Dyslexia – 8 Basic Abilities

Ronald D. Davis © 1994. Excerpted from Chapter 1 of The Gift of Dyslexia. 
Antwerp Courthouse

Antwerp Courthouse, designed by dyslexic architect Richard Rogers.

Usually when people hear the word dyslexia they think only of reading, writing, spelling, and math problems a child is having in school. Some associate it only with word and letter reversals, some only with slow learners. Almost everyone considers it some form of a learning disability, but the learning disability is only one face of dyslexia.

Once as a guest on a television show, I was asked about the “positive” side of dyslexia. As part of my answer, I listed a dozen or so famous dyslexics. The hostess of the show then commented, “Isn’t it amazing that all those people could be geniuses in spite of having dyslexia.”

She missed the point. Their genius didn’t occur in spite of their dyslexia, but because of it!

Having dyslexia won’t make every dyslexic a genius, but it is good for the self-esteem of all dyslexics to know their minds work in exactly the same way as the minds of great geniuses. It is also important for them to know that having a problem with reading, writing, spelling, or math doesn’t mean they are dumb or stupid. The same mental function that produces a genius can also produce those problems.

 sculpture by dyslexic artist Rebecca Kamen

“Illumination”, sculpture by dyslexic artist Rebecca Kamen

The mental function that causes dyslexia is a gift in the truest sense of the word: a natural ability, a talent. It is something special that enhances the individual.

Dyslexics don’t all develop the same gifts, but they do have certain mental functions in common. Here are the basic abilities all dyslexics share:

  1. They can utilize the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions (the primary ability).
  2. They are highly aware of the environment.
  3. They are more curious than average.
  4. They think mainly in pictures instead of words.
  5. They are highly intuitive and insightful.
  6. They think and perceive multi-dimensionally (using all the senses).
  7. They can experience thought as reality.
  8. They have vivid imaginations.

These eight basic abilities, if not suppressed, invalidated or destroyed by parents or the educational process, will result in two characteristics: higher than normal intelligence, and extraordinary creative abilities. From these the true gift of dyslexia can emerge — the gift of mastery.

Citation Information
Davis, Ronald Dell. (1994, 2010) “Chapter 1 – The Underlying Talent”, from The Gift of Dyslexia (Perigee, New York)

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  • SELE


    Thank you for this article. It made me cry because it made me realize my gifts from being dyslexic and not just the obstacles it gives me. I grew up thinking I was stupid because I would read at a below-average rate. I can’t read a paragraph out loud without stumbling over my words. It is still to this day embarrassing (I am 24); I will always be insecure about my intelligence due to the bullying, but it made me stronger and more determined to work hard. I recently graduated from one of the top 4 Regional Universities North (East Coast of America) with a BA in advertising and public relations. I am slowly recognizing my potential, and this article really gave me a boost. It needs to be ingrained into children with dyslexia or any learning disabilities that they are more than capable of accomplishing their dreams if they 1. have the resources to get diagnosed and helped at a young age. 2. They need individual programs tailored to their form of learning. 3. Children and adults (including myself) have to put in the work to get help if they can. It is not easy living with a learning disability but it is not the worst thing ever either. Individuals must be grateful that they are gifted in other areas, that another person may not be. It is at the end of the day, how we perceive ourselves. Thanks again for this article. It will help many, as it certainly helped me.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Congratulations on earning your degree!

    • Gabriela Moreno Ruiz

      Your comment made me cry and it hit right at home! I have ADHD with dyslexia, I swear I felt all my life that I was dumb, teachers would put me through a wall because I will disrupt the class and they even made me repeat year because as I was good in some classes I was very bad at math so I couldn’t pass grade because of it. It just made me act up and become a revel because I was soooo miss understood and I was constantly sad because I will make my mom cry a lot. She will cry because I was not normal. A psychologist wrote that I needed neurological and electrocardiogram done because when I came to learning I was 8 and I would learn some stuff as if I was 5 but others as if I was 9. I also was very disorganized and this will frustrate my mom so much that will punish me for it. I found my school records yesterday and I swear I felt that all I did was failing. It made me cry sooo much. I didn’t realize it had affected me so much because it literally left me feeling like a loser and that I should receive love because I was dumb. Still that didn’t kept me from trying and today I hold 2 university degrees! One in Law with an specialty in notary law (literally 1 semester left on my masters in law) and I’m also an Interior Designer. (I never fulfilled my life dream of becoming a paleontologist but one of these days I’ll commit to it). I’m also an artist since I am a Professional Dancer and Instructor. Too all the people that bully me and told me I was dumb… well here you go, I was not dumb just miss understood and you are the dumb one cause now I hold several university titles and I do what I love which is being creative. Thank you!! It really made me push myself harder and made me stronger so thank you again!

  • Dr Amanda Pagett

    Thank you for this article. The education system crushes dyslexic children. Focusing for years on something of so little importance as spelling as it is the only thing their peers can do. And using teachers so unable to push their real potential. Since dyslexic children have skills the teachers themselves can’t dream of.

    The only plus is if you come through that system unscathed you can do anything…

    As you can tell it had no effect on me!

    • John B

      Dr. Pagett,
      At the age of 46 I have recently been diagnosed with severe dyslexia. Although I am an accomplished expert in my profession field, I have spelling intelligence scores of bottom 1%, reading intelligence scores of low average 42% (from a lifetime of hard work) on the opposite end “the gift” is real… I have a vocabulary intelligence score of 88%, composite intelligence score of 94% and a spacial & memory score of 99%. Again all of this is new as of 3 months now.
      I am trying to find what Kent Sinclair describes as a “network and affinity group,” in my area.. all I can find are help and tutor groups. I don’t want help and surly don’t want a tutor. How can I find groups of other ultra high functional misfits like me?
      Any help or suggestions would be appreciated.

      Thank you, John

  • Jonah R

    I have dyslexia. I have a hard time with spelling, but I learned to read strictly with word association. I learned the things words matched up to, and what that word looks like. Over time I have been able to match up parts of words, when I run across complicated words. Lol this seems to have helped me understand, what words I’m not familiar with actually mean, at a far above average level. Ha who would have guessed

    • Jonah R

      I thought I would share my explanation on big picture thinking also. My take on it is image you see a man beating a woman, that makes you angry, but wait zoom out more and it’s part of a movie, so it’s not actually happening, then you zoom out more and it’s being made for a program for people convicted of domestic abuse, but then you zoom out more and realize it’s just something on the tv in a background of a movie. I find that most people that can spell also get caught on seeing the man beating up a female and are unwilling to look past something that actually means nothing in the big picture. That’s a frustrating issue I run into often. Not the domestic abuse situation but the people getting caught up in insignificant things.

  • Joyce M

    My daughter is dyslexic and her early years in school were so frustrating for both of us. I knew she was having trouble with reading, writing, spelling, etc. I decided to teach her a love for reading through audio books. I went to the library and picked out good classic literature. In 7th grade she read tge unabridged Count if Monte Cristo- something like 1300 pages. She is a voracious reader and audio book listener. She graduated high school as salutatorian., graduated college with honors and just completed grad school with almost a 4.0. She is finishing up her field work right now and guess what her clinical instructor told her today…she needs to work on her spelling. Well, she’s going to be a FANTASTIC occupational therapist but the spelling will always be a struggle. Be encouraged! God has given gifts to every one of us! Discover them, embrace them and use them to make this world a better place!

    • Rita Priest

      I am reading all these commits and loving to hear you all succeed in your own way. My daughter four grade just was diagnosed with dyslexia a few weeks ago. Both her parents are teachers and we have helped her so much since PreK. Just hearing this we was in shock. How did we miss this? They said because we have helped her it took longer to see that she was plus the Covid years didn’t help this younger generation at all.

    • Gabriela

      Thank you!!! I wish my mom would have done more loving stuff towards my mental problems. But I do agree it’s not impossible I have ADHD and dyslexia and I have 2 university titles and I did a specialization in on of them, I’m almost done my masters and also I became a great artist and instructor. I also graduated with honors in my second degree. For someone that was told as a child that was dumb I guess I was not so dumb after all… it hard to have such problems and can lead to depression, anxiety and just feeling doubtful about your self all the time, so seriously congratulations you deserve a gold medal as a mom!

  • Nițescu R

    My daughter, 10 years old îs dyslexic, I think. She struggled hard at school when reading and likez mostly watching TV. I am a teacher and I want to help her to learn English and German. She îs having course but I m afraid She Will fail în getting her diploma because of this. Although She reads with great dificulty She îs very inteligent, creative and after the first reading She understands the text better than ME. I want to help her to make use of her whole potential. Tell ME what I CAN do, please!

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      The Davis techniques described in the book, The Gift of Dyslexia, are built around giving dyslexics understanding and control of their mental strengths, and providing ways to use the strengths to their benefit. Although the Davis techniques are designed to help with specific problems like reading, the understanding that is gained can be applied in many different ways. My son at age 11 very quickly realized that his ability to control his “mind’s eye” was a super-power.

  • S. Moreno

    It was refreshing to read these comments. I’m over 50 now, I have began to wonder about myself around my mid 30’s about my learning abilities. I wasn’t labeled in school, so I’ve always thought that learning wasn’t my strongest point. I also thought that there weren’t many people out in the world similar to myself.
    I have furthered my education, but I’ve have had to learn educational material in various ways.
    I would color code my study material and reread it over and over. I would also have to read many of my assigned books by audio. Sometimes I would have to use a book marker that I would cut out with a square to isolate a couple of words at a time. This would help me not to wonder off my subject.
    I seem to complete many tasks backwards, so because of this I’m more self conscious about this.
    Thank you everyone

  • Finn P

    I am a dyslexic who has recently been trying to understand my brain better. I am 16 and I love stem. I do math, biology and physics at school and I am very bad at English and spelling, but that doesn’t bother me. I have a bad working memory and lose focus easily. I try to teach myself outside of the school syllabus but the only way I know about how to learn is reading. Are there any ways I can use my dyslexia to my advantage? And if so how? What should I do to improve my working memory? How can I stimulate my dyslexia and use it as a catalyst for learning? What should I do to retain focus?
    Please answer these questions I am really trying to improve my situation, it means a lot to me.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Finn, the book The Gift of Dyslexia explains the strategies that we use to apply dyslexic talents to overcome school problems. Reading or listening to the audio version of the book might give you insight into the way you think and ideas for better strategies for learning and studying.

    • Kate

      Hi Finn,

      I’m a 24 year old dyselxic with a first class honours in Bsc in biology. Currently working in the field and doing a part time Msc in science validation. If you want to join the same field you most certainly can do this! I was diagnosed at a very young age. I started reading alot since I was a kid to improve my reading skills. I used Google translate to help me prounce new words. I kept a notebook and would add new words and their definitions to it. In high-school everyone told me I don’t need to study other languages because of my dyselxia. I defied that and went on to do honours level English and French. For learning everyone learns different. Im a very visual learner I love reading my handwriting in loads of pretty colours. Re writing and summarizing has helped me learn the information. Most importantly in science is understanding the concept not memorising everything! If you need any further help feel free to contact me.

    • chantel w

      Hello there I am now 45 and have it as well although when I went to school it was an unspoken sin to have it..Without even finishing high school I was contacted buy Penn State when i was in my 30s out of the blue so i took the call and heard what they had to say and I was shocked! they knew about me and my ability from an old teacher of mine I can see things backwards like a picture and I am VERY good at finding things out weather it be a puzzle ,place,product,or something i have read,You should be able to tell just by my typing that that i have it….It is a blessing and I dont regret having it for a min.It has made me faster better and able to see things others cant,We can sometimes see everything at once and when you learn to hone in on it USE IT!

    • Christie B

      If you want to learn to read pick a subject that interests you very much. Be willing to look up the words you don’t know. If you look them up on line they will pronounce them for you,

      Best of Luck

    • Elena

      Hi Finn,

      I too am dyslexic. I remember being extremely frustrated in grade school. I would do my best to study with the tools teachers provided me, but I couldn’t grasp the subjects. At the time, I had an interest in english rather than mathematics because the stories made more sense to me than numbers. I enjoyed digging into the underlying questions concerning character actions and behaviors. I guess I had more of a scientific approach to it. I did struggle with the wording while reading. I was better in a group forum where we discussed what was read, or I found it difficult to connect the dots and realized I had to read the passage multiple times to understand. It wasn’t until college that I truly found the study method that worked best for me. During class, I would type up my notes and record the lecture in case I forgot anything. From that, I would reorganize the notes and fill in additional information to further expand on an idea. I would then print out the revised notes and highlight and underline text with different colored pens and highlighters to help materials stick in my mind. On top of this, I would upload my notes on to my phone and play them with the speaker function through my car speakers or ear buds. This helped me visualize the answers from the highlighted notes I prepared while doing other tasks. I ended up using this method through out my undergrad and graduate degree schooling. I remember the struggle of figuring out what study method worked best for me, but once I did this, school came easy to me. I hope this helps you to achieve your goals.

    • Dr Amanda Pagett

      Hi Fin,

      Science research is a fantastic field for dyslexic people. While doing my D.Phill I realised I had a big advantage. Research is all about testing hypotheses and things do not always go to plan. The system dyslexic children have to go through teaches them resilience. Something that for others, who have never failed comes as a hard lesson. Your struggles with the system built for non dyslexic children will put you at an advantage.

      I found learning the origins of words helped my understand how they are spelled (spelt?). But I still have problems. But what I have realised over time is that they are in others head, not realty. I try to spell correctly to help others hear my points. It is their hang up which they will chose to make your life hell over. But you will find that other dyslexic people work in science research and many can’t spell, so although still important you will find that your ideas are taken seriously even if you get the odd word wrong.

      Big picture thinkers is a vital skill in science. Just remember to always question your assumptions.

      The most disconcerting thing I found was watching others with photographic memories easily take information from one place to another. Chin up though you have a pen and paper.

      I always get easily distracted. People have a love for those horrid open offices. I find this a real problem. I am afraid to say the best way round this for me is to use the day time for getting practical things done and networking. I think and write in the evenings or in a quiet part of the lab. That or ask for your own office! Occasionally if I am really engrossed I can zone others out. I do this by setting myself challenging goals. Not a problem in science research!

      Anyway, be proud of being dyslexic. Don’t let anyone try to cure you. Your brain is unique and a real asset to science research.

      Good Luck!

  • andre

    I am only 13 years old I searched uo if it was bad if i did not know how to read and I read the syntoms of dylexia and i have most of then and some months ago i went to the doctors and she asked me how was i going in school but i did not know how to tell my doctor that i might have dyalexia because my mom was there and i was scared to say it so i did not and just said i was going good in school . And my first year in 5th grade i failed and had to repeat my grade and at that time my reading level is J and now that i am in 7th grade i am at the same reading level and i need help telling my mom doctor and teachers for help or something that can make me improve in reading and writing.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Please don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you have already had to repeat a grade, then your mom and teachers know that you have been struggling. Asking for help is the first step you can take towards getting what you need.

    • Trina S

      Andre, You are very wise young man I’m very impress with your ability to notice you are dyslexic before your teachers and doctors. It’s ok to tell your Mom tell your teachers that you have dyslexia and your not comfortable reading out loud and being called on due to your dyslexia. If your teachers DON’T understand they need to educate themselves. I worked with teachers how they need to work with students that are dyslexic never compare them with other students. I’m truly sorry you were held back back they should have worked with you try some summer home schooling to get you caught up with your class. Show your family all the people who are genius and have/had dyslexia. It’s truly a gift we all have been given we just need to use it to our advantage. Tell your Mom and ask to call your doctor to inform them to get their medical advice and treatment going forward. Don’t ever keep anything from your Mom remember you can tell her anything she loves you know matter what.
      I bet you will become a doctor or teacher Andre you will help children with similar issues like dyslexia. PLEASE keep us updated.

    • Dr Amanda Pagett

      Hi Andre,

      As far as I am aware dyslexic runs in families, so don’t afraid to talk to your family your parents may not know they have it. The system needs you to fit in, but early school life focuses on spelling because most non dyslexic children pick it up without even trying. Your brain is special and has more important things to learn about at the moment. So learn about the things that interest you secure in the knowledge that you will probably never be able to spell properly and that this will not matter so much when you get to more advanced schooling.

      But most important of all understand that dyslexia is a gift and for the small penalty that you can’t see the point of spelling your brain can excel in so many other areas compared to most.

      You are lucky I did not have the internet when I was growing up. Use this to your advantage and teach yourself. School is in the early stages for a dyslexic child something to be endured.

      The only way I learned to spell anything is to learn the origin of words and by getting a pen with no ink and writing the word I wanted to learn over and over and over until it finally went in. But I only did this when I was older at your age I thought school was stupid and that English had no spelling rules ( and people who talked about them where lying) and I admit I gave up. I remember spending most of my time re-wording things in my head so I could use small words I could spell!

      I remember in science comeing up with interesting thoughts and ideas only to have no comment from the teacher and sp in the margin multiple times and red wiggly lines. So demoralising!

      Good luck. When you get older you will find that education is, in fact, great;

    • Jonah Ryder

      I think you should say something, but only after you have gathered enough proof that dyslexia is a gift. It’s still very common for people to think of dyslexia as I disability, and that can have a massive down side. Sure your will get help for your “disability” I hope they also help nurture your creativity!

    • Gabriela

      Please don’t be afraid to askkkk!! There is nothing wrong with you I promise!! You are not dumb your are just miss understood. Who cares if u fit in with all those regular people I’m sure u are very good at other things they are not. As someone with ADHD and dyslexia I’m telling you, you can achieve anything you want in life. I’m obviously old but my problems didn’t stop me from achieving 2 university title one with hons and even seeking for a masters degree. So I’m telling you, you can do it, it might take more time and different ways of learning… I’ve notice it helps me to really take notes in class even if I’m horrible at dictating but write things are you are understanding them. Ask lots of questions in class that will help u understand what are they talking about so u can make sure what your are writing is correct. Try to read with an audiobook and also don’t forget about stimulating your creative side cause I’m sure you are very creative in some stuff, such as finding stuff… I’ve also noticed my concentration improves after I practice yoga, so it might be something good to try!! Read about your condition only to help you understand it more!!! Congratulations for starting on seeking help and believe me you are not alone, so don’t be afraid to ask for help!! You are beautiful smart person that just see things in a different way, nothing wrong with that ♥️

  • Gussie

    My son can figure out geometry solutions without writing each step out. His teacher insists he has to write it out. He says he can’t write them out. What do I do to help?

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      This is a very common problem, because dyslexics usually think mostly with visual imagery, but can have a hard time translating their thoughts to words. It gets even harder when mathematical symbols are involved. Geometry is particularly hard to put into words, because it is all about understanding shapes — so a picture-thinker may find that it is easy to see the answer in their mind but have no clue how to explain it.

      Here is what Davis Facilitators do to help: we use clay to model mathematical symbols and their meanings, and to model the meanings of common words used in math problems. The key is to give the person the ability to think with the words and symbols they need to write out an equation or a proof.

      My son had similar problems. I talked to him about how he would need to learn to write out his steps sequentially if he wanted to learn to write a computer program or code –that helped to motivate him. Otherwise, it seemed to him like a waste of time – why write things out when in his mind, the answer was already obvious? I would watch him do his homework in algebra and he would write down the problem, then write down the answer, and then work backward up the page to show the steps in between.

      • Betsy Lake

        I didn’t figure out I was dyslexic until college. I understood the concepts. I’ve always been an excellent problem solver, but the test always took me too long. I only made it half way through. Long story short I put some pieces together after speaking with my grandmother about her educational years and digging through my saved school work from kindergarten- high school. I collected my data. The picture was very clear. Then I went in for the diagnosis. I was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, but was told I had already taught myself all coping mechanisms. So much so, that if I hadn’t brought in my “data/history” from my kindergarten- high school years it would have been hard for them to pick up on it. My problem solving skills were tested and they are extremely high. However, I was told my field of study was not obtainable with my severe dyslexia. I was even asked if I needed someone to write notes for me. I found this to be rediculous! I had learned in the military that the best way for me to visual remember was to take notes and then rewrite them by color coding and reorganizing. It took a lot of time, but visually I was able to reference my notes for class and test like flipping through pages. I also had to study information from multiple angles to the point that I can teach it to someone else from a multitude of angles. I was often asked to join study groups for this reason, but it takes so much longer to learn. The answer it just is what it is never sits well with me. I was excepted into Syracuse University for engineering and I have a mathematics certificate. All things I was told were impossible for me. Hey and engineers can’t spell anyways…hahaha. Unfortunately I had to stop my pursuit in engineering due to divorce, which was recognized by the courts and now I homeschool both of my girls. My youngest is just like me. I’m just happy I can give her all the tools ahead of time, so she doesn’t have to figure it out later in life. She’s doing great! She’s two years ahead and so is my other daughter. Of course my youngest has to read and reread time and time again. I make her take notes and double check her facts. Any time she questions something I make her stop to sort the information so she can properly store it in her brain. It just works! She spent five hours reading 12 pages in her geography book and answering all questions and the chapters final review, but the information is processed and stored with what she needs to know. I set goal for her like taking a break after six pages of reading. In the private school they were attending both of my children were top of their class for spelling and reading in elementary school. So no one quit understood when I said my youngest is dyslexic. The math teacher never picked up her sheet used to work out problems for test because it just looked like ambiguous scribbles that didn’t mean anything. I tell her her writing is perfect for being a doctor or engineer. She gets a good chuckle out of it, but she does slow down for me to write neatly. It’s good practice. Now that she’s homeschooled the other kids aren’t around to make fun of her “sloppy handwriting” we’ll call it.

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