By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


Jo Cavan, a high-ranking employee at GCHQ, recently told The Guardian that people with dyslexia have skills which are valuable to their work as an intelligence and cyber agency –  skills that neurotypical people sometimes lack.

She said: “We’re looking for people who can see something that’s out of place in a bigger picture, who have good visual awareness and can spot anomalies… A lot of dyslexic colleagues have those strengths.”

Dyslexia, a specific learning difference/difficulty (SpLD) which around one in ten people in the UK are estimated to have to some degree, can impede skills such as reading, writing, processing information, memory and organisation. Children with dyslexia can often struggle in school and this can affect their confidence and self-esteem.

But, as GCHQ has determined, there are benefits to the different thinking patterns and styles that dyslexic people possess. Dyslexic children are full of capabilities and potential; their creativity and lateral thinking, problem-solving techniques and insightful questions can complement their studies of science in particular, so long as their teachers know how to nurture and cater to their skills. Imperial College London also recently established 2eMPower, an outreach project for young people with SpLDs to enable them to undertake science subjects and apply their particular skills to the discipline.

This is something that Diana Hudson, a teacher who taught science in secondary schools for over 35 years, is promoting and encouraging with her new book, Exploring Science with Dyslexic Children and Teens. Diana dedicated her career to working with children with SpLD, becoming Head of Biology and Special Educational Needs Coordinator during her career. 

When I sat down with her (via computer) to chat about her new book, she told me: “I was diagnosed with dyslexia myself when I was 50, which explained why at school I struggled quite a lot.” Despite these struggles, Diana continued in academia to earn a PhD in Zoology, which she said “was much easier because it was sort of in my remit and I could work my own way.”

Her own experiences and raising her four children – three of whom have SpLD – gave her a clear insight into how children with dyslexia learn and which teaching styles work for them. The school years are an incredibly formative time; obstacles and bad experiences at a young age can alter the career paths of potentially promising scientists.   

Diana said: “Increasingly it’s been shown that the people who think in different ways can also become excellent at science, like some of our Nobel Prize winners and some of our successful engineers, scientists and creators, because they think more laterally, more visually. It’s a different approach … they [children with dyslexia] can be super scientists, but they’ve got to get through school.” 

Diana’s new book is a brilliant compendium of games, mnemonic devices and other methods for capturing the attention and imagination of children with dyslexia – and in fact, all children. As Diana said, “good dyslexic teaching is good teaching”.

Dyslexic children can struggle with traditionally taught science as detail and accuracy are often crucial when spelling scientific language and writing out formulae, and this sort of detail can present stumbling blocks.

“It’s very easy to put off some children because they can find some of it very difficult, balancing equations, remembering the instructions”, Diana said. “They can get worried and feel 'I’m no good at science', 'I can’t do it' and 'I’m thick'. I just feel it’s really important to keep morale up and know each child and their strengths, and to try to work with them.” The importance of boosting morale and confidence in children to whom academic learning doesn’t come naturally is something we also explored in our blog on maths anxiety.

The book focuses on finding ways to connect with dyslexic children, using techniques to identify and develop their skills. Chapters offer educators ways to teach science with visual aids such as photos and posters, which avoid an overload of text, and tactile experiments such as using polystyrene balls to explain the molecular structure of solids, liquids and gases, or using jigsaw pieces to demonstrate chemical bonding.

I rounded up my chat with Diana by asking her what her top tip for educators working with children with dyslexia would be. She said:

“Look for their strengths. Find what are they’re good at and work from that point if you can. Reward. They’re not going to be the ones who are going to be top, and they’re probably going to have to work harder, because they’re getting things into longer term memory, to get even middle or quite good. So what you’re rewarding is progress, little steps, effort, something original.”

Dyslexia doesn’t have to mean that academic success and a possible career in science is out of reach – a good teacher can make all the difference.  

Follow the links below to buy Diana’s book and find more information about dyslexia:

Exploring Science with Dyslexic Children and Teens – Jessica Kingsley Publishers

What is dyslexia? – British Dyslexia Association

Dyslexia – NHS

About Dyslexia – Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre