High achiever with weak spelling

Diagnosed as a dyslexic at the late age of 17, Justin Hall finally found relief, got help and understood his problem. In this first person account, he shares with KAREN CHAPMAN how he overcame the obstacles to obtain first class honours in his civil engineering degree at a prestigious British university.  


I WAS diagnosed as a dyslexic at the age of 17 after I had gone to the United Kingdom to do my A-Levels. I had spent my early and secondary schooling here in Malaysia. 

It was eight or nine months after I had been at school in the UK when one of the teachers who was trained to spot students with problems, suspected that I might have dyslexia. I spent half a day with an educational psychologist who put me through a series of tests. 

Although I was diagnosed quite late, I don't know how much of my average grades was due to laziness on my part or actually because of dyslexia! I think it was relief to know in a way because teachers had always said I was bright but I just never seemed to be good enough. I could never understand this before my diagnosis. 

For me it was not just about the academic aspect. Of course doing well is important but so is striking a balance with other activities. Sports have always played an important part in my life, both in my teenage years and at university. When I was in school, track and field were important. Now it is hiking, trekking and mountaineering. 

From what I have learnt, dyslexics have a range of symptoms and not everyone has the same ones. The most common is getting the numbers and letters of the alphabet muddled but I do not have that problem.  

I have a problem with spelling so this slows down my reading and writing process. I tend to spell something phonetically unless I can remember the correct spelling. For instance, my stepfather shared that I once wrote him a letter in which I had spelt the word “which'' in five different ways! I still read a lot but at a slower rate. 

But I don't think that everyone with bad spelling or Maths has a learning disability. He just might not be as bright. 

Another symptom is how information is processed. A majority of people tend to think in a linear fashion but I need to look for the connection. I have to look at things as a picture. I have to visualise the concepts. 

I was told that not much could be done since I was diagnosed so late. But by this time, I had found a way to cope with my needs. 

In all my assignments and essays at university, I would read the question and underline what is important. From there I draw a map connecting all my ideas. I have to do this at the start of each question and it may slow me down but it really helps me in doing my work. 

Even a question is a picture and once I have drawn a map, it helps me to understand the objective of a question. As I write, I cross off each point in my map. In this way I am confident I am putting down all the points needed. 

I did the MEng in Civil Engineering with North American Studies at Umist (the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology). This is an undergraduate Masters programme. The four-year programme gives us the opportunity of spending the third year at the University of Calgary in Canada.  

I got an insight into how things are done in Canada. Of course it was not all work and no play as I managed to travel and hike all around North America!  

There are many formulae to remember in engineering. You have to use the formulae but it is important to see the context as there is no point in memorising something you do not understand. What I used to do is to stick little notes in my room. I wrote important concepts and formulae on these notes.  

As for handwriting, I cannot write cursive so I have to print my words and this can take a long time. I have been given extra time, up to 20 minutes, to answer in my examinations. This does not mean I will write a lot more. It is just that I need more time to write.  

There were complaints from the others that I did better because of the extra time. They are ignorant but this is understandable. The extra time is just a means of levelling the playing field. 

When answering exam questions, I was offered the opportunity of doing it on a computer as there is a spell-check aide. But I lose my train of thought if I cannot see exactly what I have done. I know you can scroll up and down but I lose the fluidity of my thoughts in the process. Once I cannot see the page, I find it difficult to continue. 

I used to type even slower than I could write. I would think this was due to laziness on my part for not learning where everything is on a keyboard. However, I am typing much faster now! 

I chose to write my answers by hand but this came with its own set of problems. As I had to write in an exam script, I faced problems when after writing on one side, I had to flip to the other side to write. Once I turn the page over, I cannot visualise my answer anymore and will lose my train of thought. 

So I tried to overcome this by keeping my map of how I would tackle the question near my side. I did not want to ask for any special treatment in asking for the pages to be torn out or anything like that. 

Obtaining a first class honours degree was a nice touch but it was not the icing on the cake. My mother asked me whether I had a favourite subject or whether obtaining first class honours was an experience to cherish. 

I told her it was not the academic side that I would cherish. It is the whole experience of being at university and meeting different people. I spent a lot of time meeting people and gaining new experiences.  

I cannot say how dyslexia has affected my life as I have always lived with it but I think you should just take it on the chin and get on with life.  

You cannot ask for special treatment all your life. It is really about striking a balance and making the necessary adjustments in your life. 

Related story:Problem with reading, gifted in other ways 

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