I moved to the UK when I was 17 to do my A-levels and then progress to university. I had previously struggled with some academic subjects both in Russia and in the UK, but when I started my A-levels, I clearly had some problems with my written English – even though my spoken English was like that of a native speaker. All of the teachers at school attributed the problems to me being foreign, and strongly advised me to hire a tutor and study intensively for hours with her in order to produce readable and high-standard pieces of work. Not a single teacher questioned whether my problems with writing could be due to anything more than the so-called ‘language barrier’. This lasted for years until my second year of university, when one of my lecturers suggested that I might be dyslexic and should definitely get tested.
For me, this came as a complete surprise and shock. What is dyslexia, I asked myself? First of all, I would like to say that in Russia, unfortunately, dyslexia is not recognised as widely as it is in the UK, – hence my original confusion as to what it is and why I have it. To most, dyslexia is the difficulty with words, but in truth, the effects of dyslexia go well beyond having a difficulty with words and spelling, as it also affects the ability to:
- Remember things,
- Read and understand the relevance of numbers,
- Write neatly,
- Recall facts once learnt (even after a short period of time),
- And distinguish between left and right.
One thing I realised, after speaking with lecturers and professionals, is that everyone with dyslexia is different. I, for example, have great sound memory, but struggle with reading; I have to read one paragraph several times to understand what I’ve just read. I survived my 2nd and 3rd years of university by recording every lecture, and then listening to it many times over while turning it into a mind-map and reading over and over again. I used mnemonics to remember names for citations, as it was necessary for my exams. I photocopied and highlighted all the articles we had to read – as I prefer to read physical, rather than online, copies.
I took so many notes, but further down the line I realised that my notes weren’t helpful at all. I typed my essays in exams and got 25% extra time. However, as I was an international student, support from university didn’t go beyond extra time on the exam, and occasionally getting extra time on library loans. I worked phenomenally hard and managed to increase my grades from the mid-50s to mid-60s after getting my diagnosis.
Alongside managing my own studies, I became interested in dyslexia and especially how many international students are out there who need help but haven’t been diagnosed with a learning difficulty just yet. I also became interested in the different types of dyslexia, and why dyslexia stopped some people in their tracks, but others managed to succeed academically. Throughout the whole ordeal I had comments from people who couldn’t believe I was in academia and succeeding.
Fast forward to now: two undergraduate degrees, and 2 master’s degrees down, and I am now a PhD student exploring cross-cultural research into the Dark Triad and the Five Factor Personality Model in relation to Aggression and Prejudice.
Getting my dyslexia diagnosis helped me to understand why I was struggling academically, what my strengths and weaknesses are, and how to play to my strengths. If you have a learning difference, particularly dyslexia, my advice to you is to consider how severely dyslexic you are and find your own strengths and weaknesses. That said, these are the four most important rules that I follow to help myself with writing and reading:
- Plan, Plan and Plan. Make sure you create a plan or mind map before you start writing any piece of work. This will help you organise your thoughts and follow a structure.
- Read out loud. I know it might sound silly, but a lot of dyslexic people struggle with eye tracking. By reading out loud in real time will force your eyes and brain to work together.
- Sum up. After you read each paragraph sum up what you’ve just read in few words. This will help you to keep the track of your reading and help you understand what you’ve just read.
- Take your time. Take your time and do things slowly. – There is no need to rush your essay or any other pieces of work. By taking your time, and thoroughly thinking through your work, you will produce better results and eventually it will become automatic.
I think, ultimately, knowing I was dyslexic gave me an advantage, and I used it to improve my writing and my research skills. Dyslexia doesn’t have to be a burden; it can be something to push you and motivate you to work harder to improve with time. It can become your motivator – just like it was for me.