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The 'Stick Shift' Thinker

Dyslexia Explained With A Stick-Shift Car: How To Understand What "Processing Difficulties" Mean

What's The Difference Between A Dyslexic And Typical Thinker?

Imagine learning to drive in a manual car but your instructor has only ever driven an automatic. It’s going to cause problems isn’t it? This is what dyslexia is like in school. The instructor expects you to step on the gas and get up to speed. However, a manual car doesn’t work that way. Yet, it’s a perfectly functional car if you understand how it works. In this blog I will explain this concept and how a child with dyslexia can go ‘up the gears’ of learning as a ‘manual’ thinker.

Watch this video of me in a car demonstrating this.

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A Useful Way To Understand How Learning To Read And Learning To Study Are Affected By Dyslexia.

Learning to read and learning to study with dyslexia are a bit like learning to drive in a stick shift car compared to an automatic. Imagine all the minds in the world were cars. Some of them are automatic and others manual. Let’s say 90% were automatic and 10% manual. Now, imagine they all went to driving school but the instructors only knew how to drive an automatic. In this scenario let’s call the manual cars ‘dyslexic’ and the automatics ‘typical’. That’s what it’s like going to school with dyslexia. What gearbox do you have?

I believe this is a helpful analogy for children, parents, and educators to understand dyslexia. In particular to understand what educational psychologists identify as ‘processing issues’. How do we understand and help those with ‘processing issues’? Is it like a computer processor? No. It’s more like the gearbox in a car. There’s nothing wrong with the engine or the car. It has a different way to do the gears.

An automatic has to shift into gear once at the beginning of a drive and once at the end. The manual may have to shift through the gears 100 times on the same journey, whilst still making the same road decisions. This is what dyslexia is like.

How does a dyslexic child get up to full speed? They need to be taught how, and when, to go up the gears. If they don’t children will ‘stall’ their powerful minds. They might learn to get into first gear but be stuck there revving on full power expecting to get to full speed like an automatic does when they “just try harder”.

I hope this scenario helps you understand why these highly powerful vehicles don’t “eventually just get it” as automatic cars do. Why they can get stuck for decades with the first gear of reading, or the second gear of comprehension, or third gear of note-taking or fourth gear of explaining their ideas.

In this blog, I want to go deeper into the gears of learning with a manual mind. What are the gears? What’s the first gear? How do you get into the high gears?

In real life, if you were driving a manual car you would put your foot down on the clutch and stop yourself stalling. But let’s say you’re still on first gear putting your foot on the gas revving at 30 miles an hour. If you went whole day driving 30 miles an hour in first gear, putting a lot of stress into your car, you’ll eventually overheat or stall in the middle. You will wonder if there’s something wrong with your car. You did everything the teacher told you but its not enough. You are still struggling while the other cars pass you with ease.

Imagine someone got in and told you that you’re a stick shift car. Tells you that you are a manual thinker when it comes to learning to read and learning to study. Imagine they showed you how to do the clutch control? Can you imagine what a difference it would make to the ‘performance’ of the car? That’s what I want to begin here.

Being a manual thinker means it takes a bit longer to learn how to drive. It doesn’t mean once you learn how to drive, your car is less powerful or slower. There are stick shift Ferraris as well as automatic. It’s down to driving ability and style. Sometimes a stick shift is better than an automatic. Racing car drivers have better control with a stick shift.

You don’t get to choose what kind of processor you are. But you do get to choose what training you take.

If you’re dyslexic thinker you’re a manual thinker. You need to manually go up these four or five gears and keep making decisions according to your environment. You can’t be taught that by someone who only knows automatic. You need to be taught this particular little part of reading or studying by someone who’s used to going up the gears instead of just going in to drive.

Now once you learn how to go up and down the gears when it comes to reading or studying, the ‘automatic’ driving instructor can tell you about roadcraft and directions where to go.

Let’s talk about how this also relates to dysgraphia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. These are all processing issues too. A Dysgraphic is a manual processor of writing. Dyscalculics are manual at numbers. Dyspraxia is manual at movement. With the right systematic training a dyslexic mind can read fluently, a dysgraphic write legibly, a dyscalculic calculate accurately and dyspraxic move beautifully. However, it will always take intentional manaul decisions to execute the process. From the outside it may look ‘automatic’ but its still intentional and manual. Which is why high functioning dyslexics, dysgrpahics etc can slip up when they are tired or learnining a new process. 

As a dyslexic when it comes to reading and writing we’re manual thinkers. Unfortunately, at school, you have to be good at reading and studying. Which means it’s essential someone who knows the manual gear box of a dyslexic ‘car’ gets in the car with you and shows you how to do the gears.

Would you like to know about the gears?

First Gear: Reading. How to 'Capture' information

Children want to read and be like adults. Then dyslexia trips them up with decoding difficulties. If they’re lucky, they’ll find a dyslexia reading program like an Orton Gillingham one: Barton, Wilson or a simpler system like “Toe by Toe”.

Each of them is designed to go through the gears of reading. This is a massive area of research and provision.

In terms of understanding the gears of learning, learning to read is the first and hardest gear to get into.

If you have got up to Grade 2+ reading ability, congratulations, it’s a massive accomplishment. But, you’ve probably realized ‘reading’ is more than understanding words. It’s like climbing a mountain reaching the top and seeing it’s one of two peaks. For example, children with dyslexia often read a story, understand every word, but struggle to do a comprehension test. Comprehension and notetaking is the next peak.

In the next sections I’ll expand on the four gears:

  1. ‘Capture’: being able to read.
  2. ‘Filter’: being able to comprehend.
  3. ‘Focus’: being able to take notes.
  4. ‘Explain’: being able to write essays and/or stories

Second Gear: Comprehension. How to filter

It can take 2 hrs a week of one to one tuition @ at a cost of $60h to the parent or school for a year or two to get a child with mild to moderate dyslexia up to reading grade. It’s a significant investment and a great gift. But, do you know what each dyslexia reading program will say? They clearly state in their terms that they commit to the effectiveness of the programs ability to teach reading, but they don’t commit to teaching comprehension. Why is that?

It might surprise you. Because you might assume that if you can decode each word and understand each sentence then surely you will have comprehended the text? I have a great deal of respect for these programs for stating this fact. 

For example, ask any dyslexia specialist reading tutor about  reading and comprehension with dyslexia, or even dysgraphia. They will describe the curious experience of seeing a child successfully read every single word, understand it, yet, when asked “What did it say?” The child says “I don’t know.” Yet, they have read and understood every word. Have you experienced this? Answers in comments below please 

Can our stick shift analogy help us understand this? Yes. Automatic thinkers move into the comprehension gear automatically. But ‘manual thinkers’ need something to move them into that gear. I could explain more about the interplay between working memory and phonological processing, but in terms of ‘stick shift’ they are stuck in first gear trying to get into the second gear of comprehension. You see, comprehension is actually different skill where you ‘Filter’ information while reading and store it. This isn’t automatically happening with dyslexia. I’m dyslexic and know this first hand. I see it in the students of our online dyslexia club. So, what gets dyslexics like me and my students into second gear?

The answer is deceptively simple. Would you believe me if I said “underlining with a pencil”?  At Bulletmap Academy we train children to ‘filter’ by underlining individual words while they read. We suggest at least one word underlined per sentence or paragraph. There are lots of reasons why this works, which would take another post. Or, if you are an expert in working memory please explain to the readers in the comments. But try this underlining trick.

Here’s a challenge. If you are a parent with dyslexia, do a children’s comprehension test without underlining then do a different one and underline the story as you read it. Compare your marks. I bet there’s a significant jump. You have got into second gear! Scores in the comments below.

Underlining is harder than it sounds for dyslexia. Sit with a dyslexic child for 20 min and ask them to underline half the words. The words that are slightly more useful than the others. Us dyslexics often think “everything is important” or “nothing”. Often Highlighting whole paragraphs. But underlining individual words reliably shifts you from just reading into the filtering. It moves you into comprehension.

Practical Tip: Our rule is “one line a word”. Crazy, but trust me, it works. But please don’t go telling your dyslexic child ‘just underline the individual words like Darius says’, Ok? It’s hard. Not as hard as reading. But hard. It takes about an hour of one to one training, and quite a few hours of practice to get it. Remember your dealing with a manual car.

Third Gear: Notes -How children with dyslexia find focus.

Let’s talk about helping children with dyslexia find focus. We talked about how highlighting helps comprehension. It’s like getting into ‘second gear’. Third gear is getting into ‘focus’ by taking notes.

Let’s say your child gets into second gear and experiences the joy of understanding what they’ve read by highlighting key words. Now they want to share it with their teacher the next day at school. But the explanation ends up being very random and doesn’t come out right.

What’s happening? Everyone experiences this, it’s why we learn to take notes to help us focus on what to say. People with dyslexia experience this a lot. Dyslexia throws a curveball when it comes to taking notes. We find it very hard to summarise with written notes and end up trying to write everything down. We rarely find the kind of focus that automatic thinkers do when they are note-taking. Often we just give up on taking notes. But we need notes.

The solution is to take visual notes. Like drawing it out, doing a diagram or a map. It helps us organize what we know and to focus on the important bits.

Nearly every dyslexia and dysgraphia assessment advise the use of “graphic organizers”.  There are many varieties. Mind mapping is the graphic organizer method recommended by most dyslexia assessors. I use the BulletMap™ System of mind mapping because it’s designed to work with a dyslexic mind.

In fact, I believe it can become an unfair advantage to a person with dyslexia if they learn how to organize their ideas visually. Capable of compensating for poor writing and grammar in tests and exams with the clarity, focus, and content they are able to deliver.

This is a whole subject on its own, but suffice it to say, to get into third gear you need to use visual notes. But knowing your stuff is not enough. You need to be able to get into the next gear. The next gear is explaining yourself! Dyslexia can affect that too. Have you experienced your child give you an unnecessarily long complicated answer to a simple question?

Fourth Gear: Explanations.

Learning to be succinct with dyslexia

A person with dyslexia can take a long time to explain themselves. Including me. It’s cute when you’re young, but can be undermining as you get older. People can get the wrong idea. It can look like you don’t know what you’re talking about, or you’re attention seeking etc. 

In the last three ‘gears’, I shared how a child can learn to read, underline to understand and take notes in a dyslexia friendly way. 

Essentially they have learnt to translate what they read into something visual. It means they can “Read to Learn”. The next gear is learning to explain yourself. 

We all want to be understood. For ‘manual’ thinkers what gets you from knowing stuff (3rd gear) to explaining stuff (4th gear) is telling it as a story. Not telling an endless bunch of experiences and/or facts but something with “a beginning, middle, and end”. 

I never really understood what the teachers meant by a beginning middle and end until recently.

Remember how we are dealing with a manual thinker? This is why we use explicit visual teaching in BulletMap™ Academy even for Fourth gear. For example we use a ‘Story Star’ with 5 visual prompts to help them scaffold this and intentionally get into the gear of explaining.

The Story Star:

  • The Face = Who are the characters involved?
  • The Eye = What does the main character want or have their eye on?
  • The Foot = What trips them up, or is the problem?
  • The Hand = What helps them find the solution?
  • The Crown = What’s the reward or outcome?

With this structure you can tell a quick little 1 min memory or a full essay or screenplay. I can do a history essay, or even retell a science experiment.

It’s great fun and really productive. The best bit is when a parent or teacher is engaged in your story and ‘gets it’. When your child discovers how to do this, it’s the beginning of them sharing their ideas and being understood.

The next step, I will talk about how to finish school work!


Have you noticed children with dyslexia tend to leave things unfinished? Is it carelessness? Possibly, but it’s probably dyslexia. It’s important to identify the real cause, because if they don’t learn to finish things there’s little hope for success in the workplace.

I have you some given clear examples of how ‘slow processing’ is not about your ‘engine’ but the effect of ‘gears’. We saw the extra steps people with dyslexia need to comprehend, take notes and explain things.

Have I helped you see how studying is a very manual process for dyslexics? How it’s unrealistic to tell a child with dyslexia “go finish your work” if they don’t have a system and training to do it?

The three key things children need to transition the gears are Bulletpoints, Mind mapping and a story structure. Which is why we talk about Bulletmap Stories in our online study skills club for dyslexic students.

We use underlining to create bullet points in our textbook or beside our map. We then transfer the key words into a map. We use a branching structure that follows a story star. The net result is that on one peice of paper a person with dyslexia can go through the gears of reading, comprehending, notetaking and explaining. They have captured, filtered, focussed and explained.

A Final Note and Invitation

I wrote this blog to help parents of our online dyslexia study skills club understand how and why we do things in our training.

If you are inspired by this I’ll make a prediction. You’ll probably rush off and start dabble with many techniques I’ve shared and try to help your child study.

You’ll try random graphic organizers, youtube videos and apps. We all do. It’s a very frustrating approach for manual thinkers because it’s so random.

Therefore, I’d suggest that it’s crucial to get through this stage quickly before you waste too much of your child’s goodwill.

The solution is to find a reliable visual system to do the job. There are different visual study methods available. Obviously I think our BulletMap™ System is the world’s best for the job because it’s designed by dyslexics for dyslexics. But, whatever approach you take it’s important is to choose a visual technique, stick to it and master it.

With a visual study technique they’ll get work finished. They’ll finish High School and become lifelong learners and finishers! Then you will start to see their dyslexic advantages appreciated.

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