Starting university with dyslexia: Strategies to survive and thrive

When I first started university, I didn’t even know what dyslexia was. I certainly didn’t realise it was about to turn my life upside down. Dyslex...

When I first started university, I didn’t even know what dyslexia was. I certainly didn’t realise it was about to turn my life upside down. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability characterised by poor word recognition and poor decoding, which often leads to reading difficulties. People sometimes think dyslexia is a childhood condition that can be “fixed” or outgrown, but it is actually persistent and lifelong.


North American data suggest that dyslexia affects approximately 5-12 percent of the population. Australian prevalence is not known, but if a similar pattern is repeated, approximately 2 million Australians would be dyslexic.


Australian disability legislation has recognised dyslexia since 1992, but there is still no publicly funded screening program, and school support funding is only available for children who have been formally tested and have “moderate” or “high” support needs.


For these and other reasons, many people with dyslexia slip through the gaps in childhood detection and reach university without appropriate assistance. It is important to address these issues because dyslexia has been linked to poor university outcomes, depression, self-harm, suicide, and imprisonment.

Research shows that people with dyslexia can succeed at university, but they face many challenges and often need creative solutions.


The following strategies were shared by students with dyslexia who I interviewed for my Master of Education research project. While further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of some of these strategies across larger populations, they are all simple and free, so possibly worth trying.



It’s a little-known phenomenon that many people with dyslexia find it easier to read text laid out in narrow columns. For example, reading on a mobile phone can be faster and easier due to the narrow screen width. Text can also be wrangled into columns on word processors and web browsers. You can find more ideas on the tip sheet on the One Little Dyslexic website.



During my previous research, one of the students interviewed explained how he wrote all his lecture notes in boxes. Until he devised this strategy, his biggest challenge at university had been reading his own lecture notes. Once he started writing each idea in a small box and joining the boxes with arrows, he was able to read his notes.

I use this strategy when writing notes in margins around a page of text, and I find it really helpful.



Research has found that people with dyslexia tend to read faster with sans serif fonts such as Arial and Verdana, rather than serif fonts like Garamond. Reading may also be faster with fonts they use regularly, including Times New Roman, despite it being a serif font. The “Open Dyslexic” font did not provide any benefit over other sans serif fonts.


Research is less clear about another bespoke font for dyslexics, called Dyslexie. One study found that it delivered a seven percent improvement in reading speed, while another study did not find any such benefit.


So what is the best font to use? It is probably sensible to use whichever feels most comfortable to you. I usually choose Calibri or Tahoma.



When reading text on paper, a ruler can be used to help track from line to line. Beeline Reader serves a similar purpose when reading on screens.


Beeline Reader is a free app that colours the end of each line of text and start of the following line the same colour. This can be particularly helpful for anyone who has trouble tracking from one line to the next and reads the same line multiple times. Not only is this helpful for people with dyslexia, but also others who have similar difficulties when tired or stressed.



More than a third of dyslexic university students interviewed during my research stated that they watched online videos to replace or supplement their assigned course readings. Such videos need to be selected carefully. Ideally, they should come from university lecturers, researchers and other reliable sources.


For example, a student studying particle physics might watch videos of physicist Harry Cliff speaking for The Royal Institution or giving a TED talk.



It is also really important for people with dyslexia to eat well, keep good sleep habits, get regular physical activity, relax and spend time with friends. Despite needing to work hard to achieve our educational goals, we also need to be kind to ourselves so we don’t burn out.


Research suggests that Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids from oily fish may be particularly important for people with dyslexia. Physical activity is also important because it gets the blood pumping around the body faster, delivering more oxygen to the brain.


Regular study breaks, social outings, and recreational activities also contribute to good concentration and mental health.



Different things work for different people. So try various strategies and see what works for you. If I’d known these strategies when I started my first degree, I might have finished it. I made it through two degrees by sheer determination, and am now glad to have the benefit of these and other strategies for my current research degree. My university’s equity service has also provided helpful accommodations.


People with dyslexia should feel empowered to use all the resources available to them. It’s not an unfair advantage. It’s simply enabling us to reach our potential, and that’s good for everyone. The world needs more dyslexic thinkers doing amazing things.


Lois MacCullagh is a dyslexic writer and educator who has published research on the learning experiences of university students with dyslexia.

You can find more information about study strategies for dyslexic students at www.OneLittleDyslexic.net

“This article has been republished from Future Research Masters, a student-led publication from the Graduate  Research School at Western Sydney University.”


Could you be dyslexic and not know it?

When Shae Wissell first started university she had no idea she was dyslexic. She struggled a lot in her Bachelor’s degree, failing subjects and thin...

When Shae Wissell first started university she had no idea she was dyslexic. She struggled a lot in her Bachelor’s degree, failing subjects and thinking she was “dumb.” In her final semester, a lecturer suggested that she may be dyslexic: “My lecturer didn’t know how I’d made it through school, passed year 12, let alone gotten through most of my degree!”

Dyslexia is a type of reading difficulty that we often think of in children. However, it also affects many adults, and some don’t find out until they reach work or university. This is because they have slipped through the gaps of childhood detection methods and developed their own adaptive strategies to get through school. But the demands of university and work are very different from school, so old strategies may not work anymore.

Dyslexia is common

Dyslexia affects approximately one in 10 people. However, less than one in 200 university students declare a reading difficulty when they enrol. The most obvious explanation is that very few people with dyslexia may be going to university. It’s also likely that some arrive at university without knowing they are dyslexic, and others may already know they’re dyslexic but choose not to disclose this to the university.

We don’t know exactly how many people with dyslexia live in Western Sydney or in Australia, or how many attend Australian universities, because this data has not been collected. However, we do know that reading difficulties run in families, so if one of your parents, or a brother or sister, or another relative has trouble reading, you could also be affected.

Dyslexia has many faces

Key difficulties for people with dyslexia relate to reading speed, accuracy, and understanding. There are many types of dyslexia and everyone’s experience is different. Some people see the letters or words “move” around the page, while others read words incorrectly, and yet others read text fluently but have trouble absorbing the meaning.

What Shae did about it

During her undergraduate degree, Shae had private tutoring and her mum also proofread all her work. She joined study groups at university and hung out with high-achieving students. She then progressed to a master’s degree. “During my masters, after my diagnosis, I had assistance from the Equity and Diversity Unit. I received assisted technology support, exam assistance, and extra time to submit my assignments. I also saw a psychologist to help get me through,” she said.

Shae says the key to her success was getting a formal diagnosis, and not being afraid or ashamed to ask for help.

Chris’s experience

Chris Saville’s experiences were very different. He studied public services and audio technology at TAFE. He already knew he was dyslexic when he started TAFE but still faced challenges, which he tackled in his own way. “I was a bit nervous like most people, and the written assignments were something I was dreading, but I made friends pretty quick and that seemed to ease the tension a bit,” he said.

The main things that helped him were keeping his overall goal in mind, breaking tasks down into small chunks, focusing completely on the task at hand, tools like spellcheckers and having a passion for what he was studying. This became a great source of motivation for him.

How you can tackle it

Firstly, you need to understand that success at university is possible. You don’t need to drop out! Of course, this is one option, and it is not necessarily “wrong”, but there are also many other ways you could go. For example, you could defer for a semester while you gather more information and work on your study skills. Or you may be able to drop just one subject to ease your load.

Of course, you could continue with your studies with the help of creative study strategies. There will also be services available through your university’s equity and diversity unit. However, most universities will require you to already have a formal assessment report to be eligible for such services, so this can require some planning.

It can also help to seek information and support from others who’ve been there before you. Facebook groups are great for this. The Specific Learning Difficulties Associaton (SPELD) office in your state is another valuable source of information and advice.

Chris believes the key is to embrace dyslexia and get it to work for you rather than against you. He advises dyslexic students to “Focus on each bit of work as it comes and celebrate small wins along the way until you hit that big win – course completion!”

Don’t forget to breathe

Now, take a deep breath. You’re not alone. Talk to family and friends. Ask advice from other people with dyslexia. Cry if you need to. It’s ok, emotions are healthy. Remember that you’re strong! You made it through primary and high school, and you can make it through university too.

It’s time to sit down, decide what you want to do, then work out how to do it. You’ve got this!

Shae Wissell is now a speech pathologist and also runs the Dear Dyslexic Foundation and a podcast series. Chris Saville is a video sound technician and runs Savvy motivation. The author of this article, Lois MacCullagh, has just started her Master of Research at Western Sydney University. Despite her own reading difficulties, she’s dedicated to doing further research to help people with dyslexia reach their full potential. You can find free resources on her website and follow her progress on Facebook.

Author: Lois MacCullagh


Lois MacCullagh on her graduation.