Dyslexia and the “Roller Coaster” Effect

As a student growing up with dyslexia, one of the most difficult things to manage was how inconsistent and unpredictable my skills would be from day to day. Some days reading came easily and other days it was painfully difficult. I would often spell a word correctly on the first page of a paper and then proceed to misspell the same word in different ways throughout the rest of the paper.

This “roller coaster” effect is a common symptom of dyslexia, though I did not know this at the time. Every time I struggled with a task I had previously mastered, I saw it as a sign that I was “getting stupider” instead of understanding that it was a predictable and temporary dip in ability.

What is the “roller coaster” effect? Dr. Michael Ryan explains it on the website LD Online:

The inconsistencies of dyslexia produce serious challenges in a child’s life. There is a tremendous variability in the student’s individual abilities. Although everyone has strengths and weaknesses, the dyslexic’s are greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, the dyslexic’s strengths and weaknesses may be closely related…These great variations produce a “roller coaster” effect for dyslexics. At times, they can accomplish tasks far beyond the abilities of their peers. At the next moment, they can be confronted with a task that they cannot accomplish. Many dyslexics call this “walking into black holes.”

Helping  students understand the inconsistencies that accompany dyslexia can reduce frustration. When students with dyslexia learn to expect variability, they will have a better understanding of their abilities and will view setbacks as less catastrophic. Dr. Ryan goes on to write:

Dyslexics also perform erratically within tasks. That is, their errors are inconsistent. For example, I once asked a dyslexic adult to write a hundred word essay on television violence. As one might expect he misspelled the word “television” five times. However, he misspelled it a different way each time…Dyslexics’ performance varies from day to day. On some days, reading may come fairly easily. However, another day, they may be barely able to write their own name. This inconsistency is extremely confusing not only to the dyslexic, but also to others in his environment.

The erratic abilities of people with dyslexia seem to defy logic, making it doubly important that teachers are aware of these students’ propensity to show varied ability. When I was a student, I remember the frustration of trying to explain to teachers that, while I couldn’t complete a task or assignment successfully today, I could yesterday and maybe I would be able to do it again tomorrow. All too often, my teachers would accuse me of failing to study at all!

Just like their students, teachers need to understand that, for students with dyslexia, variation is to be expected and is not an indication of a lack of effort. If everyone knows to expect the hills and valleys of the “roller coaster” effect, we can all deal more successfully with dyslexia.

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager