Dyslexia or Right-Brained Dominant?

To understand my view on how my right-brained dominant learning style information impacts the world’s definition of dyslexia, it requires a shift in perspective. I would like to start with asking the reader to view this video encapsulating the Conference on Dyslexia and Talent, organized by the Eides, authors of The Dyslexic Advantage.

The first idea I want to get across was introduced well by the renowned paleontologist featured in the video. He shared that after more than 100 years of finding dinosaur eggs, he was the first paleontologist, in the 1980s, to discover a dinosaur embryo. How? He jokingly declares, “With a hammer!” What he goes on to explain is that our cultural conditioning that protects against the destruction of eggs seems to be the primary factor. He dared think outside the box and decide to take a look inside.

This same cultural conditioning has kept our focus with dyslexia on the deficits. No one paid attention to the strengths, though they were there all along. Only until research uncovered a high incidence of dyslexia being prevalent when looking for traits in entrepreneurs did anyone think to focus on the strengths found therein. Suddenly, the tide has turned and now researchers and professionals are talking about the strengths, thus, 2013 being the “first conference” held to highlight dyslexic strengths. It’s exciting because it validates everything I’ve been talking about!

Because what are these strengths? They all perfectly align with the strengths of a right-brained dominant learner: three dimensionality, picture-based thinking, imagination, big picture thinking, associative connections, and intuitive reasoning. Further, what are the fields these learners pursue? Either those of the creative outlets (art/photography, sewing/fashion, video games/computers, music/dance, cooking/gardening, theater/showmanship, building/electronics, math/numbers, puzzles/mazes) or early subject strengths for right-brained children (nature (including animals), science (including dinosaurs), history, cultures, geography, and mythology).

My 5-year-old’s interest in dinosaurs led my husband to create these hand-made dinosaur puzzles.

After over a hundred years of science just seeing an egg, inside that egg all along were dinosaur embryos. In the same vein, after decades of science just seeing the deficits they chose to call dyslexia, inside that mind were right-brained strengths all along. Of course, this shift toward the strengths is a positive thing, even if extremely late to the game. More importantly, finally noticing there are sets of strengths that go along with dyslexia will result in better identification of what dyslexia really means. The key to better identification is recognizing dyslexia’s link to the right-brained information.

For many decades now, research and identification of dyslexia stemmed in its deficits. In a nutshell, it’s about not learning to read, spell, write, or do math facts at the typical time as their peers. There are other details to that, such as left/right confusion, difficulty tying their shoes, calendaring issues, and other such things. I address all of these detailed differences in my dyslexia chapter in my book as it pertains to how it relates to the right-brained dominant information. For this post, I want to concentrate on the big picture deficit of reading that is the meaning of dyslexia (difficulty reading).

The Time Frame Factor

Left-brained dominant learners tend to learn to read beginning between 5 and 7 years old. Right-brained dominant learners tend to learn to read beginning between 8 and 10 years old. Many children are diagnosed with dyslexia by the third grade (about 8 years old). Behind every dyslexia label is a right-brained learner. Therefore, the reading acquisition time frame factor is huge. Many children are being diagnosed with dyslexia before the reading time frame for right-brained learners even begins.

Late reading (by today’s standards) is normal for right-brained children. I explain comprehensively in my book and some of the whys here. It’s typical for any person to learn to spell one to two years after reading fluency. Therefore, it’s normal for right-brained children to learn to spell in the 11 to 13 year stage, as I explain comprehensively in my book. I also explain the right-brained factors as to why writing develops later in the 11 to 13 year time frame comprehensively in my book and as an overview here.

Early Intervention and Time Frame

The reason children are diagnosed “early” is because it’s promoted that early intervention is the key to success. Here’s my problem with that. If I start to teach my three month old to speak, and he begins speaking his first word at 9 to 10 months old, as developmentally expected, do I get to credit my “early intervention” as the reason for the success? Of course not. The same can be said of providing early intervention in reading to right-brained children. If they begin to read at 9 or 10 years old after early intervention starting at 6 to 8 years old, is it the early intervention or the appropriate developmental time frame that promoted reading to begin? I wrote a separate post to share my personal experience with early intervention, autism, and learning to speak here.

The Reading Method Factor

The brain develops its efficiency over time. The developmental learning stages are the same, but the learning focus and method look different based on brain dominance. From 5 to 7 years old is the Foundation Stage for learning. Each brain dominance has strengths (universal gifts). It’s during this stage that each learner focuses on developing their foundational gifts. For left-brained learners, that’s a word-based focus and sequential thinking. It aligns nicely with learning to read during that stage. For right-brained learners, that’s a picture-based focus and imaginative thinking. It aligns nicely with learning geography, history, animals, cultures, and other early subject strengths for right-brained children.

Picture dictionaries can be great pre-reading resources for right-brained children.

Since left-brained learner strengths are word focused, they can process two-dimensionally and symbolically. Once again, this works out well to learn to read. With sequential thinking and part-to-whole ordering, phonics can also work well for left-brained learners. Since right-brained strengths are picture focused, they process three-dimensionally and concretely. Reading doesn’t align with these strengths at this stage. Pre-reading skills specific to the strengths of right-brained learners should be encouraged at this Foundation Stage which involves visualization skills and building a library of pictorial images.

Visual sight words are often a good place to start learning to read for right-brained children.

During the next developmental learning stage of 8 to 10 years old, the Transition Stage, each brain processing preference transitions to incorporate the skills of the less dominant side of the brain. Because right-brained learners will still translate to pictures and prefer whole-to-part ordering, sight words and highly visual material are a better starting place for learning to read. Too often, a diagnosis of dyslexia is what it takes to receive a better-matched learning environment for right-brained children. Instead, understanding the strengths and developmental learning stages of each brain processing preference would enable each learner to receive a well-matched learning environment right from the start.

The One-Size-Fits-All Factor

At this time, reading instruction tends to begin at 4 and 5 years old with phonics. Even with the wonderful news that researchers are starting to notice dyslexia comes with strengths, no one is questioning that the one-size-fits-all left-brained supported reading instruction and time frame may be a huge contributing factor to reading difficulties in right-brained children. I would like to see the different reading methods and time frames for right-brained children recognized and honored right alongside their left-brained peers. One learner is receiving a well-matched learning environment, and one isn’t and being labeled for not being able to perform.

Click on the image for a Waldorf article on learning the alphabet using pictures and imagination, the two right-brained universal gifts.

If education can’t be individualized to at least left-brained and right-brained developmental learning methods and time frames, and if the one-size-fits-all must continue, then I suggest using a Waldorf or Montessori style of 5 to 7 year reading exposure. The reason I say this is because left-brained, two-dimensional viewers can turn three-dimensional representations into two-dimensional objects easy enough. But it’s much more difficult for a right-brained, three-dimensional picture viewer to turn a two-dimensional symbol into a three-dimensional object. This sometimes causes issues such as blurring, moving, or reversing letters as Ronald Davis points out in his experiences.

The Vision Factor

I have more questions than answers in this section. As noted in the research I share in the previous linked post as well as extensively in my chapter on input modalities in my book, how the right-brained learner’s strong three-dimensionality impacts reading must be addressed. How does early constant exposure (between 4 and 7 years old) to two-dimensional, symbolic interpretations before a right-brained child is developmentally ready for it negatively impact reading for some children? Since vision is connected to brain processing, does normal right-brained developmental vision progress in a different way (from primarily three-dimensional viewing between 5 and 7, switching to two-dimensional viewing between 8 and 10) than their left-brained peers (from primarily two-dimensional viewing between 5 and 7, switching to three-dimensional viewing between 8 and 10)? Do a certain (smaller) percentage of right-brained learners not naturally switch from three-dimensional viewing to two-dimensional at the typical developmental time frame between 8 and 10, and thus, continue having difficulty learning to read? Do some right-brained learners just have a later switch in viewing at 11 to 13 years old?

This is where I concede that “dyslexia” can still exist. I don’t believe it’s as prevalent as we see it today, either in children or adults. Why? I believe the time frame, early intervention, method, and one-size-fits-all factors contribute to years of a poor learning-to-read fit for highly sensitive right-brained children who may either get trained out of their natural method, decide they’re not good at reading, and/or not have a positive relationship with print. I’ve been often hearing from professionals now about the impact of our attitudes about reading, as I also note in my book. As an example, do we lament and worry about how our children can’t differentiate between and identify different cultures, though we are a culturally diverse country? Do we lament and worry about how many of us, adults and children alike, are geography illiterate (not knowing where our capital is, or certain countries)? I don’t hear children fretting about not knowing these things. Yet, children will pick up on our anxiety over when they learn to read. Because I carefully monitored my attitudes about reading, none of my later readers had a negative connotation for being late readers.

Honoring the Natural Learning Path for Right-Brained Children

There is an identifiable set of strengths and traits that come with being right-brained dominant. Like any holistic descriptor, there’s variation based on individual factors. Some right-brained children will learn to read before age 8, many right-brained children will learn to read between 8 and 10 years old, and some right-brained children will learn to read after age 10. A smaller percentage of these will continue to struggle based on the very strengths that come with being right-brained. As shown in the video at the beginning, success can still occur despite continued reading difficulties, again, because of these right-brained strengths.

I could continue and talk about the ADHD connection to being right-brained, the auditory factor with dyslexia, and also outline the natural learning path for right-brained spelling, writing, and math fact learning. But, that’s why I wrote my book, The Right Side of Normal, to have all this information in one place cohesively explained and outlined for those interested in supporting this for their right-brained children. I wanted to reiterate my position that the right-brained information must be properly implemented first before we can see where something like dyslexia really exists and can be defined. When we honor and celebrate the natural strengths of being right-brained from the start, we’ll see them flourish and thrive in their learning lives. More of them will seamlessly and joyfully transition into reading at their optimal developmental time frame. And all of us will recognize and even expect early on all the gifts and talents they offer our world.

My friend Stephanie shared her (and my) hope for future research: My main reason for questioning the common scientific wisdom on this has to do with the fact that all (I am guessing here, but think that it is a pretty good guess) the kids who have been studied have been in school, have been taught with traditional teaching methods and have had traditional reading expectations used to judge their development. What I would LOVE to see is the studies on kids who were allowed to develop on their own timeframes using non-left brained oriented approaches. Those studies do not exist yet. And I do think that this is a pretty big glaring bias for the existing studies which do not seem to recognize that there might be a different way of looking at the development outside of the left brained paradigm.

Linda responds: I think that something close to a “study” has been done, and that is the collective information about the alumni of the Sudbury Valley School, the other Sudbury schools, and Summerhill School, in England.  The Sudbury Valley School, in MA, has been open since 1968. Assuming that some kids started school there that year as 5-year-olds and stayed until graduating, that would mean that kids who NEVER attended a traditional school have been graduating from SVS every year since about 1980. From what I have read about the school, no student there has ever reached the age of 14 or 16 and been unable to read and write. No one EVER tells the students at the Sudbury schools that they must read or write. They all learn to read and write for their own purposes, when they want and need to. I suspect that students at the Sudbury schools who actually do have dyslexia don’t end up doing as much reading as kids who are not dyslexic. They may end up reading more slowly than others – like my daughter, or not liking to read for entertainment – like my son. But none of them ends up functionally illiterate or unable to look up information, or express themselves in writing when necessary.

I do believe dyslexia exists. I do believe those with dyslexia are right-brained learners. I do believe many children are misdiagnosed because the right-brained developmental learning pattern isn’t understood or honored. I do believe the answer to those who continue to struggle to learn to read resides in understanding the right-brained dominant traits and developmental progression better. I do believe that this is why it’s advantageous to recognize that those diagnosed with dyslexia today are first and foremost, right-brained learners, and then, if difficulty with reading occurs after their traditional later reading time frame, then the added label of dyslexia can make sense.

From my perspective and belief, there’s no such thing as a “dyslexic mind” and a “right-brained learner.” They are one in the same. The defnition of dyslexia should be a right-brained learner who continues to struggle with reading and such after the appropriate developmental time frame, and after a well-matched learning environment up until that point. I feel strongly we would see much less dyslexia if this criteria and learning environment were upheld, as Linda shared about the Sudbury Valley School. And for those who still may have dyslexia, like my two younger children may, with a strengths-based, developmental upbringing, mine still had joyful childhoods, engaged learning lives, and positive self-images. Everyone deserves that, no matter their weak areas, because there are always strengths to be nourished.

What do you feel will be the best change with the focus on the strengths of those diagnosed with dyslexia? What impact could recognizing, understanding, and honoring the right-brained processing preference early do to enhance the lives of those who may be diagnosed with dyslexia later?

8 Responses to Dyslexia or Right-Brained Dominant?

  1. A friend and I were having a related discussion just the other day. Basically our question is whether our children, who were NOT given an official diagnosis of dyslexia, are indeed dyslexic, but the reading and other language difficulties which form the basis for the label did not become problematic — because we homeschooled and our kids were allowed to learn to read in ways, and at ages, that suited their developmental trajectory.

    My daughter had, and still has, many dyslexic markers, but many have improved or disappeared entirely naturally over the years. But as you say, for some of these things her timeline was WAY, WAY different from that which goes as the norm in the schools. She didn’t learn to tell time on a digital clock, despite extreme interest and explicit teaching, until she was nearly thirteen. She still can’t tell left from right without stopping to think about it and visualize her fingers making the letter “L.” She still can’t sound out “nonsense” words — but then, nor does she ever need to!

    Her spelling and other dysgraphic symptoms didn’t clear up until age fourteen.

    So I think one enormous challenge relates to the diagnostic process. Are neuropsychologists and educational researchers going to be able to accept the differentiated timelines and scope and sequences for right-brained kids, and to refrain from labeling them as deficient/in need of remediation? Are they going to be willing to look at what happens with homeschooled right-brained children like my daughter, who would very likely have been labeled with a reading disorder had she gone to public elementary school, but who is now reading at post-grad level?

    If this happens, then you have another, even bigger challenge, which is for schools to accept the fact that the burden is on them to revise their approach for kids who are not after all learning disabled but merely neurologically different. They would need to figure out what to do with kids like this, when the typical school-based curriculum is so focused on seatwork from such an early age: reading and writing and doing math, with increasing amounts of this done independently during the allotted hour. This is such a fundamental re-envisioning of how school works that sadly, I don’t hold out much hope for it being possible in this culture.

    • It’s a huge shift in perspective for the school system and those who work in it, that’s for sure. I also worry that it’s too much to hope for, thus, I’m definitely actively working on an alternative that’s replicable and affordable. On the other hand, if schools were to adapt to better meet right-brained needs, I think technology is probably at the heart of it being feasible.

      I think the battle that is as huge is that of educating parents as to the truth and validity of the right-brained information, especially the time frame difference. With the help of researchers and professionals making this connection themselves, a lot of progress can be made.

      Thanks for sharing your daughter’s experience related to the right-brained time frame and the benefits of a well-matched learning environment through homeschooling, Karen!

  2. I found your blog post to be very thought provoking. I especially liked the video link.
    First off let me say that I am a creative, out of the box, kinesthetic learner that gets the idea of a non-traditional style of education. I too, find it a tragedy that our public schools keep pushing kids to achieve certain sets of educational goals at an earlier and earlier age. I think the move towards increased standardized testing as a measurement for teaching success is moving education in the wrong direction. I applaud your pointing out the problems of this one size fits all formula for education.
    However, I think there are some things you could do to strengthen your argument. First of all the term “right brain” from what I have heard, is rather dated. Functional MRI are showing that reading and other skill involve both sides of the brain. While many homeschoolers still uses this terminology heavily, you may find that changing it will help you in reaching those outside of the homeschool world. Perhaps, creative learners, global thinkers or some other term would fit better.
    Additionally I am struck by your lack of scientific research. Perhaps you have more of it in your book? Your argument would be strengthened by a study or multiple studies. Take, say, 50 professionally diagnosed dyslexic kids. Homeschool them according to your scope and sequence and record the data both academically and psychologically. That would be something I would love to read. However, I am cautious about taking someone’s advice on how to educate a child based on their personal experience and an assortment of books and articles they have read (even if it is a really large assortment).
    So here is my situation: I have a most likely dyslexic son (has a very large number of symptoms). He is 10 ½. He loves history and stories. I do unit studies that are centered on stories (that I read to him) and history, usually on areas that he expresses interest in. We make videos, posters, have discussions, create our own stories together and use lots of other non-traditional methods for learning. We don’t follow the typical scope and sequence and aren’t focused on “grade level” materials. However, my son cannot easy access the stories and histories that he loves because he cannot read them. So what am I supposed to do? Wait until he is older, when everyday he longs to hear these stories? Hope that one day he will get it and until then he has to rely on someone else to read it to him? Or do I take the advise of those who have scientifically proven that the Orton-Gillingham method works and use it to teach my son to read?
    I don’t believe that teaching my son to read is an act of my denying his gifting’s and trying to mold him into something he is not. Rather I find that changing my methodologies and expectations, yet still gradually teaching him to read enhances his gifting’s and interest by giving him more opportunities and ways to pursue them. Perhaps what I am saying is that yes we need to change our expectation and think outside the “grade level” box when educating our children. However, that doesn’t mean that we need to through out methods of teaching or therapies just because they have a label attached to them. These are just some of my thoughts as a homeschool mom with an a-typical, creative learner.

    • Well thought out thoughts and questions, Lindsey! I appreciate your contribution to the topic. First, as it pertains to research. I surely wish I were a researcher; I would totally be on many different studies. But, alas, I’m not. I do reference a lot of studies and research in my book throughout. Since there’s not a lot of research with what I’m talking about, I particularly talk about brain research that supports later learning time frames, and the benefits thereof.

      I can appreciate your recommendation to change my label focus from right-brained to something like creative learner (which I do ascribe to) because of its dated premise. I definitely understand and explain in my book that naturally, we all use our whole brain. I talk about brain dominance and processing preferences. The thing is, we don’t know everything about the brain. In recent studies on the brains of dyslexics, they have found that the right hemisphere is “larger” and also that dyslexics tend to read more in their right brain than their left. So, these connections are surfacing even currently. I actually have a chapter in my book that brings together all the diverse names that have been coined that actually means the same learner. I wanted to get off that bandwagon and keep it simple, and go back to the original basic premise.

      As for your son’s situation, until he is an independent reader, I would continue to hook him up with other technology that exposes him to all that he loves. There are streaming programs of hundreds and even thousands of videos of high level learning, you could get him Great Courses lectures, you could get him audio books, you can more actively use DVRs with history channel, Discovery, etc. We are blessed in this era of the right-brained world of technology.

      As for your question as to why you shouldn’t pursue dyslexic-oriented remediation programs for your son, I didn’t necessarily say that wasn’t acceptable. One thing I’m against is early intervention with these types of programs that work against both the developmental learning stage and the right-brained child’s natural way of learning to read. In the 11 to 13 year developmental stage, both sides of the brain are meant to be most functionally working together (yes, I share research on that in my book), so using a program carefully like O-G might be okay.

      The reason I say carefully is that there has also been shown that an unusual dyslexic reading pattern has emerged from this type of training. I intend to write a post about my 12-year-old son’s path to learning to read, when he reaches that. I picked up the ABeCeDarian book that is a dyslexia remediation program. Most of these programs want the child to memorize until fluid and automatic the different sound combinations and rules. When I got to that part, I immediately and instinctively avoided the memory part of it. Yes, exposure, but not memory. Why? Because my son still has instinct with reading words. I don’t want to “train” that out of him through this kind of conditioning, which is exactly how I think the unusual dyslexia reading pattern occurs. Again, only my opinion from all my reading, experience, and interactions with others, and I would love research done on it.

      I’m certainly always introducing new ways of learning to read to my 12 and 14 year olds. I did the same for my son who learned to read at 10. My shift in perspective on this is that I’m offering my son a chance to learn to read, not bringing in a program that will get him to read. There’s a difference (again, I talk about this in my book…look into the book Reading Without Nonsense).

      It sounds like you are a highly nurturing parent who thinks outside the box, observes your child’s needs, encourages strengths and gifts, and provides a great learning environment for your son. I see your gathering information and weighing it all in together with what you know about your own family and son. That’s all we can do, and I encourage you to trust your instincts. I can tell you’re also the type of parent that as you proceed with ideas, resources, or methods, that if they don’t seem to work, or need adjusting, you’ll be right on changing things. That’s all we can do, so kudos to you. I hope you’ll continue to share more of your journey with us!

  3. I think the best change with the focus on strengths would be confidence levels. And an overall view of themselves and intelligent and capable. We have been focusing on strengths all along and only for a short time did I try and program at 7 years old for helping him to learn to read. He is now 10 and reading is coming along. I am sad for him though as at 10 he sees that those around him read and has commented about feeling dumb. We talk about his strengths and he is well supported in our family. I would love for there to be a wider range of normal. And that smart wasn’t determined by reading alone because he could converse fluidly with adults when it comes to Medieval History. In fact all that I know about Medieval History I learned from him! And my second son, very much in his head with his amazing imagination. He is always constructing something and coming up with out of the box ways to do things. So another change would be that they are normal. Just on the right side!

    The impact feels huge. If they feel understood not only could they attain their dreams whatever they may be the could feel good about themselves. It was so inspiring to watch the attached video and yet I was saddened for those individuals that went through childhood feeling/being told they were dumb. No one is dumb!!! Similar to Gardeners different intelligence, it would be lovely if we could accept differences as assets.

  4. My son is very clearly right-brained! He has been an early reader for being right-brained, but he’s also very verbal. He’s 8.5 and is definitely reading at what school would consider grade-level, I would say. But his spelling and math skills are definitely following the right-brain path. He’s a definite theater type, and makes up amazing stories, which he acts out on his own. He’s only occasionally interested in dictating them to me so I can write them down. This slows him down too much, which is the reason for him not usually wanting me to write them. He almost never writes, and when he does, his spelling is completely phonetic. He writes his name with the first letter always turned around. He counts on his fingers to add small numbers together, often getting confused midway through and coming up with the wrong answer. He has no interest in knowing much of anything about the calendar. He doesn’t care about telling time.

    Even with these lags, everybody remarks on how smart he is, and I’ve had several people say they think he’s a genius. He understands some pretty high-level concepts in physics, he knows a lot about other cultures, and just has a lot of general knowledge about the world. His vocabulary and creativity are off the charts! His intelligence is so obvious, but I know that if he was in school, he would have poor grades, and have a learning disability label or two. He is well aware of how smart he is, and is extremely proud of his reading, writing, and math skills, along with his vast right-brain strengths. He’s oblivious to how school would view him, and I love that!

    I am sooooo thankful for your book and website! I’m a committed unschooler, but I still had some nagging worries about his math and spelling skills. Not anymore. I know he’s on a different time frame, and I can focus on his strengths, instead of these “weaknesses.” I know I can revel in his amazing right-brain abilities!

    As for research, I like this William Blake quote: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” I appreciate your use of the research that is available, and the need for much better research, but, regardless of what research is available, I can see with my own two eyes that what you’re saying fits us to “T.” So thank you! And I do believe the experiences of seasoned unschoolers, and schools such as Sudbury are much more instructive than the research conducted on kids who go to conventional schools.

  5. I am def. right-brained (artist by profession), I’m left handed, but play sports and eat with my right hand. My son is the same, right brained, eats and rights lefty, and most sports, righty. He was adopted. How did that happen that we are alike that way? Haha! This is a great article-i just ordered the illustrated dictionary for my son who is 12 and hasn’t moved past picture books-and this explains why. He has a Dyslexia diagnosis, along with other LDs. He is such a talented mechanic, builder and experimenter. Always seeing the whole-not able to work on “parts” without seeing a bigger plan. (again, just like me!) His genius is in there–but boy, if you look at his test scores, it’s just the opposite. I took him out of school so he could regain his self esteem, and that has happened over the last year. Now, I’m looking for ideas on ways to teach him basic subjects in a way that he can learn. i.e. no worksheets!

  6. Oops, meant to say that i eat and write with my left, play sports right.