Summary/Reflection on Literacy development in successful men and women with dyslexia

By Aytaged Zeleke

As language teachers, we have observed readers with different levels of reading abilities. One of the factors that affects reading proficiencies is dyslexia, which is a neurobiological learning disability. According to the International Dyslexia Association, symptoms of dyslexia include problems accurately and fluently recognizing words, difficulty correctly spelling words, and poor decoding skills.

Fink’s research, which is somewhat dated but worth reading, investigated literacy development in successful men and women with dyslexia, and the findings of the study have important implications for teaching and learning reading skills; thus, I wanted to share a summary of the article and my reflection in the hope of learning more about the topic by initiating collegial conversations in the Teflnet web and beyond.


Purpose: Fink’s (1998) article titled Literacy development in successful men and women with dyslexia is published in Annals of Dyslexia: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the International Dyslexia Association. The article’s objectives were to investigate how and when successful female and male professionals diagnosed with dyslexia obtained a high level of reading proficiency levels.

The study’s other objectives were to identify their levels of reading achievement and investigate whether or not these successful individuals with dyslexia continue to show irregular reports of literacy strengths and weaknesses in adulthood. The study also explored how the two dyslexic genders vary in their reading experiences.

Methods and Population: Since the study was concerned with successful professionals with dyslexia, purposeful sampling following the definition of dyslexia given by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) was used to select the research participants. Areas of specialization, level of success in their education and work, gender, age, and social and economic status were considered to identify the research participants.

A notice for participation in the research and snowball sampling were also used to recruit research participants. Additionally, a preliminary interview was employed to screen 60 male and female participants. Of these successful professionals with dyslexia, half of them had to repeat a class for academic reasons when they were elementary students. However, all except one had secured degrees that ranged from first to doctoral degrees, although they had dyslexia.

The other participants were composed of ten successful professionals like its comparison counterpart, but it was not dyslexic. The study participants were drawn from 18 states from America and the District of Columbia (DC). A significant number of them were white, middle-class Americans, while few were of African American and Hispanic origins.

Three primary data collection instruments, namely interviews, tests, and questionnaires were used in the study. A detailed face-to-face retrospective clinical interview was also employed to learn about issues surrounding the research participants’ reading experiences in school, such as how they learned reading and what strategies they used. To triangulate the interview data on participants’ biography, the researcher cross-checked these data with their curriculum vitae, publications, and relevant reports of the participants and with what their spouse and parents said about them.

As literacy measures, the study used formal and informal literacy tests, which were timed and not timed. The formal tests included the Diagnostic Assessment of Reading with Trial Teaching (DARTTS), the Nelson-Denny Reading Test of Vocabulary, Reading Comprehension and Reading Rate (ND), the Florida Nonsense Passages, and the Graded Non-word Reading and Spelling Test. The informal literacy test used was the Pig Latin Test. A questionnaire was also used to assess the prevalence of dyslexia, learn about the magnitude of this problem, and gather additional information regarding literacy development.

Findings: The study results concerning the time in which the 60 men and women successful professionals with dyslexia developed fluency showed that most of them developed reading fluency late than their counterparts. Specifically, they developed fluency between ages 10 to 11. Even though many of them had problems with basic reading skills, they developed their literacy skills by being avid readers of books whose contents were interesting to them when they were children.

The other finding was related to the reading interests of these successful 60 professionals with dyslexia. The result indicated that most females’ preference was reading fiction while the males’ preference was reading nonfiction when they were children. In general, the tests’ outcomes showed that the successful male and female professionals with dyslexia performed lower than their counterparts in all of the literacy measures.

Similarly, the comparison between the fully and the partially compensated groups disclosed that the first group performed better than the latter. Again, the latter group exhibited continuous limitations in its phonological skills and reading speed. Nevertheless, both groups of professionals with and without dyslexia had a strong interest and positive reading attitudes.


Implications: One of the implications of the study for reading educators is that students with dyslexia are teachable and can reach higher positions, requiring a higher level of reading skills. As it is attested from the experiences of Fink’s study subjects (the Ph.D. holders, medical doctors, lawyers, etc.), teachers, mentors, motivators, and self-effort are essential factors that make differences in tackling dyslexia and becoming successful in fields that require higher levels of reading skills.

The other implication concerns text selection specifically for students with dyslexia and other groups of students in general. Mostly, teachers or curriculum developers select reading passages that they think are appropriate for students. However, Fink’s article clearly underlined the importance of including and assigning reading texts chosen by students. This is important because many students with dyslexia could improve their background knowledge and fluency, and develop the complex skills necessary for reading, when students are given the autonomy to read what interests them. Extensive reading on content that interests students is also helpful.

Suppose professional adult learners with dyslexia are participants in or subjects of a professional development program or workshop. In that case, it is a good idea not to assume that these professionals with dyslexia are necessarily able to integrate basic lower-level print skills even though they might have developed higher order and complex meaning skills. Thus, it is implied that teachers of reading should still find ways to help students struggling with lower-level skills even though the students have achieved higher-level skills in terms of extracting and inferring meanings from passages.

Another implication regards mentoring. As teachers of reading, we need to exploit the available mentoring resources. Some of these include encouraging students to use formal tutors available in schools/colleges and peer tutors organized by instructors’ initiatives. Teachers may also advise and educate parents, whenever possible, regarding the reading support that parents and relatives can provide for their children. What is more, in tests in which speed is not the construct tested, teachers need to provide extra time (as an accommodation) for students with dyslexia to collect reliable data that portrays the accurate scores/results/abilities of the students evaluated.

Limitations and Strength: One of the limitations of this study was related to its sampling, which considered a comparison of a non-dyslexic population (10 individuals) with that of a dyslexic population (60 male and female individuals). A comparison of these two-unequal sample-sized groups, explicitly on the qualitative data gathered, may question whether the qualitative data collected from the ten non-dyslexia individuals was as thick and rich as the data collected from the 60 individuals with dyslexia to make comparison and contrast between the two groups.

Even though the literacy tests used were standardized and popular in literacy research, indicating the reliability indexes for each test would have been more informative about the quality of the tests. Furthermore, the sample’s representativeness and the data, as admitted by the researcher, is another shortcoming for those who want to make a firm conclusion and generalization from this study’s findings.

On the other hand, the use of different data collection instruments, such as interviews and questionnaires, which were standardized, and the care taken in the procedures used while administering both instruments, were indicators of a quality research undertaking. Similarly, the standardized tests and the inter-reliability testers could show the caution taken to administer valid and reliable tests. The variety of data collection instruments and measures also helped to triangulate the data gathered.


Fink, R.P. Literacy development in successful men and women with dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia 48, 311–346 (1998).

Further reading

Written by Aytaged Zeleke for February 2021
Aytaged Sisay Zeleke is an ESL instructor at Delaware Technical Community College, U.S. He has M.A in TEFL and M.Phil in Comparative and International Education.

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