Fictional Characters with Dyslexia: What Are We Seeing in Books?

By Altieri, Jennifer L. | Teaching Exceptional Children, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Fictional Characters with Dyslexia: What Are We Seeing in Books?


Altieri, Jennifer L., Teaching Exceptional Children


Some of the earliest books written for children often attempted to transmit values and beliefs. Although recently published children's books are less didactic and try to appeal to children, authors often encourage their use for sharing information and modifying values. In fact, researchers have suggested that using fictional books that include characters with disabilities can teach children about disabilities (Andrews, 1998; Blaska & Lynch, 1998; Favazza & Odom, 1997J. Others emphasize that literature can help all children understand how much they have in common with students with disabilities and can help with uneasiness caused by ignorance (Fein & Ginsberg, 1978).

Prater (2003), who conducted research on the portrayal of characters with learning disabilities in books, found that 72.2% of the characters had a reading disability. It is important to more closely examine books with struggling readers because the percentage of characters with a reading disability is so high. This article specifically looks at children's literature that portrays school-age characters with dyslexia so that the educational field can better understand how the books depict dyslexia and the school experience.

Although the use of the term dyslexia is controversial, experts agree that dyslexia is a learning disability that affects language processing and that it does not occur because of low intelligence, lack of motivation, poor instruction, vision or hearing problems, cultural disadvantages, or other extrinsic factors (Richards, 1999). Dyslexia is neurobiological in origin (Hudson, High, & Al Otaiba, 2007].

Regardless of whether everyone agrees with the use of the term, research has shown that children experiencing dyslexia often are self-conscious and believe that something is wrong with them (McNulty, 2003). Often these issues are a result of school experiences (Riddick, 1995; Rubin, 2002). The desire to ensure that literature is a positive experience for all children, including those experiencing dyslexia, provided motivation for the current study.

After a brief overview explaining how I located the books for this study, this article discusses several aspects of the books including the following:

* The identification of dyslexia.

* The specific methodology that helped the child with dyslexia.

* The self-concept of the character with dyslexia.

* The portrayal of teachers in the books.

This article next shares a summary of findings, and concludes with a look at what educators can learn from examining the fictional books portraying characters with dyslexia.

Locating Available Books

I located, read, and reviewed a total of 72 books that included a school-age central character [main or supporting] with dyslexia [see box, "Contemporary Realistic Fiction Books for Children That Include Characters With Dyslexia, 1993-2003"). I found each book by using the keywords dyslexic and dyslexia (see box: "How to Locate Books That Include Characters Who Have Dyslexia"). These books are contemporary, realistic fiction books or books that could take place in today's world (Norton & Norton, 2002). Each of them was published in the United States between 1993 and 2003. After locating the books, I read them several times and noted in detail on individual book charts how the dyslexia was identified, any instructional methodology implemented, characteristics related to the self-concept of the character with dyslexia, and the portrayal of the child's teachers.

A Look Inside the Books

Identification of Dyslexia

Approximately 35% of the books mentioned testing the child to assess literacy issues. The classroom teacher was often not the person who first noticed the problem. A family friend or acquaintance usually was the first to suggest the possibility of dyslexia. An acquaintance of the character noticed the child's dyslexia and initiated the idea of testing in 56% of the books. …

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