• Daniel Tarker, MFA, Ed.D.

Art Based Study Skills for Neurodivergent Students Part One - Dyslexia

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

In higher education, the topic of neurodivergent students is not discussed as often as it should be as part of the equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts taking place at colleges across the country. However, there is an argent need to address the needs of neurodivergent students. As a recent article in Inside Higher Education reveals, many of these students are struggling as colleges have moved to remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One approach that may support these students is the use of art based research and inquiry methods to support their specific learning needs.

The term neurodivergent was coined by sociologist Judy Singerin the 1990s to describe a family of conditions including attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and dyslexia. Some have argued people experiencing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety should also be included under the neurodivergent label, but this is still being debated.

The purpose of identifying and describing neurodivergence was to destigmatize this group of cognitive differences so they would not be seen as deficiencies. Like gender, race, culture, and sexual orientation, neurodivergence advocates assert that these different ways of thinking and learning should be acknowledged and valued as part of the diversity of our society.

Art based inquiry - or at least one aspect of it - encourages the use of artistic methods as a mode of knowledge construction. The focus is not on the product (i.e. producing a publishable poem). The focus is on process - or how using artistic methods as part of the learning process can help historically non-traditional students overcome the educational barriers they face because they are not able to cognitively conform to neurotypical or traditional methods of studying.

Dyslexia is probably one of the most challenging aspects of neurodiversity educators face. How do you help students who have challenges decoding the meaning of the written word in an academic system that predominantly values and utilizes written text as the primary means of communication. But as a recent research article published in Using Art as Research in Learning and Teaching: Multidisciplinary Approaches Across the Arts edited by Ross W. Prior in 2018 finds, there are useful ways that artistic methods can be used to help educators understand and support dyslexic students.

Entanglement and Reading

In “Entanglement in Shakespeare’s Text: Using Interpretive Mnemonics with Acting Students with Dyslexia”, Petronilla Whitfield describes the techniques she uses to help students with dyslexia decode Shakespeare’s plays in her acting class. Although her work in primarily focused on working with theatre students, her methods can be utilized by any educator working with dyslexic students on their reading skills.

She draws on the concept of entanglement from reader response theory.Entanglement describes the experience readers have when they become personally involved in a text, bringing their prior knowledge - i.e. lived experiences and previous education - to the reading process to construct an interpretation of the text.

However, many students with dyslexia have trouble entangling themselves in a text. This is due to several challenges. One, many students with dyslexia have difficulty decoding texts because they are unable to match letters and words to sounds. They also face challenges rapidly naming words because they are unable to draw information about the words they see on the page from their long-term memory. As a result, many describe their reading experience as laborious since they have to slowly make their way through a text. This can interfere with their comprehension since reading requires fluency - the ability to quickly connect the multiple pieces of information in a text together to capture the overall meaning of a sentence or passage. Reading slowly interferes with fluency and knowledge construction because the reader may only be small pieces of the information being conveyed rather than the whole idea.

To address these challenges, Whitfield encourages dyslexic students in her acting classes to entangle themselves with the text by drawing pictures to construct meaning about what they have read.

She describes three specific strategies that may be useful to educators working with dyslexic students. In describing these practical approaches, I will use the word facilitator to describe the teacher or tutor assisting the student through the activity.

The Reflective Sketchbook

This is a tool that can help students construct meaning out of blocks of text by drawing pictures to capture their understanding and develop ideas. As a facilitator, ask the student to document what they are learning using images rather than words in a sketchbook. The drawings do not have to be perfect. They just need to capture the student's perceptions about the meaning of a sentence or passage in a text. They can then use the reflective sketchbook to engage in critical reflection about how they constructed their understanding of a piece of writing using non-verbal language.

Visual Storyboards

The visual storyboard method helps students who may be struggling to retain the meaning of the words they read in a text. There are three steps to this method.

First, have the student read the text aloud and discuss their experience deciphering the words. Have them describe where they struggled when decoding the text. Leave room to discuss any anxiety they may be feeling.

Second, give the student colored pens and a sheet of paper. Read short passages from the text to the student in a neutral voice so you do not to influence their interpretation of the words. While the facilitator reads, the student listens and draws a personal response to the short passages they hear. As they draw, they should repeat the words they have heard to connect the meaning they are constructing through drawing to the words and sounds they are saying. After each drawing is completed, the student should write down the phrase they heard below the picture, again repeating the words aloud to connect the meaning they see in the picture to the words they are writing.

Third, the student should read the drawings they have generated to the facilitator. They need to describe their rationale for the drawing they have produced based on the words they heard. The central question: Why did they interpret the words the way they did? This will again reinforce the connection between the meaning generated through the drawing activity to the written language.

Customizing Text with Images

This method addresses challenges with phonological awareness – i.e. the ability to draw phonological information from long-term memory as well as challenges with language and short-term memory. These challenges can result in dyslexic students seeing words on the page that are largely meaningless to them. This method encourages students to create mental pegs in the text by drawing pictures around or next to words. A mental peg is a mnemonic device that uses tools such as rhyme and imagery to help save information in a person’s memory. For instance, the student may draw a picture of a sun around the word sun or color the word rose with a pink or red pencil. By doing this, the text evolves from a two-dimensional object into a three dimensional one, linking multiple meanings together to improve understanding and enhance recall of the information students have learned.


This is not an exhaustive post about working with students with dyslexia using art based methods. But hopefully it serves as a seed for further inquiry about how art based research and inquiry can intersect with other traditional pedagogies such as reader response theory to support neurodivergent students with their thinking and learning – especially as many struggle with studying remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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