A Guide to Dyslexia in Africa: The Way Forward

Addressing the challenges faced by people with dyslexia, their families and their educators who are trying to address their needs, requires a range of interventions. The treatment of dyslexia in Africa presents some challenges of its own. This post will guide you through some of the issues surrounding dyslexia in Africa today.

These include the following:

• Defining and diagnosing dyslexia
• Specific issues unique to dyslexia in Africa
• How Africans can engage in these issues
• What practical steps can we take today

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning difference, not a deficiency or defect. People who have dyslexia learn in ways that are different from others: they will struggle with conventionally simple aspects of learning and often excel at those that are considered more difficult.

Usually people associate dyslexia with reading, writing, spelling and math problems that children may have in school. These learning difficulties however are indicators of learning differences; often these children who experience dyslexic symptoms are highly intelligent.

Dyslexia often goes undetected until a child's reading assignments evolve from picture books and they can no longer "bluff" their way when facing the written word and their homework in other subjects.

Some of today’s most famous celebrities and entrepreneurs are dyslexic: Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Jay Leno and Whoopi Goldberg all share the learning disability. The music industry list includes Cher, Ozzy Osbourne and John Lennon. Sports figures Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Bruce Jenner and Nolan Ryan are dyslexic. Walt Disney and Henry Ford were dyslexic, and so were three U.S. presidents: Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and George Washington (this seems to be very Euro and US-centric – any one from Africa?) Entrepreneurs include Sir Richard Branson and Trevor Ncube, the Executive Deputy Chairman of the Mail and Guardian media group. Even Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison were probably dyslexic.

The list of names is proof that many people diagnosed with dyslexia possess above-average intelligence. This intelligence can mask the learning difficulty, and students use coping skills to hide the fact reading is a struggle.

Dyslexia falls under a larger umbrella term of difficulties that affect the way information is learned and processed. These are referred to as the Specific Learning Difficulties (or SpLDs). They are neurological (rather than psychological), hereditary and occur independently of intelligence. The range of frequently co-occurring difficulties include Dyslexia, Dyspraxia/DCD, Dyscalculia, A.D.D/A.D.H.D.

SpLDs can also co-occur with difficulties on the autistic spectrum such as Asperger Syndrome. (To read more about SpLDs, click here)


Identification of dyslexia requires four distinct steps.

1) Talk to your child’s teacher/s
If there is a notable concern about your child’s progress with reading and writing, talk to their teacher/s. It is also wise to find out if there are family members who have had similar difficulties in school.

2) Check your child’s hearing and vision
In order to gain a full understanding of your child’s information processing strengths and weaknesses confirm that your child’s vision and hearing are fine.

3) Advocate for a different teaching approach
If your child does not have any obvious underlying health problems to explain their learning difficulties, it may be that they are not responding very well to the teaching method. You might encourage the school and teachers to consider idifferent teaching methods that address the issue specifcally.

4) Seek a diagnostic assessment
If there are still concerns about your child’s progress after she/he has received additional teaching and support, a diagnostic assessment is recommended.

Assessments are carried out by an educational psychologist or appropriately qualified specialist dyslexia teacher, who is able to support your child, you and your child's teacher. A knowledge and background in psychology, reading, language and education are necessary. The assessor must have a thorough working knowledge of how individuals learn to read and why some people have trouble learning to read. They must also understand how to administer and interpret evaluation data and how to plan appropriate reading interventions. (To read more about diagnosis, click here).

A single assessment measure to diagnose dyslexia does not exist. A series of assessments (or sub-sections of assessments) are usually chosen on the basis of their measurement properties and their potential to address referral issues (referral is a request for a student to be evaluated to potentially receive special education services).

While a variety of assessments may be used, the components of a good assessment remain the same. Special attention should be paid to gathering data in areas such as: expressive oral language, expressive written language, receptive oral language, receptive written language, intellectual functioning, cognitive processing and educational achievement. (To read more about assessments, click here)

Dyslexia in Africa

We lack a working definition

The first professional diagnosis of developmental dyslexia appeared in The British Medical Journal in 1896: "A Case of Congenital Word Blindness" by W. Pringle Morgan and M.B. Seaford, Sussex.

It was an account of a 14-year-old boy, Percy. "...In spite of this labourious and persistent training, he can only with difficulty spell out words of one syllable….The schoolmaster who taught him for some years says that he would be the smartest lad in the school if the instruction were entirely oral." (The Dyslexia Handbook 1996, pp 11-14).

Following this, there have been many definitions of dyslexia. This is because there are lots of different characteristics but no defining characteristic. If we took a collection of dyslexics we would find that the overriding difficulty is a language-based disorder, however the manifestation of this would be different in each individual. This is why it is such a complex syndrome. (For more about the difficulties of defining dyslexia, click here).

Although a working definition has been established and endorsed in countries like the US and the UK (find this definition here), using these definitions to diagnose dyslexia may actually lead to children in Africa being inaccurately labelled.

The influence of bi-lingualism in the manifestation of dyslexia

One legacy of the colonial era is that in many countries in Africa children are educated in the medium of English or French though these might not be the students’ mother tongue. Dyslexia is difficult to identify in students learning English as a second language as there is a high risk of either attributing a learner’s difficulties to second language acquisition, so schools may not recognize a child’s underlying abilities.

South African native languages for instance differ hugely from the Germanic languages of English and Afrikaans. All words in South African languages end in vowels while many words in English end in consonants. This fact causes many pronunciation mistakes, leading to reading and spelling mistakes. Sometimes teachers are not properly trained and are not aware of the background or language tracks of these children. Such a child can easily be labeled as a dyslexic or slow. (Kinutu, in Engelbrecht et al., 1996 p.269)

Difficulties in diagnosis

Testing is both an art and a science, and results are not always what they seem. There are many ways in which psycho-educational testing can underestimate a child’s true abilities and skills.  Part of the art of testing is to recognize and note the things that might be interfering with a child’s best performance and to minimize those things if possible. (To read more about the art of testing, click here)

The way forward

We have to devise our own assessments. These would include the cognitive and psycholinguistic components of a western diagnostic assessment as well as additional, cultural components and bi-lingual proficiencies of the individual.

Re-training of teachers

It is imperative that teacher training in Africa ensures that teachers are able to meet the needs of all students. Teachers should be trained to be more reflective in their practice, with emphasis on the special educational needs of the children in their care.

Dyslexia, Autism and ADHD are all common learning difficulties that can be detected in children as early as nursery school. Poorly trained teachers often attribute these learning difficulties to laziness, stubbornness or temperament.

Updating teachers’ pedagogical skills to include how to cater for the needs of children with Dyslexia, Autism and ADHD will ensure that they have the same opportunity to succeed as their peers. These learning difficulties are not obstacles to academic success when managed properly.

Special needs legislation & enforcement are inadequate

Dyslexia is a recognized difficulty under Equality Act 2010, replacing the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Equality Act provides disabled people with rights and places duties on those who provide services, education and employment. It also encourages employers and employees to work together to break away from rigid employment practices, identify what adjustments and support might be needed, and find flexible ways of working that may benefit the whole workforce.

Like the west, our governments must fund teacher training and provide support for schools and parents in the form of resources for learning institutions. We need policies and strategies to integrate the dyslexic students and adults so that they can be successful and contribute to our continent.

Resource allocation

Sub-Saharan Africa lacks computer skills in all areas, including systems analysis, programming, and maintenance and consulting, and at all operational levels from basic use to management. IT has the potential to provide innovative ways to address the needs of people with dyslexia’s.

However, most countries lack the educational and training facilities needed to help people acquire the proper skills. The few training centers that do exist have not been able to keep up with demand. Only a handful of countries such as Nigeria, Malawi and Zimbabwe have universities that offer computer science degrees; the programs available in the other countries are mainly diplomas and certificates.

As a result of the lack of skilled and trained personnel, user organizations are forced to hire expatriate staff, who in turn lack knowledge about local organizational cultures and thus design inadequate systems. Many African governments and organizations are waking up to this situation, but few serious measures have been taken. (To read more about IT in Sub-Saharan Africa, click here).

In the developed world, mobile technology helps students with dyslexia immensely.

Tasks such as reading, or even just asking the teacher a question, can be a struggle.

For years computers have been helpful to children with autism, dyslexia and ADHD, providing students with specialized ways to communicate and learn. Today, digital tablets make that technology more accessible and portable, and have the potential to capitalize on a child’s strengths while compensating for his or her weaknesses. With tablets, typing (and spelling) becomes optional when a touch or a slide of the finger will do.

Smartphones have the ability to let children with dyslexia create a text message simply by speaking, thereby eliminating worry about having to spell words that don’t come easily to them. Students speak into the phone so that their speech can be translated into text. Students with ADHD have a hard time focusing and completing certain tasks, including reading. Apps can make finishing a given task more like winning a game. Today, reading timers measure how long children have been reading and keep a log so they can keep track of their progress.

What can you do today?

As a dyslexic

Learning more about dyslexia enables you to learn more about yourself. Stories from other dyslexics can be useful in obtaining techniques and best practices that help them.

One of the most valuable things to do will be to accept your weaknesses but more importantly have more awareness and confidence in your strengths. Increase your confidence in your personal compensation strategies and use them both in school and in the work place.

As a teacher

A positive attitude is key to maintaining an enabling classroom environment. If you have a positive attitude you’ll believe and act as if all students will be successful in your class.  If you have a positive attitude there are no losers in your classroom despite their learning difficulties.

Additional intervention and support cannot compensate for a lack of good-quality teaching. Design your classroom tasks, homework assignments and assessments to enable your students to use all their senses. Multisensory teaching techniques and strategies stimulate learning by engaging students on multiple levels.

Instead of long, written assignments, turn these tasks into projects that involve all the senses. Encourage these students to expand and use their natural right-brain traits and talents such as: artistic abilities in different mediums, researching topics for projects.

As you review your students’ work, look for ideas, not errors. Getting ideas down on paper is much more important than fretting over spelling, grammar and punctuation. If your students do not achieve what they are capable of, they may become discouraged, depressed and give up.

Most dyslexic individuals show good leadership abilities, good problem-solving skills, have wonderful imaginations and terrific story-telling skills. Many have natural mechanical abilities, are talented athletes, possess photographic memories and show a strong logical sensibility. They can be assessed to discover their natural talents, interests and hobbies and transfer those skills to boost their weak areas.

As a parent

You can be a positive force in your child's education. Start by learning about dyslexia. Information about dyslexia can help you better understand and assist your child. Focus on building their self-confidence, observe and note your child’s preferred learning styles and advocate for different teaching approaches.

If your child understands more when listening, let him or her learn new information by listening to an audiobook or watching a DVD. If possible, follow up with the same story in written form.

Teach your child to persevere, help him or her build up their mental, emotional, social and strategic resources to enjoy challenge and cope well with uncertainty and complexity. Recognize your child's limitations. There may be some things your child will always struggle with. Help your child understand that this doesn't mean he or she is a failure.

Don't become a homework tyrant. Expecting perfection and squabbling with your child over homework will create an unhealthy relationship and emphasize your child's failures.

Share experiences and connections with other families. There is power in numbers.

As a policy maker

UNESCO describes the notion of 'Inclusive Education' as follows:

Inclusive education is based on the right of all learners to a quality education that meets basic learning needs and enriches lives. Focusing particularly on vulnerable and marginalized groups, it seeks to develop the full potential of every individual.

The ultimate goal of inclusive, quality education is to end all forms of discrimination and foster social cohesion.

To read more about the notion of 'Inclusive Education' from the UNESCO website, click here.

Schools should consider whether they are inclusive communities and evaluate how they provide for children with additional needs.

Policy makers can exchange information about what is being done in their respective schools, communities and countries with regard to provision for students with dyslexia and strategies to raise literacy levels and implement them in their own situations.

Trevor Ncube’s success story despite dyslexia is proof that it can be done. Today there are even more interventions available. There is no excuse!

(In the order in which they appear)