So My Dyslexic Blog is back for regular posts with the aim of providing some motivational advice for people with learning difficulties based on my own experiences. For those of you who are new to the blog just a brief background, I’m a 23 year old, live i Ireland, graduate with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
I had many struggles and setbacks during my time in the education system but managed to come out the other end with a First Class Honours Degree in Marketing thanks to the support and motivation of family and friends and some very helpful people along the way who showed me how to work with my difficulties rather than working against them.
I have outlined many of my struggles and experiences in some previous blog posts so feel free to have a wander through the site and I hope that people who are struggling can take some inspiration from my story and it might hopefully be the boost you need to keep going through the struggle.
The time for the year for… exams
I have made the decision to return to now as it’s that time of year, the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate are starting in 5 weeks, students in 3rd level and other years in secondary school are also facing into exam period and this is a time of year which is very stressful for everyone but when you have the added stress of learning difficulties on top of it, it can often become hard to cope.
I recently heard someone use a fantastic expression, he said “don’t wait for the storm to pass as you may miss the opportunity you were waiting for, instead, learn to dance in the rain”. This got me thinking, dyslexia and dyspraxia like other learning difficulties are challenges you will be facing for the rest of your life. When you finish your time in education they will not go away.
I graduated two years ago and still on a daily basis at work my reading is slow, my reading comprehension can be poor resulting in me needing to read things several times before I fully understand it, my hand writing can only be understood by me and even then I struggle to read it sometimes and all my other difficulties are still there.
These difficulties relate to the storm, we would much rather have sunny weather i.e. no difficulties but there is no point waiting for that as it’s not going to happen. Instead we need to learn to dance in the rain. We need to learn how to cope with our difficulties and work or way forward so we don’t miss the opportunity we have always been waiting for.
The idea of exam supports
To begin with I would like address the idea of exam supports. When in primary school and again for the first few years of secondary school, I received no exam supports. I walked into the exam hall like everyone else only when I sat down I had a ball and chain around my neck holding me back from reaching my full potential.
That ball and chain was my dyslexia and dyspraxia. I failed more exams then I passed and the idea of giving up was very appealing. Once I was diagnosed with dyslexia things changed, slightly, as a diagnosis isn’t a cure.
I applied through the disabilities officer/guidance councillor for exam supports and as a result I was able to sit my exam in a separate room to everyone else, my supervisor also acted as a reader and read the exam paper to me so I could listen and understand rather than take hours reading it several times before understanding what I was being asked. I also availed of a scribe so my supervisor would write my answers down for me as I spoke them so my hand writing wasn’t holding me back.
These two supports made a massive difference, suddenly I knew what I was being asked as I didn’t have to read the exam paper myself and when I gave the correct answer the examiner/teacher was actually able to read it and as a result I could get the marks for the correct information.
Some schools use a tape recorder instead of a scribe or they will provide a student with a laptop to type their answers instead of writing them depending on the resources available. Other exam supports that I benefited from were 10 minutes extra time for every hour of the exam, so a 2 hour exam was 2 hours 20 minutes for me.
This extra time makes a massive difference as when you’re not writing yourself you have to pause in between speaking your answer to give your scribe the time to write what you’re saying and this often takes longer then writing yourself.
Many people who were immature or uninformed of the difficulties caused by specific learning difficulties would refer to these supports as help that gave me an advantage over others but this is far from true, in all reality these supports just removed the ball and chain from around my neck and put me on a level playing field with everyone else rather than having to face the same exam as them as well as my learning difficulties.
It takes a lot of effort
In order to avail of any supports however you will need an up to date educational phycologists report outlining your diagnosis and learning difficulties and due to a lot of schools having a lack of resources as a result of poor funding it may take a lot of persistence to be granted the supports.
Just because a school doesn’t have funding or facilities does not overrule your right to supports however. My secondary school had a lack of funding but a teacher in the school agreed to give their time to supervise my exam and act as my reader / scribe in a separate room to everyone else.
It took a lot of effort and visiting the supports officer in the school on a daily basis until she was sick of seeing me before I was able to get the supports but I got them in the end.
Learn to dance in the rain
Once you have addressed the issue of exam supports you then need to concentrate on your actual study. You need to learn to dance in the rain. What works for everyone else won’t work for you. And that can be said about someone with no learning difficulties too. Everyone studies differently and different things work for different people. You will just have to account for your difficulties also.
When writing notes instead of using white paper try use coloured paper, it isn’t has harsh on your eyes and it makes the text sit easier on the paper which makes it slightly easier to read and comprehend for people with dyslexia, try different colours, baby blue paper worked for me, I know others who preferred a pale yellow or green.
When choosing a font try to again use something soft, avoid italic (when the font is slanting to the side) this can be very harsh for a dyslexic to decode and comprehend. Again try a few different fonts, for me Times New Roman or any of the fonts with flicks or swirls just made it impossible for me to read, I always change the font of anything I am given to Calibri.
Finding your way…Mind map?
Once you have found what colour and font works for you now it’s time to look at some study techniques. Many dyslexics like myself find mind maps or spider diagrams as some people call them, a very helpful way to study.
A mind map is where you take a topic and put it in the middle of the page with a circle around it. Then you start to develop that topic, for every point under that topic you create a new branch out from the centre of the page, and each branch might have 3 or 4 points to back this up.
At the end you have a main topic with 4 or 5 main points off it and each point backed up by smaller notes. Mind maps are very visual rather than full pages of text, they allow you to introduce various colours for each point and to include little images or diagrams. By doing this it is much easier to fit a full topic onto 1 page and by becoming much more visual it cuts out the stress of reading and writing.
Focused on the question
Not only do mind maps make things much more visual and easier for a dyslexic to learn but it also focuses you towards answering exam questions. Dyslexics like myself can often find their mind wondering off in a direction completely different or irrelevant o the question that was asked in the exam, a good way to avoid this from happening is a system called PDS which stands for Point, Develop and Support.
You should use 4 or 5 PDS’s when answering an exam question. Using the example of a mind map I outlined above, let’s say in an exam you have a question about a specific topic i.e. health, your first point on this is stress, you make your point, you develop it, causes, affects etc. and you support your developments with proof.
By doing this it keeps you focused on the question you are being asked and helps you gain as many mars as possible for your answer. You can use mind maps when answering exam questions during study time to help you learn off answers and understand topics in more focused and accurate detail.
Your brain needs time and breaks
It is also important to take breaks when studying, many people with learning difficulties can have very short attention spans, I often loose concentration or interest in something relatively fast and as a result need to change things up to keep productive.
If you try to study beyond the point of your attention span it means everything beyond that point will be wasted and you won’t take in. The best thing to do is begin studying on a specific topic, after 30 to 40 minutes when you begin to feel your attention slipping take a 10 minute break. Go for a short walk, or just leave the room for a change of scenery and then after 10 minutes return and start again.
This 10 minutes allows you to clear your mind and focus again, it means when you return your attention span will be starting fresh and you can actually concentrate for another 30 to 40 minutes before you need to take another 10 minute break.
Some people see these 10 minute breaks as wasted study time but if you don’t take them you are less likely to understand or remember anything you have done after the first 30 to 40 minutes as your attention will have drifted completely.
Make yourself comfortable
One of the last things I want to discuss in relation to upcoming exams is the exam itself. I was once thought be someone that the exam is yours, not the examiners, not the teachers, not anyone else’s.
If you are in a separate exam centre then make sure that you remember the supervisor is there to supervise, make sure that everything is above board and possible act as your reader / scribe, after that everything else is yours so make yourself comfortable as comfort eases stress and helps your thought process flow.
When I was in an exam I would make sure to arrive to the room 30 to 45 minutes before the exam and I would push all tables and chairs to one side of the room except for 2 tables in the middle of the room and a chair.
By doing this it meant I had plenty of space and didn’t feel confined in the exam or it didn’t look like a class room which would subconsciously make me feel more relaxed. I also found that walking around the room helps me relax and concentrate.
Remember to do what works
I would tell my supervisor at the start of the exam that I walk around during the exam as it helps me concentrate and they never had a problem with this as like I said, the exam is yours, not theirs.
I would begin the exam sitting, they would read the exam paper to me, I would decide what questions I was doing then get them to read the question to me again, at this point I would make some notes to focus my answer then I would get up and walk around the room while speaking my answer and my scribe sat there doing the writing.
Don’t be afraid to make yourself comfortable in an exam as comfort reduces stress and increases your productivity. You might thing this made me look like a mad man but my response to that is, I have a First Class Honours Degree, I couldn’t care less how I looked for each of those 2 hour exams, I’m never going to see those supervisors again but every employer who interviews me will see my degree on my CV.
So remember to do what works for you and remember that some of the world’s most successful people have learning difficulties, Ricard Branson is Dyslexic as was Steve Jobs and many many more, you have great potential, you just have difficulty showing your abilities, but as soon as you learn to dance in the rain the storm will no longer be an obstacle.
So that’s me over and done with for another blog, I hope someone manages to find this helpful and even if it helps just one struggling person that’s good enough for me.