What is dyslexia?

Children with dyslexia find language a challenge. The outworking of this is often linked to reading and spelling, but sometimes to difficulties with word order and even short-term memory issues. Dyslexia is believed to be related to inefficiencies in the language-processing areas in the left side of the brain, and is often linked to genetics. Children with dyslexia are affected by it for life, but its impact can be minimised through targeted literacy intervention, technological support and adaptations to ways of working and learning. It is not uncommon for children with this condition to have other learning difficulties, such as dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder (ADD, or where hyperactivity is present, ADHD). Approximately 10 per cent of the population is affected by dyslexia to some degree, with around 4 per cent severely impacted.



Jessica’s story

Jessica is 12 and has dyslexia. She finds it hard to read and can sometimes be a bit disorganised and forgetful. She has regularly attended Sunday school since she was little, but has recently moved up to the junior youth group.

Jessica has started to do really well at school ever since she was diagnosed with dyslexia, having previously struggled to keep up. Jessica is supported well at church, with some of the strategies that are now in place for her in school also being used effectively to support her in the youth group.

The youth group leader provides her with written materials in advance, which are presented in an easy-to-view way. This means using a clear font such as Arial or Verdana, not cluttering the print with background pictures or watermarks, not using long paragraphs or sentences but shorter bullet points and, when using colours, ensuring that there are strong contrasts. Supporting text with pictures also helps Jessica. Some children with dyslexia use coloured plastic overlay sheets to help them with their reading. Jessica uses an electronic tablet to allow her to set up the text in a way that makes it easier for her to read. When looking at Bible readings Jessica uses a Bible app on her tablet, but there are other ways she likes to be supported in accessing the Bible. Her leader provides a summary of what the Bible story or passage is about, setting the scene before it is read.

After the reading, the story or passage is discussed by the whole group, which helps Jessica fill in any gaps in her understanding of it. Sometimes the young people re-enact the story through drama, which Jessica absolutely loves! This creative retelling of the story or passage helps Jessica visualise it, making it easier for her to remember. Using graphic versions of the Bible, such as The Action Bible, The Lion Graphic Bible or The Lion Comic Book Hero Bible helps Jessica understand the stories better. Biblica has also produced an accessible edition of the NIRV New Testament which is easier to read for many children and adults with dyslexia. Audio versions are also helpful and are available from the Bible Society. Free-to-use images that can help to support Bible readings can be accessed from the Free Bible Images website. 

In some cases, children with dyslexia may have difficulties using coloured or shiny paper with text on. Pastel shades are usually more suitable and Jessica prefers these. She struggles to read the notices so she prefers that they are read aloud. Jessica also prefers to have a leader check with her (privately, not in the group setting) that she has all the information she needs, and that she understands it all.

Jessica doesn’t like being asked to read out loud unexpectedly, either individually or when reading around in a circle. This is one of her worst fears. She can, however, do it with sufficient preparation and practice, so don’t entirely disregard children with dyslexia from reading. Years before her diagnosis Jessica had become quite accomplished at covering up her reading difficulties, so it is important to get to know each child and the adult(s) who brings them to establish what they can be supported to do. Be sensitive, as many children may be embarrassed about their condition.

Taking the time to understand each young person individually – to work out what they find difficult and why; to understand how they cope (and sometimes fail to cope) and why; to help them realise we are there to help and support them – all of this is so vitally important in helping everyone to feel they belong. Getting this right transforms church and youth group for Jessica and many other dyslexic children, and getting it right for them also makes it better for everyone else. 

This is taken from the 'All inclusive' column of Premier Youth and Children's Work magazine. Get your free copy of the latest issue.