What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia isn’t a condition – it’s an average. It’s measured from the distribution of reading skills. If you fall below the average, then you are labelled dyslexic. It’s estimated that 1 in every 10 people are affected. It’s nothing to do with intelligence. It’s nothing to do with mixing up the order of letters. It’s a specific difficulty in associating symbols with sounds – the representation of speech sounds by letters – that causes problems with reading and writing.
Preschool children begin to understand that words are made up of syllables and sounds. As children are introduced to reading, they learn to associate individual speech sounds – phonemes – with letters. Some children have difficulty distinguishing these sounds – after all, they come at a rate of ten a second or more. This is the basis of dyslexia. Music can help children distinguish between sounds and help with learning how to read.
What we know about dyslexia is that it is a drop of difficulty in an ocean of strengths. People with dyslexia often have good skills in other areas, particularly creative thinking and problem-solving. We don’t know if these skills are innate or a result of having to find unexpected solutions to reading challenges, but we do know that dyslexic people have well above average creativity and lateral thinking skills.
Many, many people with dyslexia, even some who struggled with reading and writing in school, went on to further education and work in jobs they love. Many of the most creative musicians and artists are dyslexic.
What are the signs of dyslexia?
Signs of dyslexia usually become apparent when a child starts school and begins to focus more on learning how to read and write. The British Dyslexia Association have an excellent website
that describes the signs of dyslexia in the early years and at primary school age. If you are worried about your child's speech and language development, you should speak to your GP or health visitor.
How can music help with learning?
Both speech and music involve rapid manipulations and identification of sound qualities like pitch, rhythm, and duration. Musically trained adults appear to have superior abilities in auditory perception compared to non-musical adults. It’s believed that musical training may give children with dyslexia a boost in the auditory perception skills needed to learn to read.
How should music teaching be tailored for dyslexia?
1. Which is the instrument for your child? Beginning with an instrument designed for young children is a good starting point. This can lay the foundations for a traditional instrument – but which one? Is your child a strings player, or a keyboardist or a percussionist? The Right Instrument for Your Child
by Atarah Ben-Tovim and Douglas Boyd is very useful here.
2. Use all the senses. Lessons that involve hearing, vision and movement are more memorable and enjoyable. Use pictures, listening, demonstration, hands-on exploration and activity. Music is excellent for multi-sensory approaches because it is so interactive.
3. Use colour. It is far easier to follow and remember colour-coded notes than black and white notation. Once memorized, the process of learning to read music can progress level by level.
4. Use alternatives to ‘traditional’ music notation to see the relationship between symbol and sound. Improvisation and playing by ear can be rewarding and are often used by musicians.
5. Keep instructions short, clear and simple. Structure lessons. Begin and end with a summary of the lesson. In between, repeat key points.
Many famous musicians have been dyslexic:
Sources: Ludden, David (2015) Can Musical Training Help Overcome Dyslexia?, Psychology Today
Eren, Bilgehan (2017) Music and Dyslexia: The Therapeutic Use of Instrument Training, Journal of Education and Practice
Habib, M., Lardy, C, Desiles, T., Commeiras, C., Chobert, J. Besson, M. (2016) Music and Dyslexia. Frontiers in Psychology
Various (2019) Music and Dyslexia, British Dyslexia Association