How to Teach Abstract Words to Dyslexics

Children "AROUND" the World by Unicef

Children "AROUND" the World -graphic from Unicef

More on the subject of Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor, she’s the brain research doctor who had a stroke that left her experiencing life for a while without the useful input from the left hemisphere of her brain. While listening to her talk about the journey she went on while experiencing life “from the right side” I gained a new perspective of how dyslexics process data. Of course when I say “process data” I am relating this to how dyslexic kids and individuals strive to do normal school tasks. Like how to spell or write or do math or understand fractions or tell time. Now ordinarily these are pretty easy to the majority of people and that’s because the majority of our population has easy access to the left half of the brain. The left brain easily manipulates concepts like the meaning of words, how to put sentences together using all the rules of punctuation, how to use one to one correspondence when counting numbers and what fractions and time represent. These are pretty abstract concepts because we really can’t see the sounds of words or see the idea of “half” or “quarter”. The left brain lives in the past and knows how to use all the data presented to it by the senses in a way that will make sense for the future so all these abstract concepts are handily dealt with.  So for most of us; problem solved.

I’m not really too concerned with how the majority of us deal with the abstract, what I am worried about is how to teach abstracts to dyslexic individuals. WE need to come up with methods that they can use that allows them to use abstracts even if they don’t understand them.( Luckily, many individuals begin to naturally understand abstracts as they get older which is normally around the age of thirteen and the brain maturing.  Another topic for another day)  For instance; how does anybody teach a dyslexic person the abstract word “around“. In order to spell the word they need to understand how to use it and what kind of context it can be used in. There is no use breaking the word into the bits and pieces phonetically and deal with the letters individually because each one of those letters can represent a separate picture to the dyslexic. It makes no sense trying to teach 6 separate images of the individual letters to teach the word, ” a-r-o-u-n-d“. They need to see the image of the whole word “around“. They also need to understand in what context to use the word to help them retain the word and remember how to spell it.   When I was watching Dr JBT talk about the right brain’s ability to process context I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, now I think I do.  So I am using an image here in the next paragraph to demonstrate how to see context at work.

One of the designers and co-author of the Turner-Hope method spoke to a teacher friend of hers who uses pictures to explain abstract words. This makes sense because the right brain deals really well with images. The teacher used Google Images to search for images of words. I tried it too by typing in the  word “around”  and searched Google Images. The examples that were produced were varied and many were appropriate. One image I found  especially good was a picture from a Unicef website of a group of children holding hands around the planet Earth. What a perfect way to show the idea of the very abstract term “around“.

It just goes to show that there are many different ways to teach complex concepts in classroom lessons and some methods are especially appropriate for dyslexic individuals.  We just have to keep looking in as many different directions as possible.

Happy trails!

Howie deGraaf – Editor for Dyslexia Victoria Online

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