Dyslexia and the Adult Learner

By Mike Horne *.

I teach part time courses for adults for a University Foundation Award (it used to be known as Adult Education). When I started researching into this topic I could find plenty of books and websites about helping children and college students with dyslexia, but very little about or for mature adults with dyslexia.

What is dyslexia?

Probably to most people it is considered to be a form of illiteracy, an excuse for bad spelling or the subject of anagram-like jokes ("dyslexia lures K O!").

A search of the World Wide Web reveals that there is no single definition of dyslexia and no such thing as a typical dyslexic person. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek - meaning "difficulty with words".

"The dyslexic brain is different from ordinary brains. Studies have shown differences in anatomy, organisation and functioning of the dyslexic brain as compared to the non dyslexic brain. Some people suggest that dyslexic people tend to be more 'right brain thinkers'. The right hemisphere of the brain is associated with lateral, creative and visual thought processing....These neurological differences have the effect of giving the person a particular way of thinking and learning." (Hammond and Hercules) These brain differences mean that the dyslexic person has difficulties with - short term memory, processing sounds, motor skills and visual processing.

"...The majority scientific view at the present time [is] that dyslexia is a neurological condition, usually inherited, which affects mainly those functions of the brain dealing with the processing of phonological information. The result is that mapping the processing of phonological codes (sound information) on to graphical and lexical codes (information on the appearance of letters and words) is fuzzy and poorly specified, and the memory storage and retrieval of such information is inefficient." (Singleton and Trotter 2002). There is some evidence that these functions are carried out in parts of the dyslexic brain when compared with the non-dyslexic brain (Snowling 2000).

Or to put it another way - it is different arrangement of the brain, which can cause periodic problems with reading, writing, spelling, communication, learning or short term memory. Dyslexia manifests itself in different ways in different people and at different times. It affects up to 10 percent of the population (Jackson 2001) and occurrence is not limited to any racial or social groups, though men are four times more likely than women to be dyslexic (ADO website 2004) . It may be worse if the dyslexic is under stress or hurried. There may be secondary problems of lack of confidence or low self-esteem due to undiagnosed dyslexia. It is often hereditary and may be associated with left-handedness, dyspraxia (clumsiness and poor coordination), asthma and eczema.

Dyslexia is not the same as illiteracy. There are 7 million adults (20 percent of the population) in England who are illiterate (Hull 2001) - the definition used for that is that they are unable to find a plumber in the Yellow Pages telephone directory. Thirty five percent of 16 to 25 year olds in the UK 'score below level 3 in literacy - considered by international experts to be the minimum level to cope with modern life' (O M 23rd March 2003, page 10). I have seen no information about how many dyslexics are illiterate, but generally poor literacy skills in dyslexics are compensated by higher intelligence which effectively means that most dyslexics appear to have average literacy.

The English language.

I wonder if the English language itself, particularly in its written form, makes life harder to the dyslexic person?

Thomson (1979) points out that phonetic writing and spelling systems such as English are arbitrary and abstract. The 26 letters used have no relationship to the objects and concepts they represent. A large proportion of those letters are mirror images of each other (e.g. 'b' and 'd'). Although there are some rules about spellings (e.g. 'q' is followed by a 'u'), there are many sounds which can have alternative spellings and meanings (e.g. 'weigh' and 'way' and 'whey'). [click here for more on this topic]

In his book Mother Tongue Bill Bryson (1991) points to the variety of languages that have contributed to the development of the English language, leading to strange spellings - including irregular verbs and plurals of nouns. Words that have been added from other languages sometimes retain their original spellings and sometimes are anglicised (depending on international relations at the time!).

The grammar rules have always been very loose and allow for the development of new forms and words. For example the recent use of nouns as verbs - e.g. a soccer player is now 'red-carded' rather than sent off, an athlete 'medals' by finishing first, second or third (not to be confused with 'meddles'), athletes who set off ealry have 'false-started' and the score is 'dead-heated' rather than 'drawn' when both teams score the same number of points. [Is it a coincidence that these new words are all associated with sport?]

And what about the teaching? When I was 13, I lived for a month in France and was amazed at the way French was taught there at the time. Long lessons on grammar and so on. Quite unlike the English language teaching I received at school in England. In later years the teaching of English Language in schools became even more relaxed. In 1993 The GCSE was completely assessed without examinations and course work could be produced on a computer using a spell check!

Bad spellings have deliberately become part of our culture - mainly because a company can copyright a product or trade name that is not an already existing word. A well known American toy-shop chain even includes a dyslexic-like reversed letter in its name! I have to ask if we are giving our children a good start in their education by sending them to the 'Happy Kidz Nursery Skool' or similar institutions with badly spelt names? The trend towards using abbreviated spelling in e-mails and SMS text messages does not help young people to learn how to spell properly either (Brooks 2004).

Are other languages easier for the dyslexic to read and write? Are languages with more phonetic or even non-alphabetic writing easier? Are there the same problems with Japanese kanji? Apparently not - Japanese writing uses 2 different systems pictograms (kanji) and phonetic (kana). The thousands of kanji cause fewer problems for dyslexics than the hundred or so kana (Thomson 1979 p41-2, Sasanuma 1980).

Dyslexia and the adult learner.

Adults who have gone through "formal education" with un-diagnosed dyslexia have developed their own habits to hide or by-pass the dyslexia. This may mean they have unique (in so far as they are individually developed) learning styles. They also probably have been put off "education" by humiliation and teasing at school (Edwards 1994). And offers of help may achieve nothing or bring back bad memories.

These days young people can be tested for dyslexia by comparing tests of their IQ with their reading age. It is often the case that their IQ for their age is much higher than their "reading age". These can jointly give the impression that the schoolchild is an average pupil, when judged by their written work. So they are not given the teaching necessary to challenge their intellectual ability. [click here for some more information about dyslexia in children]

For full-time college and University students - allowances may be made in the presentation of assessed work and more time may be given in examinations. They may be eligible for free computers, software and mentoring. Software is available that reads computerised text, scans and reads printed text, reads back the students work and allows dictation directly into computerised text.

Helping the dyslexic adult is not just about giving them computer packages to help them read and spell - it is allowing them space to learn in their own way. Part-time adult students may not have the time or financial ability to make use of computer packages that may be offered to help them. Students in full time higher education or studying for 50 percent (or greater) of their time are eligable to apply for a Disabled Student Allowance from their Local Education Authority in the U.K.

[click here for some study skills that might help students with dyslexia]

How can a tutor recognise the adult dyslexic in the class?

The most obvious sign is that they have declared it as a disability on their registration form!

But many may not, for various reasons. They may not realise they are dyslexic, they may not know that dyslexia is now a recognised disability, they may not wish to labelled as being "disabled", they may not want to be offered help or have allowances made for their work. They may be coming to the class to learn and be entertained and so don't think it is relevant!

So here are some clues that you can look out for -

A dyslexic student may ...

None of these things is diagnostic on their own, but a combination of some of them may point to dyslexia or some other difficulty. They may of course also be signs of a poor or lazy student, but when you see some of these signs in a clever student then it would be a good idea to have a quiet friendly chat to them to ask if they are having problems studying.

You might find apparent contradictions in dyslexics' behaviour - one may arrive early for classes and another late - this is because one has compensated (or even overcompensated) for a problem (perhaps at an early age), in this example because of the individual has recgonised the tendency to forget appointments they have developed very good diary skills.

Dyslexics may also be bad at -

Dyslexics may be good at -

Dyslexics may respond better to:

How a tutor can help:


Dyslexia friendly handouts (and websites) -

(Sometimes words can seem to move around the page, particularly on glossy white paper/backgrounds. Dyslexics have trouble reading from one line to the next. Some dyslexics have poor short-term memory and thus have problems with long sentences.)

I found that the advice on writing handouts for dyslexics is very similar to advice for writing a good web page! People read web-pages on the screen slower than the printed word and tend to scan for key-words, presumably because many are paying by the minute for their internet access or telephone call. (Click here for some tips about writing web-pages).

Compare these guidelines with the suggestions for writing 'open learning' teaching materials in Race (1994, page 55).

I would suggest that there are similarities in the guidelines for writing dyslexia friendly materials, web-pages and open learning materials, and that these could be usefully adopted by tutors writing course materials for any students.

But please think carefully about how you use handouts in your teaching.

Assessing Dyslexic students' work

Many adult dyslexic students have had bad experiences during their education at school. And dyslexia seems to get worse when the individual is under pressure to perform. So I try not to make a big thing about the assessments and make sure that they are a natural part of the course.

In particular I try to avoid school-type words associated with assessment. So I call an "essay" a "report" (this is more appropriate for sciences anyway). I call a "test" a "quiz". And I never use the word "exam". I like to ask the students to make notes on their fieldwork and practical work, and then produce a neat copy of their results as part of their "project" or "report". I always ask to see their notebook at the end of the course.

I encourage the use of diagrams and drawings in the notebook. And photographs and tables are useful in the final reports.

Some non-standard forms of presentation for assessment:

These will place a greater responsibility on the tutor to create a record of the assessment and keep it for use by external examiners if the student is studying for a qualification.

Marking the assessed work -

For all students:-

I ask the students what sort of feedback they would like. Do they want their spelling and/or grammar corrected? Do they want their writing style criticised (probably best avoided anyway)? Do they just want me to comment on the content? Or would they just prefer something encouraging? Do they want to know their marks?

I use my own judgement as well! Particularly if this is not the first class they have attended. It does depend on the level of work expected by the course. I feel that new students should be encouraged, but I may not be helping veteran students if I ignore their lack of progress.

For students that I know to be dyslexic:-

I bear in mind that dyslexia comes and goes so the standard of written work may vary considerably. I am prepared to discuss the work with the student privately - they may be able to tell me whether they were going through a spelling bad patch. The non-dyslexic world sets standards for written work for publication and in assessments, so in the long term I am not helping dyslexic students by ignoring their problems.

There is a difference between someone who is truly making an effort but is being hindered by their dyslexia and those who are producing sloppy work because of laziness.

Dyslexia Testing:

There are tests for dyslexia and full time students can get financial help for coputers, software, aids and tutoring. But I am not sure that getting accurate, costly and time-consuming tests for part-time adult learners will always be useful. They have developed their own style of learning and probably will not change much now. Learning support is probably not available for part-time learners, so testing may raise false expectations of help.

But doing some self-assessed tests and then reading about dyslexia may help the adult learner to understand their strengths and weaknesses. This can be very revealing and insightful. They can then make better use of their strengths and perhaps develop strategies around their weaknesses.

Web-sites about dyslexia:

Adult Dyslexia Organization < http://www.futurenet.co.uk/charity/ado>

Alladin - tips for tutors <http://www.alladin.ac.uk/support/dyslexia_tutors_tips.html>

British Dyslexia Association <http://www.bda-dyslexia.org.uk>

Dyslexia and Learning a Modern Foreign Language <http://www.hull.ac.uk/langinst/olc/dyslexia.htm>

Making Dyslexia Work for You by Bonita Thomson <http://homepage.ntlworld.com/arthur.thomson/>

The Dyslexia Research Trust <http://www.dyslexic.org.uk/>

World Dyslexia Network Foundation <http://web.ukonline.co.uk/wdnf>

A Framework for Understanding Dyslexia by Department of Education and Skills <http://www.dfes.gov.uk/readwriteplus/understandingdyslexia/>


It is possible for tutors to teach in ways that help dyslexics to learn.

Using non-written materials can also add variety to teaching that will benefit all students.

Taking care over handouts will benefit students with other reading difficulties too.

Marking written work is not the only means of assessing students.

Dyslexia is a disability because the non-dyslexic world sets standards for conformity that they expect intelligent people to follow rather than accept diversity.

Do not confuse dyslexia with illiteracy.

Click here for some thoughts on learning and teaching.


Bedell G, 2002. Lost for Wurds. Observer Review 30th June 2002, p1-2.

Brooks R, 2004. Spellin: it's even harder than commas. The Sunday Times June 20th 2004, page 1-3.

Bryson B 1991. Mother Tongue. Penguin Books 288 pp ISBN: 014014305X

Edwards J 1994. The scars of dyslexia. Cassell, London. 182pp.

Gilroy DE & T R Miles 1996. Dyselxia at college (2nd edn.) Routledge, London. 260pp. isbn 0415127785

Hammond J & F Hercules. Understanding dyslexia. An introduction for dyslexic students in Higher Education. The Glasgow School of Art. 60pp. [downloaded from <http://www.gsa.ac.uk> May 2002]

Hull, B 2001. Libraries: deliverers of lifelong learning. Adults Learning 12, issue 6, 20-23.

Jamerson, M 2001. Delivering basic skills to adults with dyslexia. Adults Learning 12, issue 9, 25-6.

Newton M J, M E Thomson & I L Richards 1979. Readings in Dyslexia. Bemrose UK Ltd., Wisbech. 203pp.

Race P 1994. The Open Learning Handbook (2nd edn.). Kogan Page, London. 202pp.

Sasanuma S 1980. Acquired dyslexia in Japanese: clinical features and underlying mechanisms. Chap 3, p 48-90 of M Coltheart, K Patterson & J C Marshall (eds.) Deep dyslexia. 444pp Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., Lndon.

Singleton C 1999. Dyslexia in Higher education: policy, provision and practice. Report of the national working party on dyslexia in higher education. <http://www.hull.ac.uk/psychology/NWP_Report.htm>

Singleton C 2000. Understanding dyslexia <http://www.devdis.com/guestart-jun.html>

Singleton C H & J M Trotter 2002. Diagnostic assessment of adults for dyslexia. Training manual for Psychologists. University of Hull [unpublished report] 89pp.

Snowling M J 2000. Dyslexia. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford. 253pp.

Thomson M E 1979. The nature of the written language. Chap. 3, p 36-54 of Newton et al.

[This work has drawn from my personal experience and observations, as well a long interest in the subject. It was written from the viewpoint of a dyslexic part-time tutor teaching part-time adult learners, some of whom are dyslexic. The majority of this work was written before I started working part-time as a dyslexia tutor to full time University students.]


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* Please note - I am a dyslexic tutor (and now a part-time dyslexia tutor), but not a psychologist. The content of this page is intended to help in the tutoring mature adult dyslexic students. It represents my own thoughts on dyslexia, and not those of any organisation or my employer. You are welcome to print copies for your personal, non-commercial use.

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(written December 2002; updated July 2005)