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Reading and Visual Stress

A skill that is learnt and developed across the lifespan, reading is an essential part of human life. It allows us to make sense of and communicate via seemingly strange and unique symbols. The ability to read is a complex and multidimensional process. Crucially, it requires the individual to be able to recognise letters/words, piece together sentences, interpret text and extract meaning all within a short time window. One of the most common difficulties associated with dyslexia, within this post I shall outline, describe and explain how this neurodiversity can affect ones reading in daily life.

It is well documented and researched that dyslexics have deficits in reading comprehension. This ultimately, is the ability to process words, sentences and paragraphs and make sense of what we are reading. Within the ‘dyslexic world’ this can be influenced by a variety of factors. A deficit in visual processing, many dyslexics take longer to successfully decode and recognise words. Decoding widely consist of matching letters, in a vast array on combinations, to sounds. Termed phonological awareness, accomplished readers are good at matching these letter combinations to their respective sounds. Once completed, semantics, or meaning, of the words can be established. However, the English language is notoriously inconsistent, irregular and abstract. Differing letter combinations can make the same sounds when read, for example there, their and they’re, and similar letter combinations can make different sounds when blended together; such as the words sleigh and lay rhyme but are spelt vastly differently. Consequently this alone, without the addition of a neurodiversity can make tricky. This is massively amplified when it comes to reading unfamiliar words. When I encounter a word I do not recognise I try and break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks by reading these pieces individually and then linking them together. But even if this helps me sound out the word, it doesn’t necessarily prove that I understand its meaning. On occasions I am fortunate as I can read and decode words efficiently. Yet at others times I can read quite happily, smoothly and confidently.

Linked to these ‘decoding deficits’ many dyslexics can have a slower reading speed compared to others. Fundamentally, this funnels down to needing more time to process words, letters and symbols and extract meaning/context from these. Within an article that solely focused on visual processing, see the second link attached below, is explained that those with a ‘dyslexic brain’ are less efficient at recognising letters, words and other literacy-based symbols. Large amounts of complex text can amplify into a ‘cognitive overload’ where too much information is littered in one place. Because of this dyslexics may need to re and – reread text over again. Skim reading and summarising text may also prove to be challenging. Furthermore, it is not unusual for a dyslexia individual to focus so intently on reading a word, that they are not able to make sense of and extract its meaning at the same time.

A second intriguing article I found during researching time revealed another area I had not considered that dyslexia can affect; reading fluency. Referring to the smoothness and ‘sleekness’ of ones reading ability, a fluent reader can recognise words, including those that may be alien, and extract text meaning in a relatively short time frame. This is far easier said than done and requires a heck of a lot of practice, time and effort. Dyslexics can present as being less fluent readers. Individuals can be hesitant when reading, pauses frequently and may make small mistakes. I despised reading aloud in class whilst at school and sixth form. I would stumble and stuttered over words, mispronounce key terms, add in extra words were there were none and skip others entirely. I would and to this day still do, become highly self-conscious when asked to read aloud in front of others. Yet, slightly ironically I am better at processing, understanding proof reading text when I read it aloud to myself. I find it much easier to spot spelling and grammatical mistakes as I force myself to repeatedly and ritualistically read exactly what is presented to me.

In addition to fluency, with this article discussed the important of working memory within reading comprehension. I was emphasised that ‘self-monitoring’ is vital. This consists of being able and motivated to re-read text when we don’t understand or can’t remember what has been said. It is widely documented that dyslexics can have deficits in working memory, which connects and links long term and short term memory stores. Because of this, dyslexics may struggle to recall the meaning of words, the spelling of words and text/words they have read before. Memory really is my Achilles heel. It is a consistent and persistent problem for me. This was particularly potent whilst I was at sixth form and university. Due to the texts, theories and concepts I had to grapple with I had trouble adjusting to the increasingly wordy and complex work I was reading, writing and learning about. As a result of the increased complexity I found it difficult to remember names, dates, spellings and other key facts. In order to combat this I would find myself re-reading articles and/or books and making large amounts of notes, which often repeated the same information. Due to the magnitude of its impact, I have written a whole post dedicated purely to memory strategies. As stressed and emphasised in this post, exploring different techniques and finding that way that best helps you to remember is key. Crucially, reading can help one to remember spellings, grammar techniques and learn awesome new vocabulary.

Visual stress in another factor that can negatively influence reading comprehension in dyslexics. Outlined by the British Dyslexia Association, visual stress stems from individuals experiencing physical pain or discomfort when they read. This in itself can seriously impact how fluently and successfully one can read and decode words, as it can be challenging for individuals to keep their place in text whilst reading. Symptoms include headaches, eye strain/pain, text appearing to blur, flicker or move and difficulty in adjusting to the light contrast between a white background and black words. It is vitally important to not that visual stress can be experienced by non-dyslexics alike. Although, there is some suggestion that dyslexics and other neurodiverse individuals may be more prone to visual stress symptomologies. Coloured overlays, reading rulers and even specially prescribed tinted glasses can be used to help reduce and nullify the adverse effects of visual stress. When I read black words on a white background I do see some small amounts of blurring and fuzzing. In addition I do suffer with frequent headaches. But whether this is due to visual stressors I am unsure.

One of the reasons why I’m such as self-confessed Harry Potter nerd is because of the books. Crucially, these both helped and motivated me to read. I became so engrossed and absorbed in the wizarding world as, unlike many books I attempted prior, I managed to easily settle into the books and was not scared off by over-elaborate text and tricky long words. During my early teens I set myself a goal to finish reading the last four books before their respective films were released. Following this I used to read all seven books every summer holidays! Nonetheless, returning to a more serious note, as outlined and explained being diagnosed as dyslexic can greatly influence ones reading ability. But, there will be a genre and level that suits everyone. Whether it be fact, fiction, crime, sci-fi or autobiographies there will something that grabs everyone’s interest and keen eye. In addition, audiobooks are an awesome way to become immersed into a new world or story, whilst reducing the worry of visual stresses or reading comprehension. Overall the ability to read and understand text is a crucial and highly unique skill of humans. Within this, it is vital to remember that all individuals, dyslexic or not, learn and develop these skills in differing ways. Belonging to the neurodiverse community may affect ones reading ability. But it should not them from enjoying and appreciating the stories, adventures, knowledge and facts that can be delved into.

Useful links, accessed 18th July 2019., accessed 18th July 2019, accessed on 18th July 2019

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