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Dyslexia does not mean a lower IQ

Wednesday October 21 2015

Esther Muchiri Wamai, the Principal of Kenya Community Centre for Learnig (KCCL) in Roysambu, Nairobi during an interview at her office on October 15, 2015. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL

Esther Muchiri Wamai, the Principal of Kenya Community Centre for Learnig (KCCL) in Roysambu, Nairobi during an interview at her office on October 15, 2015. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL 

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Most times, children with dyslexia are defined by their reading inabilities However, this is not so for Sammy Kamande.

At 13, Sammy is not your ordinary teen. He is a boy of many talents. His drawing book contains beautifully coloured images that he has all drawn by himself. Watching him dance with his trainer from the Sarakasi Trust in Nairobi leaves one wondering whether he really has any bone. The moves are quite admirable just as the images in his drawing book.

Sammy, a Year Seven pupil at the Kenya Community Centre for Learning (KCCL) in Nairobi is also a leader at his young age. He is the Environment Captain at the school, a position that he has held for the second year running. But beneath these strengths, and others that are yet to be discovered is a young teen who is struggling with a learning disability.

His class teacher Winnie Ngala, explains that Sammy is severely dyslexic — which simply means that he has a reading difficulty due to the inability of his brain to process information. He is therefore unable to comprehend language.

However, his situation is not as bad as it was when he joined the school four years ago. His self-confidence was very low, his reading challenges were severe and he could not even express himself before other pupils, notes Ngala. “On noting this, I decided to first build his self-esteem by helping him to discover his talents. That way I defined him by his strengths and tried to undo the damage that his former teachers had done by defining him by his weaknesses,” she explains.



And what transpired was that Sammy’s self-esteem shot up. It is like he had received the recognition that he had been waiting for. At last a teacher had finally found something positive in him, and he responded by working on his reading abilities. “His reading is still challenged, but he is far much better than he was when he came in. He has been improving,” Ngala says of her pupil.

Her secret? “I read with him as we highlight the key words. He then reads to me independently and I get to see where he gets it wrongly, that way, I am able to correct him,” she explains. And since Sammy is very artistic, he is very pictorial in his answers.

This has seen Ngala who is also his English teacher make use of various ‘accommodations’ like accepting pictorial answers, and number answers from him — which she later corrects. “For him I can mark right 3, instead of three,” she says.

And whenever Sammy cannot read and comprehend well a long passage, his teacher reads it for him, then he writes down the answers.

“His oral comprehension is very good,” notes Ngala.  When he sat for his exams in June, he scored good grades in Mathematics and Sciences. “This was very impressive,” says his teacher.

Esther Muchiri Wamai, the Principal of Kenya
Esther Muchiri Wamai, the Principal of Kenya Community Centre for Learnig (KCCL) in Roysambu, Nairobi during an interview at her office on October 15, 2015. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL

Diana Mutuma, an administrator at the Sanctuary of Hope Children’s Centre in Kahawa Sukari, where Sammy comes from is excited with the progress. She recalls the long journey: “Initially, it was not easy to notice from the onset that Sammy had a learning disability, since in pre-school he mainly did a lot of drawing and playing. But by the time he got to Class Two, I noticed that he did not want to go to school.

His teachers were also complaining that he could not read well and could not finish his homework.”

She followed up the matter with his teachers, and that is when she realised that Sammy was not reading as was expected and was having difficulties. “He was reading words on the reverse, and was spelling them just the way they sound. For instance, he could spell house as ‘haus’ and read it as ‘seouh’. That was four years ago. She shared with a friend from the church and that is when she was referred to KCCL.

At the home, Sammy is not treated any differently. “He knows that he can be good like anyone else, and he strives to be the best,” says Diana. She also encourages him to read by buying him simple reading books for practice, and flashcards that help in to pronounce simple words.

“I also make sure that I assist him with his homework,” says Diana. Sammy also has special interest in computers, and Diana has provided a desktop for him that he uses while doing his homework.

And Sammy has big goals in life?

 “I want to be a scientist!” He says with a big smile. He had also desired to be a pilot, at some point as he grew up. “Besides, his special interests in art and dance, Sammy is very prayerful and reads the Bible very often.

Diana understands too well that Sammy’s is a life-long condition that requires consistent management so that he can attain his potential in life. “I endeavour to see him become the best that he can be in life,” she says.

The cause of dyslexia remains largely unknown, according to experts. But being a neurological disorder, dyslexia presents itself when a complications occur during foetal brain development, explains Esther Muchiri- Wamai the principal at KCCL — a school that mainly caters for children with learning disabilities. This affects the way the child recognises and processes sounds, as the brain finds it hard to decode messages.


The human brain processes reading abilities on the right side, and art skills on the left side. This means that, unlike the ordinary person dyslexics have got more artistic skills. As a coping mechanism they tend to gravitate more to the areas that they are talented at. “They are very creative, and they see things in three dimensions (3D) unlike the typical person,” says Esther, . 

Esther, who is a certified Orton Gilligham dyslexia tutor,  explains that children with dyslexia find it hard to catch up with letters of the alphabet in pre-school. The speech is delayed and since they spell words in reverse order, they are not quick with learning the nursery rhymes as they distort the order of sounds in their pronunciation. As a result of this they fail to catch up with their peers.

Their reading is laboured, as they put in  a lot of effort, and this affects their comprehension abilities and hence their problems with number work.

They also tend to have laterality issues and are unable to tell right from left.

However, they are very smart at oral comprehension, where someone reads as they listen and then asks questions.

Due to this, dyslexia is only formally diagnosed when the child goes to school. This is done either through screening or educational assessment at the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE) — a government-owned facility, Educational Assessment Centres (EACs) across the country or some of the private schools in the country like the KCCL. Depending on the spectrum of symptoms at display, special needs assessors are able to diagnose dyslexia from mild to severe.

Being a hidden disability, many parents and teachers do not understand a child with dyslexia. They are in most cases seen as lazy, un-motivated, and stupid. But this does not help them as it brings their self-esteem to a low, and this affects even their personal relationships outside school.

A bigger challenge is that most teachers in the country are unable to diagnose a child with dyslexia, and instead, they focus on extra tuition, which is basically a band aid solution.

There are two learning techniques that work well with learners with dyslexia. The multi-sensory approach combines visual, auditory, touch, and all other senses while teaching. This ensures that the learners grasp the maximum that they can get from an enhanced classroom experience.

The other technique makes use of phonetics awareness — which is a research-based programme that is very explicit and this helps learners with dyslexia to recognise that sounds are the building blocks for words.

Learners with dyslexia have to start from the basics, age not-withstanding. “They have to identify, manipulate and decode sounds. This enables them to understand that words are made up of sounds,” explains Esther.

And since they process information or class room concepts very slowly, they are given extra time to comprehend what they have learnt, or even to answer questions at an examination.

Their questions are also broken down into simple tasks that they can easily comprehend and work on. These accommodation techniques ensure that the learners are accorded a level playing field like their peers who are not dyslexic.


The 2013 Literacy and Numeracy Report by Uwezo identified that in Kenya only less than a third of the children enrolled in Grade Three have basic Grade Two literacy and numeracy skills.

This is perhaps a pointer to the large number of children with learning disabilities in the country, whose population remains largely unknown.

This is mainly because the mechanisms for early screening are non-existent in public primary schools. As a result of this, most of them end up dropping out of school and running away from home. This, Esther says, should be a wake-up call for the government to ensure that their learning needs are identified and catered for early enough.

So far, the government has integrated autism units in some schools. But there is no learning support, which is a critical component as these learners require help within and out of class. Teacher training colleges have not adopted dyslexia and other learning disabilities as part of their training programme. 

This, she points out, makes it difficult for a teacher to identify a learning disability at the right age. And since learning disabilities are hidden disabilities, by the time it is detected, the learning environment becomes so difficult for a child that they opt to drop out of school.

In Western countries learners with dyslexia find a lifeline in their talents. However, here in Kenya talent identification is lacking, as the education curriculum is so much focused on academic grades such that learners with dyslexia are left out.

Unlike the commonly-held belief that dyslexics are not intelligent but evidence shows different. Some of the world’s prominent personalities living with dyslexia include Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Charles Schwab among others.


The human brain processes reading abilities on
The human brain processes reading abilities on the right side, and art skills on the left side. This means that, unlike the ordinary person dyslexics have got more artistic skills. PHOTO | FILE

About Dyslexia:

1. Children with dyslexia find it hard to read letters of the alphabet while in pre-school.

2. Their speech is usually delayed and they find reading difficult because they tend to spell words backwords.

3.Dyslexic children also have laterality issues and have trouble telling their right from left. 

4.Dyslexia does not mean that one is not smart and most dyslexics are very good at oral comprehension.

5.Dyslexic children are very creative as they see the world in 3-D.


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