Learning to write again: the struggle of A-levels with a learning difficulty

In the depths of December 2014 whist I was cramming for A-Level mocks, my History teacher suggested I visited the deputy Head’s Office. There, she sat me down and informed me that the school wanted to test me for a learning difficulty.

Writing had always been a challenge; as a child my spelling was so unbearable that I adopted handwriting resembling the footprints of a drunken woodland animal to disguise it. I found writing more that 100 words unnecessary and implausible – the frills of writing were lost on me. But, knowing I had the 11+ and SATs looming, I forced myself to laboriously practise writing down ideas I deemed boring and obvious, and as a result passed and gained a place at the local state Grammar school.

Even now, writing that one paragraph was a painful, drawn-out process. What sounds conversational and natural in my head appears erratic and jumpy on the page, each word jarring against the other in a way that makes my physically wince when typing. Getting diagnosed a few months ago therefore enabled me to make a lot of sense of why I struggled so much more than my peers at seemingly basic tasks.

My learning difficulty is so weird that it doesn’t have a name, but from what I can gather from the report I was given and – you know – actually living with it for almost 19 years, I put an unusually large amount of significance on each individual word. My letter comprehension is fine, as is my reading, yet understanding the composition and sound of words is unusual. To me, my writing often appears inelegant and jarring. As a result, writing takes a lot longer than most people, as I have to dwell on each word for an enormous amount of time in order to be able to write it down.

Discovering that my writing problems were actually serious – and why I had underperformed at GSCE and AS – less than 6 months before my (essay heavy) A-levels was somewhat terrifying. I was given the option of typing as well as being awarded 25% extra time in all examinations, which I greedily took full advantage of.

All the extra time in the world wouldn’t have helped me, however, if I had got stuck on a word mid-exam and not have been able to continue. Advice on how to deal with my brain not letting me write was limited, because my learning difficulty couldn’t be categorised; online communities like http://actuallyadhd.tumblr.com which helped people with ADHD, for example, weren’t available to me as my learning difficulty is so unique.

Whilst this meant I escaped a lot of harmful stigma associated with many categorised learning difficulties, not being part of a community experiencing similar challenges meant a creeping feeling of isolation often persisted to possess me; my teenage angst of “no one understands me” seemed legitimised by a diagnosis. Instead, I had to work out how to manage my learning difficulty from scratch. One of the ways I managed this was by reading an enormous amount of poetry, finding that my unusual relationship with words allowed me to see different and complex links between sounds and wider themes.

The most beneficial way I found to get through my A-Levels was to plan every piece of writing I produced to an alarmingly annoying degree. This, I discovered, meant that I could flick back to my essay plan and know exactly what I had to write next and the direction I had to take it, basically stumping myself before I began, so that I didn’t feel stumped when I was writing the essay. Incredibly, this process made writing fun for the first time; mere months after assuming I should probably pursue a career that didn’t involve writing, it is now my favourite thing to do.

I’ve had to sacrifice many time-consuming things at sixth form in order to write coherent essays and coursework – a job, Breaking Bad, online shopping – but ultimately it’s been worth it. I’m off to read Law at Bristol in September, and I have on good authority that the course involves quite a few words. I may have to work a bit harder that my fellow law students, but I see the world in a different way to everyone else, and I think that is a wonderful thing.

Words by Ellie Drewry

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