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This page looks at brain research on dyslexia, common definitions that are used for dyslexia, and what specific skills and abilities can be impacted or enhanced by dyslexia.


DFNZ supports a broad spectrum view of dyslexia. Common themes are that it is an alternative or atypical way of thinking; that it has a proven neurobiological basis; and that it occurs across a range of intellectual abilities.

The definition used by DFNZ is that dyslexia is: “A specific learning difference which is constitutional in origin and which, for a given level of ability, may cause unexpected difficulties in the acquisition of certain literacy and numeracy skills.”

Constitutional in origin refers to the fact that dyslexia has a substantive neurobiological basis. Brain research, including studies from Yale and Auckland universities, has shown that while it is common to use the ‘verbal’ left side of our brain to understand words, dyslexic people use the ‘pictorial’ right side – making them slower to process and understand language, but stronger in creative areas like problem solving, empathy and lateral thinking.

World dyslexia authority Sally Shaywitz, founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity is a pioneer in this area. Her laboratory was one of the first in the world to image the dyslexic brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The data obtained from several thousand children and adults, combined with fMRI data from around the world, revealed a distinctive neural signature for dyslexia, with some parts of the modules for phonological awareness appearing in the right brain, and some visual processing modules located in the left brain.


Dyslexics tend to be top-down rather than bottom-up thinkers, meaning they learn from getting the big picture or the overall idea or meaning first, and then fill in the specific details. Dr Shaywitz identifies a range of strengths for dyslexics in higher level thinking processes, high learning capacity; exceptional empathy; and noticeable excellence when focused on highly specialised areas from medicine and law through to public policy, architecture and science. Reflecting these strengths, dyslexics are often high level conceptualizers who manifest “out-of-the-box thinking” and are frequently the ones who provide new insights. More on Dr Shaywitz’s research can be found on our 4D Edge site and in her own knol.

In defining dyslexia, we can note that difficulties with literacy and numeracy are a common feature of dyslexia. The most immediate attribute is a problem in decoding words and their meanings, when compared to their ability appropriate skills in other areas. However, this is still only one aspect of a broader spectrum of difficulties. Skills that may be affected can include auditory and information processing, planning and organising, motor skills, short-term memory and concentration. Some of these can make it especially challenging for individuals to follow instructions, turn thoughts into words and finish certain tasks on time. Dyslexia is perhaps best thought of as a continuum of abilities and difficulties, rather than a distinct category, as there are no clear cut-off points.

Ultimately, dyslexia can be characterised as a learning preference – based on individuals preferring to receive, process and present information in ways that make more sense to the dyslexic-wired brain. These are often oral, visual or multi-sensory rather than via the written word.


Let’s for a moment put aside the debate over the cause of dyslexia and consider for a moment how dyslexia impacts all dyslexics. In other words – let’s humanise and ground the issue. Maybe then we can discover why almost all dyslexic people, as well as their families, employers and teachers can benefit from the label ‘dyslexia’.

Why is it that a parent can feel incredible relief, and often for the first time since their child started school, be free from a stress and frustration that is pervasive by nature – by discovering a label? Why is it that a manager can suddenly see hope and potential in someone who they had previously ‘given up on’? Why is it that the label is so often the starting point of an upward life spiral?

It is my observation that, in the absence of skillful intervention, when the dyslexic individual moves into the education system they become prone to self doubt and self-esteem issues. The development of self doubt has natural consequences. These consequences are fuelled by environments focused on comparison and arbitrary benchmarks, and where knowledge and understanding about dyslexia is often absent. .

Similarly, by the time they reach the workforce, many dyslexics will have become used to being the one who always takes longer, who gets instructions wrong or makes elementary mistakes – and they may be only too willing to concur with an employer’s diagnosis that they are struggling.

The antidote to this self doubt is certainty. For the dyslexic, the label dyslexia can provide this. When dyslexia is understood as a potential creative gift this also gives hope. With certainty and hope an individual can move forward. This is the essence of the dyslexic journey – and the reason we believe New Zealanders of all ages should be proud of being dyslexic. Many successful New Zealanders are dyslexic, and have incredible stories to share. Click here to read these on our Inspiring New Zealanders webpage.


If you or someone you know has been identified as dyslexic, it’s important to know that you/they are not alone. Dyslexia is an alternative way of thinking – a learning preference – that affects an estimated one in ten New Zealanders, including 70,000 schoolchildren.

Understanding dyslexia means noticing what this means for everyday life – at school, home and work. It also means understanding the common signs for dyslexia and how it may present itself. Dyslexia is perhaps best thought of as a continuum of abilities and difficulties rather than a distinct category, as it occurs across a range of intellectual abilities with no clear cut-off points.

While reading and writing can be challenging for dyslexic individuals, big picture skills like problem solving, creativity, high level conceptualisation and original insights are often real strengths.  

In terms of everyday life impacts, dyslexia is usually first uncovered in the classroom environment when core reading and writing skills are being taught. However, it is equally common for dyslexia to go undiagnosed, with individuals labelled as ‘slow’ or ‘struggling’ due to unexpected difficulties in acquiring these skills.

As the individual moves beyond school into the workplace, these difficulties can be compounded by reliance on written formats and requirements around everything from rapid email communication through to understanding instructions. Even in jobs that are manually oriented, processing instructions and filling in work forms can be sources of challenge and frustration.

Those with dyslexia must be supported in education and in the workplace, and this often requires specific interventions, as well as awareness and understanding. For more guidance on dealing with dyslexia in the classroom, and within the family, workplace, visit DFNZ’s 4D webspaces. This concept of 4D | For Dyslexia – which also stands for 4 Difference and 4 Diversity – extends the common perception of three dimensions to embrace a fourth dimension based on creativity. This fourth dimension is likened to a dyslexic or atypical way of thinking which can offer great creative gifts if addressed correctly.



It is important to notice how dyslexia impacts everyday life. Some of the common signs of dyslexia can include:

  • Problems with labels, rhymes, sequences

  • Letters or numbers reversed or confused b/d/p/q, n/u, 13/31

  • Being slower to process and needing repeated exposures to retain learning

  • Retrieval issues – learns something one moment, gone the next

  • Large gap between oral and written capabilities

  • Poor sense of direction – difficulty telling left from right

  • Reluctance, embarrassment or avoidance around reading out loud

  • A preference for face-to-face meetings/phone calls rather than email correspondence, and for charts/graphs over text

  • Frequent misspelling of words and mixing up words which sound similar (recession/reception), in speech or written work

  • Poor handwriting, punctuation and grammar

  • Misunderstanding or misinterpretation of managers’ instructions

  • Problems meeting deadlines, despite working hard

  • Fine motor coordination may be problematic, eg. tying laces, doing up buttons


Please note that lists like these are great indicators but are not a diagnosis. If you wish to explore formal diagnosis, help can be found on our assessments page, click here.

Dyslexia signs - quick links :

- 4D Guidelines/Indicators of Dyslexia:Click here

- Characteristics of Learning Problems / Dyslexia (SPELD NZ):Click here

- Characteristics of dyslexia in children (DFNZ 4D programme): Click here
- Indications of Dyslexia (British Dyslexia Association): Click here

- 37 Characteristics of Dyslexia (Davis Dyslexia Association): Click here

- Free online assessment (Davis Dyslexia Association): Click here

The upside of dyslexia is the ability to perceive the world from many perspectives, allowing visual-spatial thinking and special talents and skills to flourish in fields such as the arts, design, leadership, entrepreneurship, engineering, sciences, business and technology.

Excitingly, the leading edge of international research on dyslexia is focused on the creativity and strengths that this atypical way of thinking can offer. US researcher Tom West is a pioneer in this field, and his area of interest is the special talents of dyslexics. West believes that creative dyslexic individuals may be able to act as “engines for economic development”.

UK research shows that 35% of US entrepreneurs and 20% of UK entrepreneurs are dyslexic – with Sir Richard Branson a famous example. Entrepreneurs create jobs and wealth, both of which are important to drive economies forward. For more on this research click here. Dyslexic individuals also contribute to business growth and productivity through thinking outside the square, and enlightened employers around the world are now specifically recruiting dyslexics for the creativity and alternative thinking they bring. Check out our 4D Workplace for more on this.

Famous dyslexics include actors Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Keira Knightly, Whoopi Goldberg, supermodel Jerry Hall and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Here in New Zealand, creative leaders like Academy Award winner Richard Taylor, motivational speaker Billy Graham, renowned hair stylist Mike Hamel and the late maverick motorcycle designer John Britten have all embraced this learning difference to become leaders in their field. Some of these successful New Zealanders have shared their stories for our Inspiring New Zealanders webpage. Click here to read more.


Our site is designed to provide comprehensive information about dyslexia in New Zealand. It also provides listing information for most of the providers of dyslexia assessment and assistance in this country.

Please note, however, that DFNZ does not endorse or recommend any specific method, treatment, product, programme, organisations or individuals in regard to assistance for dyslexic children or adults. We encourage those seeking assistance to speak with a range of organisations, and to seek out a variety of information and opinions about what type of programme would suit them, and their family, budget and timing constraints.

Click here for a list of New Zealand’s major dyslexia service providers.

The Ministry of Education website also has some useful information about what to look for, how to get support and what you can do to help if you think your child may have dyslexia.

Click here for some comprehensive UK resource material on theories of dyslexia and suggested approaches and programmes to address it.

Other useful resources:

- Dyslexia Characteristics

- Parent to Parent Support

- Talk to your school about an IEP (Individual Education Plan) for your child

- Secondary School Students / NCEA - help you can receive

- British Dyslexia Association

- Northern Ireland Dyslexia Association

- Dyslexia in Ireland


Simple changes can make a world of difference in living with dyslexia. Often this means adjusting the approach and doing things in ways that suit the dyslexic style of thinking better. More on this is detailed below. 

Firstly, however, it is useful to look at the bigger picture for dyslexia action. We see New Zealand at a crossroads, with a choice as to whether to proceed with a disability mentality that regards dyslexia as part of a problem, or embrace a solutions perspective which sees dyslexia as key creative driver.

As a problem, incorrectly addressed dyslexia can lead to disruptive classroom behaviour, alienation, anti-social behaviour, truancy, depression, suicide, drug use and crime. Overseas, a wealth of government-funded and private research has proven a high correlation between learning difficulties and behaviour problems, often culminating in crime. British, American and Swedish studies all estimate that 30-50% of prisoners are dyslexic and there is no reason to think that the New Zealand incidence would be any different.

In fact, a past Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft has identified a ‘route to offending’ which starts with learning difficulties. In June 2009, Judge Becroft said he was “seriously concerned as to the number of young offenders who have slipped through the ‘educational net’ because of undiagnosed learning disabilities, especially dyslexia. Overseas a pathway to eventual offending, originating from undiagnosed and unaddressed dyslexia is well-known”.

His views are in line with those of international dyslexia expert Neil Mackay, who warns many New Zealand schools unwittingly help to ‘create criminals’, starting with putting too much emphasis on reading at the expense of thinking and other core skills. You can read more about these issues in our 4D Edge webspace.

As a solution, properly addressed dyslexia can fuel highly creative thinking and produce the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship needed in an increasingly ICT led world in challenging economic times. Recognising and harnessing the talents and creative strengths of dyslexics thus has the potential to deliver powerful social and economic impacts.

Dyslexia offers the ability to perceive the world from many different perspectives, allowing visual-spatial thinking and special talents and skills to flourish in fields such as the arts, design, leadership, entrepreneurship, engineering, sciences, business and technology. UK research shows that 35% of US entrepreneurs and 20% of UK entrepreneurs are dyslexic – with Sir Richard Branson a famous example.

Entrepreneurs create jobs and wealth, both of which are important to drive economies forward. Dyslexic individuals also contribute to business growth and productivity through thinking outside the square, and enlightened employers around the world are now specifically recruiting dyslexic individuals for the creativity and alternative thinking they bring. 

US researcher Tom West, a world-renowned pioneer in the field of dyslexia and business, believes that it is time to learn from the distinctive strengths of dyslexics. He also predicts that computer visualisation technology will radically change the way we all work and think. For thousands of years, writing and reading has tended to promote the dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain, with its linear processing of words and numbers. Graphical computer technologies now permit a return to our visual roots with a balance between the hemispheres and their respective ways of thinking – presenting new opportunities for problem solving and big-picture thinking.

You can read more on Tom West’s research at our 4D Edge webspace .Famous dyslexics who have unlocked their potential include historical figures as diverse as Leonardo Da Vinci, Agatha Christie and John Lennon, and international celebrities such as actors Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Keira Knightly, Whoopi Goldberg, entrepreneur Richard Branson, supermodel Jerry Hall and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

It’s hard to imagine New Zealand without the achievements of dyslexic innovators like Weta Workshop founder Richard Taylor; late maverick motorcycle designer John Britten; boxing coach and motivational speaker Billy Graham; ‘Mad Butcher’ Peter Leitch, book publisher Geoff Blackwell, tenor and motivational speaker Geoff Knight; hair designer Mike Hamel, NZ Body Art Awards creator Mem Bourke, life coach and TV presenter Sian Jaquet or Davis Dyslexia programme facilitator and former international model Kirsteen Britten, Our Inspiring New Zealanders page has more information on the achievements of these and other dyslexic individuals.


Once you’ve recognised and begun to understand the role dyslexia plays in your life or in the life of someone you know, it’s important to take action. Undoubtedly living with dyslexia can be difficult and disillusioning at times, particularly when others don’t seem to understand the way your brain is working. But you’re not alone – at least 10% of the population has dyslexia, and as we have seen, many dyslexic people throughout history have overcome difficulties with basic skills to become pioneers in their field.

Personal responsibility and empowerment are key to taking effective action, and DFNZ encourages and supports all schools, teachers, support staff, parents and dyslexic individuals to act decisively and do whatever they can to make a difference.

For those looking to support dyslexics, DFNZ has developed 4D, an overarching framework of websites and support offering help and advice for families, schools and employers. The mantra of the 4D framework is ‘notice and adjust’ – notice the way you or people around you are affected by dyslexia, and adjust your teaching/learning/instructional or managerial techniques accordingly.

Significantly, if you get it right for dyslexics, you get it right for everyone. This is because the type of personalised approaches that benefit dyslexic students, family members and employees can also produce constructive results for other non-dyslexic individuals in the same environment. In essence, equity in education and the workplace is not about treating everyone the same – one size does not fit all. Rather it is about acknowledging individual strengths and weaknesses and working with those.  


If you are personally living with dyslexia, it is important to educate the people in your life as to how it affects you on a daily basis. Read as much as you can on this website and our 4D webspaces, or ask a friend to read with/for you. Let your teachers, family and employers know that you have dyslexia, and that you are finding out as much as you can to remove it as a barrier to success. The 4D Workplace website has some specific tips on talking to your employer about dyslexia, and our DFNZ brochure is a great starting point for giving people in your life some insights on dyslexia. Click here to download it.

Tell the people in your life what works for you in terms of instruction and information, and let them know how they can do things differently. Tell them when you get bogged down, confused or stuck – the earlier the better.

Join the conversation and like us on facebook for the latest news and activity around dyslexia in New Zealand.

If your dyslexia is severely affecting your ability to do your job or continue your education, consider contacting one of New Zealand’s solutions and assessment providers for specialised, one-to-one help.

Remember, there are plenty of people both here and overseas who have overcome early difficulties created by dyslexia, and gone on to become leaders and innovators in their chosen field. Our Inspiring New Zealanders page will remind you of the potential that dyslexics can tap into when they draw on their creative strengths.


The 4D Schools website provides information and support to learn about some immediate changes you can make to improve educational outcomes for dyslexic students. Our new 4D Virtual Classroom also outlines useful changes from the students’ perspective – the insiders’ guide to getting it right for kids.


Our 4D Family site offers specific help for parents and siblings looking to make life better for dyslexic family members. It has information on how to recognise dyslexia, the impact it can have, and some easy adjustments to support children’s learning, remove stress and help family life run more smoothly. It also shares some real-life parent perspectives.


With one in ten New Zealanders affected by dyslexia, chances are that most medium to large size businesses will have one or more dyslexic employees. The 4D Workplace website

has tips for employers on making the most of the ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking that dyslexic employees can provide, as well as providing solutions to common issues that can arise for dyslexic individuals in the workplace. Again, the focus is on a ‘notice and adjust’ approach – noticing where employees are having difficulty and adjusting your management style and work enviroment accordingly. 

As noted above, this site also has valuable information for employees on talking to employers and colleagues about dyslexia, as well as guidance on how workplace performance can be improved. 

As noted above, this site also has valuable information for employees on talking to employers and colleagues about dyslexia, as well as guidance on how workplace performance can be improved.



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