What is dyslexia and how can it be recognised?

There are many definitions of dyslexia.  Some are based on a medical model, others are concerned with educational impact and others with the possible causes of dyslexia.  AccessAbility Centre staff like the first definition below because it fits more comfortably with a social model of disability and inclusivity.  We have also offered another definition for comparison.


“We would argue that dyslexia is an experience that arises out of natural human diversity on the one hand and a world on the other where the early learning of literacy, and good personal organisation and working memory is mistakenly used as a marker of ‘intelligence’. The problem here is seeing difference incorrectly as ‘deficit’. “

Dr Ross Cooper  (2006) This definition by Cooper can be found on the Brainhe website which is an award winning site on Neurodiversity in HE developed at DeMontfort University



Dyslexia:  “A combination of abilities and difficulties which affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling and writing.  Accompanying weaknesses may be identified in areas of speed of processing, short-term memory, sequencing, auditory and/or visual perception, spoken language and motor skills.  (British Dyslexia Association  2001)


Individuals with dyslexia vary considerably in the nature and severity of their difficulties, and in the strategies they have developed to accommodate those difficulties.


Variations in processing difficulties and the effects of secondary factors, such as environment and self-esteem, contribute significantly to the individual profile. Lecturers may see students who:

·          have individual patterns of difficulty, varying coping strategies and emotional responses to their problems;

·          are 'compensated adults', (usually the recipients of good support) who have developed a range of successful strategies.  This can mean that other people are unaware of the extent of their difficulties and the extra work they are doing in order to demonstrate their achievement;

·          have never been assessed, have little idea about the nature of their difficulties, but are struggling in a situation which is stretching their literacy and organisational skills beyond previous experience;

·          produce written assignments which do not truly reflect the student's abilities or the nature of their problems. Work that is well presented may be seen as evidence that a student does not require support.  Work that has many errors and inconsistencies may appear as careless or rushed when, in reality, it is the best of several drafts.


Emphasis is usually given to problems with written work. However, writing is only one aspect of the range of difficulties reported by students. These can include some or all of the following:


 ·          listening and taking notes in a lecture;  this is why many students are provided with digital recorders and microphones so that they can concentrate on listening and understanding rather than writing. In some cases students may also have a note-taker.

·          limitations in working memory, resulting in the need to go over texts many times to remember and understand them;  this is one of the reasons why extra time is given in examinations.

·          handwriting which may be extremely slow, lacking automaticity, which contributes to spelling errors and/or word omissions;

·          pronunciation of polysyllabic and/or unfamiliar words;

·          slow speed of reading; word omissions, problems making sense of print without substantial re-reading; this is another reason why extra time may be given in exams.

·          difficulties in reading aloud;

·          tendency to misinterpret or miscopy complex written or spoken instructions;

·          word recall difficulties (spoken and written); often giving the appearance of immature language in relation to complexity of ideas;

·          estimating time, both in managing deadlines and for daily routines;

·          left/right confusion, leading to orientation difficulties, e.g. in the library;

·          fatigue as a result of the extra concentration and energy needed to meet both the literacy and non-literacy requirements of the H.E. environment.

·          difficulties with basic maths and statistics; this particularly affects students who encounter mathematical content within a non-mathematical discipline.

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