The Power of Words

glasses-143762_640I seem to be coming across lots of article about the importance of language recently.   Whether it be people expressing annoyance at the word selfie (which was voted the most annoying word of the year according to Lake Superior State University, but there are numerous similar articles that claim whatever is the most galling word), conveying their supposed irritation at the overuse of perfectly fine words such as passion, robust and iconic or demonstrating the significance of the changing meaning of the word geek, which was declared the word of the year by Collins English Dictionary due to the fact it is now used to describe anyone who is deemed to be an expert in something, people seem to have lots to say about words.

This is all subjective of course, something that is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that the word selfie appears on both the overused and most annoying words of the year lists, but has been given the accolade of being the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year.

When it is merely opinion and is nothing more than a bit of harmless fun, you can be forgiven for questioning why all of this frivolity is notable enough to appear in a Dyslexia Scotland blog.  Words, whether you love or hate certain ones, have power.  Power to help or hinder, enrage or console, deflate or inspire.

It might be of little surprise, then, that scientists have recently found that reading can have a profound impact on the brain.  Although reading is not the be all and end all (and it has to be remembered that in the technological age, books can be accessed in a variety of ways, such as an audiobook or ebook,) the findings highlight some of the reasons it is important for dyslexics not to struggle with this task unnecessarily.  While I don’t personally agree with how the researchers phrased it (apparently reading a good book creates “muscle memory” in the reader which causes them to emulate the traits of fictional characters, as well as the decisions they make), it is true that a novel that gets under the skin of the reader has the potential to inspire them by giving them access to someone who they can relate to or a role model who they can look up to.

This is why it was disappointing, although not surprising, to come across an article in support of Ruth Rendall’s claims that reading is now “a minority activity.”  Although this could be seen by some as a pity for a variety of reasons – the lack of escapism that can be a great benefit to the sanity of some individuals is the main one that springs to mind – people must remember that to engage in reading as a pastime is a choice and if people do not want to read during their leisure time they should not be judged for wanting to do something else, just as the reading choices of those who do wish to read for pleasure should not be scrutinised (for more on that, see my blog entitled Reading Snobbery).

Think for a minute about people who may have chosen, particularly with it being a new year, to join a gym and get fit.  If they are judged for being a bit out of shape, it’s not going to encourage them to better their fitness levels.  In fact, they may stop attending all together and be in a worse state than they otherwise would have been.

Is the same not true of people with dyslexia who struggle to read, and may struggle further still as a result of societal attitudes towards books?  While I agree with Ruth Rendall’s assessment that people read less nowadays than previously, there are reasons for that.  Not only is there more choice in terms of entertainment (on a related note, although you don’t see as many people reading books on public transport, what about Kindles?), but advances in technology have, while increasing communication, led people to be less patient in terms of waiting for correspondence and so people have busier lives and perhaps have less time to read than they otherwise would have had.

Once again, no mention is made of the significant proportion of the UK population – one in ten to be exact – who have dyslexia and consequently have problems with reading.  If anyone was to imply that it is disappointing that Britons are no longer ashamed to admit they do not voluntarily read fiction, as has been suggested by another author, to someone who has dyslexia, how do you think that would make them feel?

There is no need for people with dyslexia to feel ashamed of having the condition, and I see no reason why anyone should feel ashamed for not having a particular hobby, in the same way it is unusual, although perfectly acceptable, to be female and be a football enthusiast.  The difference is, however, that issues with reading are synonymous with dyslexia, a learning difficulty that occurs through no fault of the individual who has it, and by making reading out to be of paramount importance you risk alienating and discriminating against people who have dyslexia.

As I have stated previously, words have power: I ask you to be conscious of the ones you use.  It might make a world of difference to an individual who has dyslexia.

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Reading Snobbery

A friend of mine was having a rant on Facebook last night because someone who was a complete stranger to her had taken it upon themselves to berate her for reading a gossip magazine (you know, something like Hello! or Closer).  It wasn’t as simple as decrying her choice of reading either; the individual made the assumption that as she was reading such a thing, she had to have issues with confidence and self-image, so I get the impression the discussion got quite personal.

Although my first thought was the obvious one of “Who do people think they are to make such aspersions about total strangers?” it later got me thinking about how dyslexics might feel should a similar situation happen to them and what the potential consequences of such an occurrence might be.

When an individual makes a disparaging remark, no thought is given to the circumstances of the recipient of the disdainful comment, or what such words might cause them to internalise, regardless of whether or not there is any substance to the both what was said or the subsequent thoughts the receiver might have in relation to it.  While some people might say it’s easier to live by the adage of if you haven’t anything nice to say don’t say anything at all, it isn’t always as simple as that.

In the instance of grouping children by reading ability, they quickly learn who are deemed the struggling readers, by the size of the lowest set of nothing else – because lower ability groups need to be smaller so that the children who need the extra support get it.  But still, I remember being appalled and hurt when a child (by this point someone old enough to know better than to say such a thing) felt the need to tell me that we would be reading better and harder books were it not for me – I later moved from the bottom to the top reading stream so her nastiness was just that and her comment bore no weight in the long run – but even in primary school children are taught to associate certain types of books – those that are shorter in length, for example – with a decreased level of intelligence.

Why does this have to be the case?  As has been proven countless times dyslexics can be whoever they want to be – I certainly didn’t know Jamie Oliver and Keira Knightly (to name but two) were dyslexic before I started volunteering here.  That being said, when book snobbery begins in primary schools, why is it a surprise that it is rife among the British general public?  Why do popular book series’ that appeal to the young and older people alike, such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, have to have separate covers for children and adults?  If you enjoy reading, it shouldn’t matter how the content is dressed up, whether it be a front cover of a book or the medium within which the book is contained, whether it’s a gossip magazine, an audio book or an encyclopaedia.

Nor should the content of your preferred reading material be judged.  Although I don’t read an awful lot of it personally, chick lit such as the recently released Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy gets an awful lot of bad press.  Actually, it’s more that the women that choose to read them sometimes get seen as having nothing between the ears, because it’s not seen as intellectual.  At the opposite end of the scale, science fiction and fantasy fans are seen as nerds, and those that prefer books thought of as high brow classics – I’m thinking along the lines of Jane Austen here –  could be deemed old-fashioned.  My point is, everyone has different interests, the same way that people have different levels of proficiency with regards to reading.  As a result, no-one should be condemned because of their personal tastes or abilities.  The consequences of having something as inconsequential as what a person chooses to read being belittled and mocked could be far-reaching, not only affecting their educational development and self-esteem, but ultimately their willingness and ability to reach their full potential.

While I don’t think anyone would argue with me about the fact that reading snobbery needs to be combated, less clear is how this should be done, although educational intervention is key to change societal attitudes.  I’m not saying that setting by ability needs to be eradicated, that does have its place as they can be of great benefit to children.  However, it still needs to be made clear that along with the support that these teaching methodologies provide, children also need to be taught that life is about more than being put in a particular group or being given a specific label.  It’s about making the correct choices for yourself so you can aspire to be exactly what you want to be and nobody has the right to make anyone – child or adult, dyslexic or non-dyslexic, feel as if they cannot achieve that because of what they choose to read.