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Reading with a Learning Difficulty

In conversation with Alicia (A) and Jana (J)

Towards the end of last month, to honour World Book Day, Alicia and I had a chat about what it's like reading for leisure with a learning difficulty. I myself struggle with comprehension and processing and Alicia has dyslexia. This doesn't mean that we don't enjoy reading just as much as the next person, it just means it may take us a bit longer. We realized; it's not about how many books you read or how complicated the books are. It's how much you enjoy them, or what you take away after reading them; be they educational or quite frankly somewhere to escape to.

Our disabilities and how they affect us

J: So, Alicia, just to start off, can you describe me, for my understanding what is it that your dyslexia really impacts? Is it that you can't read the words or that they move around on the page? Excuse my ignorance, but I don't know what it is, or does it affect your writing rather than reading?

A: In terms of what it impacts it kind of depends on the individual. I know that's not really a very good answer. For me, what it actually impacts is hard to encapsulate, but when it comes to reading I would get headaches reading, I would misunderstand things because my brain would assume things; I wouldn't be reading the full text so my brain would assume that I read one thing – and it’s actually another.

Late diagnosis and relief

J: I wasn't diagnosed with my slow processing difficulty until I was in my third year of uni so I think I was maybe 20. Looking back, oh my gosh it makes so much sense! When it comes to reading for leisure, I no longer berate myself for taking so long to read a book, because actually there's something in my brain that is sort of impeding my ability to read at speed.

"Looking back, oh my gosh it makes so much sense!"

I think as well when I was younger my brother would be like “you've been reading that book for ages” and see him reading so many books that I was like oh well I can't compete with that so I just won't read it all. Whereas now I’ve accepted it and I just read slowly and peacefully when I have time. I definitely read for leisure a lot more now, since being diagnosed. Do you feel the same?

A: I did do a lot of reading even as a child which is why I was not diagnosed having dyslexia until I was 17 because I was such an avid reader. It wasn't until I was doing A-level English that I still couldn't spell words properly and my pronunciation was quite poor in the sense that at some points it would sound like I had a lisp but it's actually a coping strategy for dyslexics who have been missed off the learning disability radar so to speak. My handwriting as well was really bad and it's like a little cheat for your brain, you make your handwriting bad enough that people can't actually tell what you're trying to write.

But when I was diagnosed, it was a relief for sure, because I realised I wasn't purposefully doing any of these things. I used to get really frustrated with myself and be like “this is really ridiculous, you're doing A-level English why can you not get these simple things right?”.

Reading and visualising

A: The problem is that my dyslexia affects a different kind of part of my brain in the sense that it actually is something that's more similar to dyscalculia than it is actually just like dyslexia, I really struggled with doing maths but it's also meant that I've struggled and struggle with reading something and putting it into a visual context. you know what I mean like I struggle visualising something when it's written in text.

"It’s much more complicated than just my reading and writing...I often have to go back and reread chapters because I actually have no clue what happened"

I mean I got an A* for my A-level English and - this is not me trying to flex with the A-level English by the way but more how strange the way it seems to affect me. It’s much more complicated than just my reading and writing. It's my working memory too, which is quite poor. So it affects everything but not necessarily all of these things impact reading but if my short term memory is poor then I often have to go back and reread chapters because I actually have no clue what happened. Particularly if I’m having to read something I’m not particularly interested in.

J: When you say you struggle with visualising things presumably this very much includes what an author is trying to paint? Do you think that’s affected what kind of books you choose to read in your free time?

A: Yeah exactly. This is mainly why I don't read a lot of fiction. I end up reading a lot of non-fiction and I really like things like autobiographies because it's like a story someone is telling you as though you are sitting in front of them. Rather than trying to picture the scene. Even though I have a very creative imagination, it's reading it and then translating it into a visual thing that is the difficult part for me.

J: So this is really interesting to me and actually this is exactly why I wanted to talk about this with you.

The last book I read was Light Between Oceans and I don't know if you've seen the film or read the book? It is fiction and I really quite like fiction but I have noticed a trend in the books I read. Almost all of them have been made into a film or a TV show. And I'm actually beginning to wonder if this (this being my learning difficulty) is why. Like once I've read it, I will watch it. I really like seeing how other people have interpreted it but I'm wondering if that's because I myself am struggling to visualise it or if I have read it “correctly” if that makes sense. Have I got to the end of the book and completely misinterpreted the plot?

"Almost all of the books I have read have been made into a film or a TV show. I'm wondering if that's because I myself am struggling to visualise it or that I want to confirm I've interpreted it correctly"

I'm reading a book at the moment that as far as I'm aware hasn't been made into anything yet. It’s called I Am Pilgrim and it is excellent, but man is it taking me a loooong time to read. It's written very cleverly but almost too cleverly for me. I really have to be awake when I read it, and if I'm not quite there I often will read a short story or essay.

A: yes, short stories I love them. They are brilliant. And they are not so long that you forget things, or get too attached to the stories or characters, which is something I struggle with too, but I think this is more my OCD as well. I really get upset finishing fiction books - another reason why I stick to non-fiction!

The book that I'm reading now is a history of Islam in 21 women so and I really like that because the chapters are kind of relatively short and I can like remember the content because it's like learning about interesting women then like it's kind of like again like an interpersonal kind of like learning about someone's character as opposed to like setting the scene.

Our main takeaways

J: I guess to round up I basically wanted to highlight our difficulties with reading for pleasure in a sort of celebratory way because I love books. I love the worlds they can create and the knowledge that can be shared. I think they can be magical. And unless you have to read loads of books for uni or school, just take it a page at a time, there should be no deadlines when you’re reading for leisure.

"it's never going to impede your ability to be a storyteller or enjoy stories"

A: Completely! And lots of people, including writers have learning difficulties or learning disabilities, and it's never going to impede your ability to be a storyteller or enjoy stories. It's not about reading 16,000 crypto books, you know. Everyone loves stories and you know I don't think that disability should hold you back from enjoying these things.

And actually, if you have a learning disability there is so much joy to be found in it too. It can just make you see things in a different way. I'm dyslexic and it means that I struggle with certain things, but it's also so cool that my brain just created a different way to read. Like that's amazing! The idea that my brain has come up with all these shortcuts to get around things and make things easier for me like wow, I should celebrate that.

I hope you find our chat both insightful and/or comforting. I know for me it felt great to talk to someone that loves books as much as I do but struggles just as much to actually read them. If you do struggle with any of the things Alicia and I have described above there is zero shame in going and getting yourself tested. It’s certainly one of the best things I have ever done.


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