Dyslexia - Connecting the Unconnected

and why French is the only exam I ever cheated in (and was caught).

One of the biggest challenges facing children with dyslexia is connecting the unconnected.

We have to make these connections every time we match a word with its meaning, link a word to its spelling pattern or a letter to its sound. A huge part of becoming literate is remembering unconnected pairings. These pairings, which quickly become automatic for so many children often don’t for children with dyslexia. Typically, young children with dyslexia will either…

  • be much slower in retrieving the information - These are children who can identify letters of the alphabet, but not at speed. They turn into slow readers, and even slower writers.

  • learn links, but forget them over time - These children may do really well in a single activity but by the next day will have forgotten half of it and by the end of the week are back to square one.


In terms of dyslexia assessment we look for poor ‘rapid retrieval’ skills and 'working memory' issues as two of the major indicators of dyslexia (poor phonological awareness being the other important marker). It wouldn’t surprise me if these are the core issues making connecting the unconnected so difficult for so many children with dyslexia.

I have both these problems. In English it just slows me down a bit. However, like most children I was expected to learn French at secondary school. This proved phenomenally difficult. Unless I studied nothing but the ten words of French vocab all week I was unlikely to remember any of them in the test and I had no chance in a review.

Luckily my friend was half French and I managed most of a year by ‘checking’ my answers against hers. Then she was ill. It was a disaster and for the first time in my life I cheated (and got caught) copying the words from a spelling book hidden in an open bag. I was mortified. I hated French and stopped studying it as soon as I could. I forgot every word of it so quickly after my GCSE’s it was like purging. Studying French felt like the most pointless exercise in futility I have ever been forced to undertake.

As an adult there have been a couple of times where connecting the unconnected has become imperative.

At university I studied psychology. I was expected to cite authors in exams. This meant I needed to provide the experiment, name(s) and date (e.g. Little Albert experiment, Watson and Rayner; 1920). By the time I did my finals I had well over 1000 names and dates I needed to link to experiments. I soon realized that dates were impossible. I find it hard to remember my own phone number. But by using ‘hooks’ I could anchor names to experiments. I needed to create and memorize every single hook, otherwise I would soon forget who did what. It worked.


Some examples of my picture cues for learning turkish

Recently I have moved to Turkey, a country where you REALLY need to speak the language. There are often times when I barely notice I’m dyslexic. I have so many strategies and technologies in place. Going to language classes came as a huge shock. I was suddenly back in GCSE French, dreading being asked to speak and unable to read from the board. I can’t even repeat back multisyllabic words. However, this time I was determined to succeed. I began by creating a picture and phrase to hook each new Turkish word to its meaning, and then memorizing each one. I have to do this for every word. I now know over 2000 words. I’m still painfully slow at retrieving them, but it is a start.

Yes...that's right 2000 little pictures. The programme I use allows me to programme my own phrase and picture links. It is called Memrise and has been a real find for me.


It seems counter-initiative, a waste of time at best, and for a non-dyslexic it would be. For me it is the only way to connect the unconnected. Many children with dyslexia need similar strategies, ones that use pictures or phrases to help link the pairs.  This problem of connecting the unconnected also presents a challenge for developing maths skills, especially times tables and number bonds - those maths facts where you are supposed to ‘just know’ the answer, and memorizing phone numbers and historical dates.

Do not imagine that simple repetition will get a child there in the end. It probably won’t, and even if it does it is likely to be a frustrating process and a short lived success. But by developing creative supportive strategies for children to work with when young you will be teaching them vital life skills that they may still be using as adults.

Providing Support-

Learning new words - Link to other words the child already knows. Suffix and prefix work can be really useful, but also recognizing the repeated chunks of meaning in words like ‘cycle, recycle’, ‘cyclical’ or, ‘thermal, thermometer, exothermic, thermos flask’. Where that isn’t possible then fall back on the word-picture link strategies. With younger children action prompts can help anchor new words.

Learning new letters or spellings, use pictures to support memory. Where the shape of the letters is the same as the shape of the picture and the picture begins with the target sound, this forms a bridge linking the letter sound and letter shape. Slowly fade out support. See my resources for more examples.

Learning a new language, like learning a new word. Be explicit about intra-word relations (e.g. link to word they already know)….and if they don’t know anything then do a word-picture link. Revise and use the link when prompting is needed. Over time the child will probably forget the link they initially used. That’s fine and doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked, just that the link has finally been made. If they forget remind them using the same link. Each time they will remember a little faster.

Other people, non-dyslexic people, don’t do it quicker, they don’t do it at all…they just know. To me this is utterly mysterious. How do you ever ‘just know’ a phone-number? But this gulf between how a dyslexic mind and a non-dyslexic mind work is one of the most fundamental differences, and is something that teachers and parents really need to appreciate to be able to help. I think this is one of the least discussed and least supported aspects of dyslexia.

There are a myriad of ways of structuring this support, and making the process fun for the learner. Please share anything you have found particularly successful.

Thanks for reading,



Disclaimer- every dyslexic is different and there are dyslexic children who will not have particular difficulty connecting the unconnected. They will have a different pattern of difficulties. This doesn’t mean they are not dyslexic, but that their cognitive profile is substantially different from mine, and the other people with dyslexia who struggle with this particular issue.