Valeria De La Vega talks about her experiences of growing up with Dyslexia in Colombia and how she overcame the challenges of this reading disorder.

In the first grade I had an activity where we had to go around tables and read a paragraph out of a book. Once you finished it you could move on to the next one. I remember just staring at these pages and their illustrations and not being able to understand the words while my classmates passed by me on to the next table. So instead of trying I pretended to know what was going on and imitated what my friends did. This sort of thing happened a lot in primary school. I didn’t participate much, I got nervous every time I had to read out loud and I loved going to the nurse’s office just because it would get me out of class.

The Challenge of Reading Aloud

This is how my dyslexic brain works now when I have to read out loud, or better yet my thought process. Okay I can do this, I’ll just read it before so I don’t make a fool of myself. Starting now, alright these words I can read, I know them and this is going pretty smoothly, oh long word now, it’s okay I know it… continuing ugh made a little mistake with that one, back on track… oh no this next word I don’t know it I’ll read it a bit slowly but not too slow so people don’t notice it, oops said the wrong word, this time I said it right. Okay Vale keep up, I just stumbled on some other words and made up a word again but it’s okay it’s going alright and now it’s over, success.

It’s not like I’m stumbling across every word I read, or that it takes me twice the amount of time to read out loud. Sometimes when I don’t recognise a word or if it’s too long I have to stop and sound out the letters. This leads to a slower reading time and in some cases mistakes because my brain doesn’t sound them out properly or it decides that it’s another word. This happens more frequently to me than to normal readers. Reading silently is something that I prefer, nobody is looking at me, I can read at my own pace and I make fewer mistakes because I feel no pressure. Unless it’s like when I was in school and I had to read in pairs. The other person would want to turn the page and I wasn’t at the end yet so I felt hurried, had to run through the sentences and not enjoy it at all.

When I was younger I had trouble recognising letters, I would confuse b-d a-q-p c-o l-i r-t, and I would stumble more when reading. That lead me to ask more questions, a thing that is normal among children I think, but in my case curiosity was also accompanied by a break. Recognising letters wasn’t my only problem, once I solved that I still had other reading difficulties.

For me reading was a tedious task and it took me longer to learn how to do it than it did to my classmates. When having to read out loud in the classroom I would see which was the passage that I had to read before so I would do it just like my classmates did. This way I wouldn’t stumble or have the others read the word correctly on top of me if I took too long.

The Invisible Disability  

I had a lot of help growing up, and I didn’t realise that I had a problem. I had to go to special-ed classes in school, do extra homework, went to after school tutorials and I even had reading classes during vacations. However, I think that there is an age where you don’t question why you have to do some things and you just do them because it’s part of a routine. Or you don’t really notice that you are struggling with some things because you just find it normal until it fades away. So when I had to do all of this I found it normal, unless I was lazy or I saw that my siblings were playing while I had to work, and that’s when it started to bother me. On the other hand, my mom always said I was special, but I thought she meant it as a quality I had because of my personality, while my sisters who were a bit older did know that I struggled. One of them loved to help me out, showed me different ways to succeed with creative ideas for school, and something about the way she explained things to me made it all more simple.

There were various exercises that I had to do along the years that I had help. Sometimes my teacher and I read a text in unison, in other cases I would have to read a paragraph out loud and start again every time I made a mistake (an exercise that could be very frustrating). There were times when I did exercises with audio, for example writing down the lyrics of a song, listening to an audio and writing down the main idea or learning how to take notes from dictations or things I heard. There were other ones that had to do with identifying differences between letters and having to write them properly, as well as identifying different shapes and cataloguing them with colour. Images played an important role. With them I did exercises like cross matching vocabulary to pictures or describing what was happening in sequences that I saw. Since it wasn’t only about learning to read it was about comprehension as well I learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph and its supporting ones as well.

This was a process that took various years until I got a hang of it. Up until the third grade going to the nurse was a hobby for me to skip classes. Everyday I would say to my teachers that my stomach or my head hurt, of course they knew that it wasn’t true but off to the nurse I went. There she would make me have some tea and because of that I’ve developed a dislike for it now. In classes I would get easily distracted and just go to imaginary worlds. I loved story time when my teachers read out loud to us. So I wanted to be a writer, but when someone told me that in order to be a writer I had to read a book per week I thought that I couldn’t do it and I didn’t want to anymore. But little by little I started getting into books, stories became more captivating and all the extra work I had done was starting to pay off. It wasn’t hard to read anymore.

Overcoming My Dyslexia

Some people think that dyslexic people are dumb and I can assure you we are not. Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Walt Disney and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all dyslexic and they were brilliant. Now I’m not saying that I’m anything like them, only that dyslexia doesn’t mean not being intelligent. I had a switch go on in my head when I finished primary school. I decided that I wanted to be one of the best and so I paid attention, I read, I studied hard and even graduated second best in my class. I think few people from my school know that I was dyslexic because it’s not something that I talk too much about or that showed after primary.

In university I started studying Communications and I wanted to go into publishing. However, I was scared because spelling in Spanish wasn’t something that I had mastered. Even though it’s my first language I was always better at English because I preferred reading in this language and it doesn’t have accents like Spanish does. I took a copyediting class and had a talk with my professor and told her about my fears and her words encouraged me. She told me that she is also dyslexic and she is a great copy editor, so I said to myself well if she can do it so can I, and I did.

How to Help Someone with Dyslexia

Dyslexia can subtly affect you and lower your self esteem, it can make you shy and not want to shine and it can make you feel slow. Once you get a hang of it there is nothing you can’t do, your brain just works differently. I believe that there is nothing bad with that. It is something that I will always have and struggle a bit with but from my experience it won’t impair you to do what you want. I can read out loud but it’s something that if I can avoid it I will, on the other hand I love speaking in public, doing speeches and presentations. So it’s not a thing about stage fright, it’s about feeling confident in what I can do in front of others.

If you know anybody with dyslexia it’s important to encourage them and not make them feel dumb. Since I can only talk about my experience and I got help when I was young I believe that the earlier you start getting help the better, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying if you are older. Visual learning is another way to get information through and I’ve found that it is very effective, words matter but so do images. A combination of both of these is a great approach towards learning for anybody, especially for dyslexic people who take longer to decode words, and you can get tired of working with letters again and again. Also, remember that every case is different and what worked for me could work differently for someone else and this is why it’s important to see what works out for each one and develop a strategy from that.

I do believe that there have to be different approaches to reading. There should be books made that can engage those who have difficulties with them, and the earlier it starts the better. I’ve seen that there are typographers that have been developing typefaces (fonts) specially made for dyslexic people that make it easier for us to recognise each character, and I think this is wonderful. What in my opinion is a great approach for reading is to patiently give approachable stories to children and let them discover them little by little, encourage their own taste in reading in whichever genre they prefer, they’ll get where they need to get in their own time, but do help out. For example, I loved stories and when I read to my little brother I didn’t feel any pressure to get it right. Because he was three years younger than me, he enjoyed the stories as much as I did and we both loved the images that they had. Having this in mind get books that interact with kids, but also don’t forget that they are kids and need time to have fun, too much help can lead to rejection. I had great teachers that were caring and we took time out to play and cook so I enjoyed going to my extra classes. My mum celebrated my successes and I loved it, it made me feel encouraged, but she didn’t do this all my childhood which I think is great because I didn’t want to get great grades for a prize, I wanted to do it for myself. I now enjoy reading and want to work with books. I’m happy dyslexia didn’t ruin this for me but I’m also happy to be dyslexic because it helped me develop a different approach to reading and a passion for books.

Valeria De La Vega just finished her undergraduate degree in Communications with an Emphasis in Publishing and Multimedia at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. She is currently working at the Corona Foundation a non-profit organisation that works towards education in Colombia.