First published in Dutch on the 16th of November 2011

The message not to read but to search

I counsel many students who are dyslexic. I used to bring them together with non-dyslexic students in a course focussed on study strategies. The central message of that course was that you should not simply read everything, but search strategically for information. Nowadays I explain it in this way:

“You can compare studying to solving a mystery. You are Sherlock Holmes or a CSI agent. You continually search for clues to solve the mystery. However, it is not about the identity of the killer or the circumstances of the crime scene. Instead, it is about what the subject matter is, what the important bits are, and what you are supposed to do with it. The clues are scattered everywhere; in books, articles, papers, lectures, seminars, assignments, tutors, fellow and senior students. Maybe even with a lost librarian! It is up to you not to start learning EVERYTHING like a headless chicken, but to think, to browse critically, and to draw connections so that you will eventually solve the mystery”.

 A gift, or is it?

You’d think that a course that is able to convert this message to concrete strategies and techniques would be a gift from heaven for a dyslexic. Finally, there is an alternative to that cursed reading so many of these students invest frustrating amounts of energy in. After all, reading is an exceptional inefficient strategy for acquiring knowledge. At university, this strategy mostly leads to problems because even “normal” students are not able to read everything, let alone someone with dyslexia.

But the dyslexic students in my courses often had great trouble to apply the offered strategies. “I can’t refrain from reading all of it,” or “I am scared to skip parts,” were frequent remarks. Other students sometimes also thought it strange to search for information instead of reading everything, but they didn’t show the same resistance or right-out blockade in applying these alternative techniques.

A different experience

How can this be explained? Why do dyslexic students cling so convulsively onto reading even though this is their weakest skill? When I immersed myself into this situation, I was confronted with a well-known insight that ought to be central to any counsellor and any form of counselling; the experience of the student is paramount! And the school experience of someone with dyslexia is different from someone without dyslexia. The difference can be explained by means of the following analogy;

A swimming instructor wants to teach two students how to swim. Both are floating in the water, hanging from a buoy. They move forward by treading the water, but obviously go a lot slower than is desired. The first student is used to moving forward in this way, relatively relaxed, though still slightly frustrated. The swimming coach asks him to let go of the buoy. He does so, his head dunks under for a moment, but soon surfaces. His technique is awkward but now the coach can get started with the lessons and provide him with specific instructions.

The second student is also used to bobbing about in this way, but floats a lot less relaxed. With him it is more a matter of fear than frustration, because the water comes up to his lips. When he is asked to let go of the buoy, he does so obediently, but panics the moment he starts sinking. He quickly surfaces and clings onto the buoy again. All further attempts to make him let go lead to the same result; release-panic-cling. He does want to swim, but is incapable of overcoming his panic attacks. As an instructor, I cannot even start with the class.

It does not matter what they say

I have noticed that dyslexic students often fall into the second category. They want to learn how to study differently, but normally already experience so much pressure that a change of strategy throws them into “uncharted waters”. This leads to panic and the tendency to cling to familiar methods, even though they already know them to be defective. A deep uncertainty dominates. A student was once able to explain her experience to me very clearly. “I have known for a long time that I am a dyslexic. Everyone has always told me that it has nothing to do with intelligence. But it doesn’t matter what they say. I have always seen how I need twice as much time than my girlfriends and often get lower grades than they do. In what way am I just as clever then?

This is reality for most dyslexics. Research indeed shows that it has nothing to do with limited intelligence and we can keep on explaining this to the students as long as we want, but their experience is simply different. There is no point in denying this or to paint it as a misconception. After all, this is also based on facts. Perhaps these are different facts than those that come from scientific research, but they are facts just as same.

Experience as vantage point

Ever since, I have tried to understand the experience of the students better. Apparently, they think they have to play the “game” by the same rules as the others. In football terms: if everyone is right-footed than I have to be right-footed too, even though I am left-footed. The result is that they systematically play worse than those who are naturally right-footed. They don’t realise such a limiting rule does not even exist. To stick with football: you can also use your left-footed, inside of the foot, outside of the foot, tip, heel, knee, chest, head, etc. The playing-field of learning offers room for many creative methods!

Many students think that information has to be read from start to finish and has to be processed in one go. In higher education, however, many of them are confronted with the unattainability of these goals and are luckily willing to set aside or alter their convictions. With dyslexic students, this is more complicated. In their eyes, their fellow students do actually take in information effortlessly by simply reading. That goal is, from this perspective, not at all unreasonable. They see their inability to achieve that goal as a personal defect. Subsequently, they hold onto that method even more strongly to prove that they can do it.

What instruction cannot do, but counselling should be able to do

The swimming instructor cannot do much as long as the student clings onto the buoy, but I think that a counsellor should have more to offer. Each time, I try to expose and explore the student’s experience. I want to show the student how his own obstructive convictions and undermining feelings sustain his ineffective behaviour. Only when the student realises that his own stubbornness obstructs him from achieving his goals, will he be open to real adjustments.

Real adjustments do not stem from an unrealistic ideal of how it really should be done (you ought to be right-footed!). They are the adjustments that bend the existing, unconstructive mechanisms. In order to do this, one needs to accept the existing situation (including the accompanying experience of thoughts, behaviour, and feelings) as a factual given and not as a cumbersome misconception (“You see it wrong!” the counsellor says) or as a weakness that must not be given into (“I don’t want to hear it!” says the student).

A dyslexic experiences the school world in a different way than someone without dyslexia. Perhaps the dyslexic is the first who has to accept this.