In our GoStudent Personal Stories, we talk to real people about real experiences. Gain an insight into education and learning trends as well as authentic advice from experts.
I'm here with Guy who is a writer for our GoStudent UK blog and he's also a secondary school teacher who has been lecturing on speech writing at lots of world leading universities and before working in education.
He was actually a speechwriter in the British Houses of Parliament and in 2019 gave a TedxTalk at the University of Cambridge and Guy also happens to live with dyslexia.
So, Guy can you tell me a little bit about when you were first diagnosed with dyslexia? How old were you?
I was first diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of nine. I think that my parents clocked on to the fact that my reading level probably wasn't where it should have been; for example, I could read words from a page but all of my mental energy was going into trying to figure out the sounds of those words made that I had zero to very little comprehension of the words I was actually reading.
One of the things that I used to do with popular children's picture books would be to memorise the words and then pretend to read them because they'd been read to me and I'd know when to turn the page but I wasn't actually reading the books.
My parents also realised that I couldn't really read independently – at nine I would sit there with a book and not be able to get past the first few pages. I would have to constantly go back and reread because the comprehension wasn’t there.
Also, according to my mother my handwriting was ‘appalling’ and I think those signals meant that they wanted to go and explore a little bit more so they took me to an assessment and I was officially diagnosed.
OK and from what I understand that's quite common for children with dyslexia. They kind of pretend to read books that they are familiar with and it's difficult for parents to spot the problem in that way.
Do you remember how you felt when you were told that you were dyslexic?
So I think at 9 I didn't fully understand what dyslexia was. My parents were in a position where they could tell me what dyslexia was and they were very calculated about the way that they did that.
I think that I felt a combination of not understanding, feeling a bit insecure, but also feeling proud because I was told that dyslexia is something that will enable me to do things in ways that other people perhaps can’t.
One of the things I have a very distinct memory of the from age of nine was that on my dad’s bookcase all of a sudden new books started popping up about dyslexia and there was one that was called ‘The Gift of Dyslexia’ and I remember that I’d look at the spine and think ‘oh The Gift of Dyslexia – I've got that!’ The book was actually published in 1995, so it is probably a bit out of date now but the concept of dyslexia being a gift, as being something empowering, was really important and I think there was an element of pride in that.
But as I progressed through school I realised that lots of people view dyslexic people as being stupid. So I kind of had this conflict between the message in the narrative that my parents were giving me at home and then also what I would hear from other people including other children at school.
That leads on to my next question; as you progressed throughout your education what did you understand the term dyslexia to mean and how was it explained to you by other people?
I think that my dad actually gave me an interesting analogy – he said to imagine that everyone is on a running track but some people have a wall in the middle of the track that prevents them from getting beyond a certain point. He said that it's my challenge, as someone with dyslexia, to overcome that wall and that once I knock it down, climb over it or find a way around it, things will be a lot easier for me and I'll be able to excel in different ways.
I think that for me, that analogy made me understand a lot of barriers – I would think to myself ‘this is just the wall that my father was telling me about, I can overcome this and it will be difficult’. That way, I didn’t feel too bad when I could see my friends just ‘getting things’ at school and progressing.
I think one of the concerns I had in school was that I had some very strong oral skills – I was very good at conversations and explaining things verbally – but my written work was always weaker and I think that lots of my teachers and even my friends were surprised when my academic grades weren’t as good as they thought they would be based on my contributions in class.
That's something that’s quite difficult for dyslexic students to process because you like feeling clever when you understand something but if you don't know how to express that on paper, or if there's a concept that it's easy feature understand but you don't know how to interpret that from words written on paper, it can make you feel quite bad about yourself but it's important to remember that it’s a barrier and that a barrier doesn't mean that there is something wrong with your brain – it just means that your brain works differently – and that the way that was assessed and taught is done in a very neurotypical way which is geared towards the ‘typical brain’.
Do you ever remember feeling frustrated by the idea of this wall that was somehow blocking you? I guess anyone that's ever tried to learn a new language can feel that frustration of wanting to express themselves but not being able to do it. Do you remember feeling frustrated by that at all?
Yeah! I was so frustrated. I was really frustrated by the fact that I felt that my results in school (particularly secondary school) were not representative of my abilities. I felt that I was being judged based on an exam that wasn't reflective of my ability because of this barrier to my learning.
As you progressed throughout school were you ever worried that your dyslexia was going to hold you back in any way?
Oh a lot! All the time! So I had a lot of impostor syndrome going through school – and even now a little bit!
For example, all my friends were reading books I couldn’t engage with. When I was in school, that's when Harry Potter started coming out. Everyone was talking about Harry Potter and as much as I tried, I couldn't bring myself to read it. That's not because I didn’t want to read it but because I just couldn't. I was going through the pages, I was reading out loud, I was reading in my head, but just couldn't understand what was going on and then I'm reintroduced to a character and thinking ‘well who is that person? I don't actually know where they were introduced earlier so I had to go back.
Then it gets to the point where people assume that you've read things that you haven't. They’d say ‘What did you think about that?’ and I’d start parroting someone else's opinion I’d heard to make people think that I read it.
I still get that quite a lot – even as an adult people say ‘oh you know, you're well-read, so you must have you encountered blah blah blah’ and I'm there thinking ‘well either I say I haven't and they're going to think I'm stupid or I pretend that I have’. I don't pretend anymore! I realised as a teenager that it's OK to have not read everything in the world.
Even now as an adult some people say to me ‘oh you've not read this? I'm surprised’ and there's a lot of judgement out there that's from people not understanding and I, as well as all dyslexic people, have to remember that not everyone is going to understand that difficulty.
And I guess if it's something that you don't have a direct experience with you have this stereotype of what it means to be dyslexic in your mind and that's something that you put on other people.
After you were diagnosed, what support was offered to you initially: maybe at school from your parents?
My parents offered lots of support. They sat down and worked through my homework with me and they’d help me work on my spelling. I also got one-to-one tuition which was really helpful. At the time, it felt like hell that my parents were forcing me to do this on the weekend when I felt that it was my right to be home in my pyjamas watching cartoons!
Now, in later life, I realised that sitting down and having these seemingly gruelling lessons on grammar and spelling and punctuation were actually really important. I'm very grateful to them for, despite my protests, dragging me out to do that.
Can you think of any examples of the types of exercises that you did at this tuition that help you?
I think it was a lot more old school than the way tuition works now – a lot of it was worksheet stuff. A lot of it was rote learning – the idea of rote learning is that you do something again and again and again until it's committed to memory. I did lots of word searches and things like that.
There were things that I just felt I really really struggled to engage with but it was done at a level that I could engage with and when I overcame my sort of own hesitancy to engage with them I realised that I can do this and then they slowly developed and built up.
We talked a bit about people having a stereotype of what it means to be dyslexic. You are actually a teacher yourself which some people might be surprised about. From your perspective, what kind of support is there in place in UK schools at the moment for pupils with dyslexia?
There is a lot of support and some schools place more of an emphasis than other schools and sadly there's not a lot of funding in some cases.
So, for example, if a teacher suspects a child has dyslexia, they can usually inform the SENCO at the school – that's the Special Educational Needs and Disability Coordinator. The SENCO will then arrange for an assessment which is either done internally in the school or externally.
There are lots of parents who do it privately and they just go and get their child assessed with someone privately and that assessment still counts in school. So if you do get a private assessment, or one done through school, it will allow you to be given extra time, possibly, in your exams or access to a word processor or perhaps a coloured inlay.
They will basically assess what problems your dyslexia poses – obviously, everyone is different and there are different strategies which can be put in place to best level the playing field so that you're not at too much of a disadvantage.
Before you were a teacher you had a pretty interesting career path. Can you tell me a little bit how you got into that and if your dyslexia was ever something that was a bit of a hurdle when it came to pursuing that?
I think that it was a hurdle but I also think it was a huge benefit.
I was always really interested in speeches and public speaking because here was an entire academic world – and it was academic – that I could engage with in which realistically spelling, punctuation and certain elements of grammar just didn't matter. So despite the fact that there were words that I couldn’t spell, despite the fact that there were certain sentence structures that I didn't quite know how to formally put on paper I could still engage with it and be good at it! I felt that that was quite empowering.
Then, when I started formally writing speeches, I wanted to know how to do it properly; so it was a way for me to engage with the written aspect of speeches through something that I was already passionate about which, for me, was really empowering.
And I think that because I'm dyslexic it meant that when I was composing how to say something for someone else I could do it a little bit more creatively because I wasn't restricted by the rules of grammar.
Lots of writers who are not dyslexic will say ‘well I'm going to write it like this because this is the proper way to write it and that is the proper way to write it but the problem is that's not that's not the easiest way to say it – or that's not the way that sounds most pleasant to the ear.
When you're working as a speechwriter you have to think about what is it that your audience wants to know, what is it your speaker wants to say and how can you say as effectively as possible. When you're saying it as effectively as possible, if that means ditching the grammar, if that means ditching the standard way of doing things and saying something more creatively, that's good!
I think I managed to get lucky that I found a profession that I could really engage with and I really enjoyed; but I think that deep down I always wanted to be a teacher and it was a really great sort of platform for me because now when students say ‘Sir, you can't spell!’ I say to them: ‘yes I missed that word but still, I am very much qualified to be here. I've got lots of amazing experiences as a writer and maybe, while spelling is important for assessments, it doesn't define your ability to be a writer’.
It sounds super freeing actually, being able to play around with the language in a way that you're writing it for how it sounds rather than all these technical grammatical rules.
What advice would you give to school pupils that are living with dyslexia in the UK?
I think the advice I would give is – and this is going to sound harsh – but never use your dyslexia as an excuse for not trying to do something. I've encountered lots of students who will outright say ‘I can't do this. I have dyslexia’ and it's really upsetting because: one, it is defeatist and if you have that attitude and you don't actually try to overcome that wall you will never progress.
My message is that you can progress, you can overcome that wall. It will be difficult – you may need a bit of extra help from your family or friends or you may have to do it on your own, but it is possible and you shouldn't ever use your dyslexia as an opportunity to just give up. You should use it to empower you rather than stop you.
From your experience, what advice would you give to parents and other teachers for pupils that have dyslexia?
I’d say it's really important that you do research, be patient and be understanding with your pupils. You might not understand exactly how this child's brain works – that doesn't mean that that child doesn't have the capacity to do well.
I think that lots of people think ‘oh yes, I've done a training course on dyslexia so I understand dyslexia it is this’. It's never just ‘this’ it's always more complicated. There are always extra layers.
You need to get to know your dyslexic pupils. I've got lots of pupils with dyslexia and the challenges that the education system poses to them are different based on what areas they struggle with because of their dyslexia. It's important to know those and then try, where possible, to help them overcome that and also accepting that sometimes you're not the expert in dyslexia and you don't know what's best.
I've got dyslexia but my dyslexia is different from lots of my pupils and I can't assume that their experiences will be the same as mine. It's about being open minded and trying the best that you can to support them.
Yeah and as you said everyone's experience with dyslexia is different so treating everybody the same is counterproductive in a way
Great well Guy thank you so much – it's been super interesting and you can check out more articles from Guy on our GoStudent blog.