usually just ‘wondering out loud’ and he has the answer).

‘He: The letter: ‘p’, how do you spell it?’

Aaaaah, he didn’t understand the ‘Alphabetic Principle’, the fact that letters have names and sounds.

  • I told him that when you write ‘p’, it is a picture of the sound /p/!  OoooooH!

So, what is the Alphabet Arc anyway?

Using wooden, or plastic letters, the pupil is asked to arrange the alphabet in an arc on the desk or table in front of them, with ‘m,n’ in the middle.

There are many versions of letters available: magnetic, coloured, tactile, plain. It might be easier to start with coloured letters and progress to plain wood. With the plain ones, pupils find it harder to remember letter orientation, therefore there is greater challenge.

How can you help your students acquire this knowledge?

  • Get some solid alphabet letters.
  • Pupil to practice setting them out in an arc, with adult support, or with a classmate (who is very secure with the alphabet).
  • Start with markers: a, ‘m,n’ in the middle and z at the end, in an approximation of where the full arc will go. The idea is that the full alphabet will be within the student’s gaze.
  • Pupil to practice laying them out in sequence, first of all forwards and… when this is easily accomplished…backwards!
  • The children can make games up: close eyes and point to where a letter should be, mix sections up and re-arrange, close eyes and take one away… they will think of their own challenges!
  • The alphabet song is useful to help children remember.
  • Touch each letter and give its name and sound! This will take time and will not happen straight away as the brain is creating new pathways.


In this way, pupils are using their sense of touch, they are saying the names and sounds and hearing them. Have a mirror handy so that they can see the sounds being made from the lips and teeth and encourage them to feel them too: air, vibrations, movements of the tongue.

Things to look out for and address:

  • Confusion over letter names and sounds e.g. g/j, letter orientation e.g. backwards ‘j’, confusion over letter order.
  • The dreaded SCHWA dun, dun, duuuun. This is when students add vowel sounds onto the end e.g. puh, fuh, luh. Encourage ‘pure’ sounds, tell them to snip the additional sounds off the end! Get some imaginary scissors!! The schwa will affect their ability to blend sounds in decoding (reading) and to separate sounds in words when encoding (spelling).

Look here for my video for Nexus Education:

Alphabet Arc video

Look here for a lesson plan (whole class) on letter names : Whole class alphabet arc

Understanding the power of the dyslexic mind and the alphabet.

In a brilliant exhibition at the Smithsonian, dyslexic graphic designer, Madalyn Hymas, showed how 6 letters can make 48 words. You start to appreciate how confusing the alphabet is for a mind that sees endless possibilities!

Madalyn Hymas


*seek specialist advice where possible, however, this relatively simple ‘alphabet arc’ exercise can really help – DON’T DELAY!

  • Get in touch if you have any questions!

See also:

Dyslexia: Finding the elephant in the classroom.


In this blog, I aim to help Primary classroom teachers identify the elephants…I mean dyslexic children in their midst. I feel that teachers often have a good instinct but perhaps lack confidence, or are limited by school policy, when it comes to identification of dyslexia.

I am driven by the desire to help to identify and support dyslexic learners because my own son is dyslexic. Dyslexic learners often have low self esteem and can become disenfranchised due to negative experiences in school.

I challenge you to be curious…

I’m told Dyslexia is a ‘predictable’ need but many educators still resist identifying and supporting this, fairly common, learning difference. Why?

Is it fear of cost implications, at a time when budgets are tight?

Perhaps it’s the abstract nature of dyslexia, or the fact that, unlike some other learning differences, dyslexia reflects directly on teaching. Is it fear of labelling a child?

It is suggested that there are, at least, three elephants in every classroom! The analogy of an elephant seems particularly pertinent; I’ve often seen the scientific study of dyslexia likened to blind  men ‘looking’ at an elephant. They each experience a different aspect and are convinced they have the full story. The truth is; it’s different for every individual (due to genetic and environmental factors) but there are many common characteristics.

We can ignore dyslexia but it will not go away; what is the cost, both to the mental health and future opportunities for these children? Could educators be doing more to identify and support these learners?

The year 1 phonics screener might give information about these children and the year 1 target of ‘knowledge of letter names’ might give a further clue. Dyslexic children typically struggle to acquire the ‘Alphabetic Principle’ i.e. that letters have names AND sounds. Letters continue to be abstract to them until they ‘discover’ them through multi-sensory learning (feeling the letters, saying the sound, writing the shape).

Observe and listen to your children! Who might be dyslexic?

This isn’t exhaustive but might just get you thinking! Remember, the only expert is the child – get to know them and work with parents to provide mutual support.

**Take a moment to jot down what you think are indicators of dyslexia, under the following headings: Speaking and listening, Writing, Reading, Maths and Sensory differences.

Now read on!

Here are some clues:


speaking and listening

Be on the Look out for:

Bee on the lookout

  • I might… get confused between groups of letter sounds which originate in the same area (articulation) : /f/th/v/, k/g, /b/d/p/. I might also have difficulty saying consonant blends e.g. /st/ (links to writing).

*nb a letter within 2 lines e.g. /a/ suggests a sound.

Why? I may have low sensory feedback from these speech sounds (I can’t feel them or ‘hear’ them), this transfers to spelling later. This might be linked to some challenges with coordination too.

  • I might…have trouble remembering letter names and get certain pairs mixed up e.g. c/s, g/j, f/v, u/y.

Why? This might be because these letter names are articulated in the same areas e.g. ‘c’ and ‘s’ are said through the teeth.

  • I might… put my hand up and forget what I want to say, or when put on the spot, not be able to remember/answer. I might call out in class without waiting to be chosen.

Why? I can’t hold the information in my working memory and when under stress, forget what I want to say. I’m desperate to take part and share my awesome ideas which are often complex.

  • I might… have trouble sequencing multi-syllabic words e.g. hippopotamus and following several verbal instructions given at once.

Why? I might have working memory (where auditory information is held) and auditory (processing of sounds) processing difficulties, this leads to sequencing difficulties.

  • I might… have difficulty retaining and understanding abstract language e.g. what a ‘verb’ is.

Why? I often try to support language with my imagination and may visualise meaning, using my ‘mind’s eye’, I don’t have a picture for ‘verb’.



Be on the Look out for:

Bee on the lookout

  • I may not… be able to hold a pencil well and may not remember the shape of the letters I want to write, I may reverse them long after other children stop.

Why? I might have difficulties with co-ordination and fine motor skills. The shape of letters may not have become automatic for me. I may not really understand what letters are i.e. a picture of a sound.

  • I may… miss abstract words out of my sentence, often High Frequency Words (words commonly used in the English Language).

Why? Abstract words cannot be visualised, many are similar, (I don’t have a picture for them to help me) and they drop out of working memory when I’m writing, due to memory overload.

  • I may… have difficulties with layout and punctuation: finger spaces, margins; also commas and full stops.

Why? I might have a difficulty with visual perception (how things appear on the page) and orientation. I might get memory overload, I might not really understand how to use punctuation. I’m concentrating so hard due to cognitive burden that I forget.


  • I may… spell the same word several different ways ON THE SAME PAGE! Have persistent difficulties with High Frequency Words, make letter omissions in consonant blends (two consonants seamlessly mixed together e.g. /mp/), transposition of letters (mix them up), mix up similar sounds e.g. /b/ and /p/ and make unusual phonetic attempts at spelling.

Why? I can’t tell when a word ‘looks’ wrong and it’s like encountering the word for the first time. I typically struggle to map sounds (phonemes) to their corresponding letter shape (graphemes). My difficulties with speech and language start to transfer to writing. Letters and syllables may be transposed (wrong order) due to working memory difficulties (working memory is where we hold information temporarily).

Sounds in words are indistinct to me and a word can be like a chewing-gum blob of sound in my mouth!



This is probably the area most commonly associated with dyslexia. To really understand and spot dyslexia though, one has to look across a child’s cognitive profile and Primary teachers are perfectly positioned to do this.

Be on the look out for:

Bee on the lookout

  • I might… misread letters, especially b/d.

Why? I can’t differentiate between them, my mind might rotate them/play with them ( they don’t necessarily MOVE). I can’t recognise them automatically. I might have a difficulty processing symbolic information (see also maths).

  • I might have difficulties blending sounds; particularly initial consonant blends e.g. /st/ and end blends e.g. /mp/.

Why? I might… struggle to hold the sounds in memory and sequence them, it may be a coordination issue. Simple CVC words may provide challenge.

  • I tend to have difficulties recognising High Frequency Words. I might read ‘was’ correctly and then incorrectly ON THE SAME PAGE! For reasons discussed.
  • I can… have difficulties with  eye tracking (co-ordinating eye movement), I might read across a word and begin reading with the sounds out of sequence or not read to the end of the word correctly.

Why? Decoding/reading is primarily an act of coordination and the eyes jump in saccades (hop) across the page and across words. Dyslexic children seem to lack coordination in this area, this improves with practice but reading is effortful and so they are often reluctant.



Be on the Look Out for:

Bee on the lookout

  • I can’t… remember what the symbols mean for the main operations.

Why? Because I can’t remember symbolic information without supporting aids e.g. visual or semantic clues (meaning).

  • I can’t… lay information out on the page e.g. writing out a simple sum.

Why? I might have visual and perceptual difficulties.

  • I get… numbers mixed up and might write them back to front, I might not remember the names of numbers.

Why? Numbers are symbols and are abstract which makes it hard for me to remember.

  • I might… get numbers mixed up e.g. twelve and twenty because they begin in the same way: /tw/, I might struggle to remember the counting sequence after ten because the pattern becomes irregular.

Why? I might have difficulties sequencing and remembering abstract information.

*Time, times tables, days of the week  and months of the year can be really tricky for me.

The language of maths, with Greek and Latin roots, can be challenging and abstract. Long, complex words burden working memory and the phonological loop so that it never goes into Long Term Memory.

Be sure to have transparency around the language – connect with the etymology (history of the word), create an image, practice retrieving the word eg perimeter- peri= around, metron = measure.


This aspect of dyslexia tends to be discussed far less than e.g. reading, where a lot of money has been put into research. Observe the child, talk to them, does any of this fit?

In additional to our main 5 senses, we have our proprioceptive sense (where our body is in space) and vestibular (balance). If you are lucky enough to have an OT in school, talk to them about this.

Bee on the lookout

Be on the look out for:

  • I can’t… concentrate when the classroom is noisy.

Why? I might struggle to filter out background noise.

  • I might… sit on my foot, rock in my chair or droop sleepily over my desk.

Why? I might have difficulties maintaining arousal/concentration and need some kind of external input to help me concentrate. Movement might help me, or standing to learn.

  • I learn… best when I am using all of my senses in learning and when my unique thinking is appreciated!

Why? It’s how I process the world!



  • Can you look across these areas and identify signs of dyslexia, did they match the list you wrote at the beginning?
  • There’s a great deal of information out there, read broadly, apply and reach your own conclusions!

For help with spelling: Memory and spelling

For suggestions to help with learning the alphabet see: Alphabet Arc

How might you initiate a discussion around dyslexia in your school? read here: Let’s chat: dyslexia

Suggested Further Reading:

BDA Read BDA’s Indicators for Primary.

Day-to-Day Dyslexia in the Classroom, Joy Pollack, Elisabeth Waller and Rody Politt, (2004, RoutledgeFalmer).

Dyslexia and Mathematics, T. R. Miles and Elaine Miles, (2004, RoutledgeFalmer)

Dyslexia: A Practioner’s Handbook, Gavin Read, (2016, Wiley and Sons)

Removing Dyslexia as a Barrier to Achievement, Neil McKay, (2012, SEN marketing)

Rose Report Read Rose Report

Sensational Kids, Lucy Jane Miller, (2006, Penguin).

Teaching Literacy to Learners with Dyslexia: A Multisensory Approach, Kathleen Kelly & Sylvia Phillips (2011, Sage).










visual think


As a dyslexia teacher and mum, my aim is to support those with dyslexia. I am particularly interested in helping class teachers to get a better understanding of this rather abstract and complex difference. Sadly, dyslexic strengths often only appear after school life has ended. My dream would be for dyslexic children to thrive in school, both emotionally and academically. They can learn, if they can do it differently.

I’ve used the name ‘thinkpix’ because when my eldest son (now 10) was around 5 years old, he told me ‘I have a picture for everything’. I read ‘The Gift of Dyslexia’ shortly after and everything fell into place; why he was struggling at school, had been late to talk (3 years), could never remember nursery rhymes and had never been interested in the alphabet!

My first blog is on identifying dyslexia in the classroom. I will look at how to support these children in future blogs as well as other living and learning posts!

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