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Maryanne Wolf

UCLA Ed&IS Magazine: The Art of Seeing Differently

Maryanne Wolf, director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, shares how the arts reveal and develop the hidden strengths of students with dyslexia and other diverse learners.

In a 2013 Smithsonian documentary, “The Real Story: The DaVinci Code,” Maryanne Wolf posits that Leonardo da Vinci was more than likely dyslexic, based on multiple characteristics including the extent and probable rapidity of his mirror writing in one codex after another. This is a skill that is attributed to some individuals with dyslexia whose brain’s right hemisphere is used more extensively in reading than the greater use of the left hemisphere in typical readers.

Today, Wolf serves as the director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice and a professor-in-residence in the UCLA Department of Education, continuing to contribute globally to the knowledge around reading and the brain. The author of more than 160 scientific articles, Wolf designed the RAVE-O reading intervention for children with dyslexia, which she is currently redesigning to include an arts component. She also co-authored the RAN/RAS naming speed tests, a major predictor of dyslexia across all languages, in collaboration with Martha Denckla, a pioneer in the field of developmental cognitive neurology.

Drawing from her personal experience of parenting a son with dyslexia, Wolf discusses the benefits of arts education in the wake of Prop. 28 and how it can open doors for diverse learners who might otherwise fall through the cracks academically, socially, and emotionally.


Ed&IS Magazine: What have you found to be the links between dyslexia, diverse learning styles, and the arts?

Maryanne Wolf: One of the great known strengths of dyslexia is an ability to see differently. My life lesson from my own son is the absolute importance of looking at how the arts and pattern-perception are manifested in many of our individuals with dyslexia. I have been both blessed and given an incredible example of what happens to children with dyslexia, particularly the emotional detritus that often comes when they can’t learn to read like other children. They all too often feel as if the world does not understand them and that too many people think that they are less intelligent because they can’t learn to read like everyone else. To this moment, this completely false assumption ruins the potential of some of the most interesting brains our species possesses.

My own son went through six different schools in an effort to find the right fit, until he went to the Rhode Island School of Design. Until he was in a school for the arts with other individuals who are artists–a school where probably 30-40% of the students had a history of dyslexia–it was the first time he could soar. The Rhode Island School of Design is next to Brown University, so the students do their studio work at RISD and take very difficult classes at Brown. I will never forget that as a junior, Ben called me and said, “Mom, you won’t believe it—I’m on the dean’s list.” He had his first 4.0, in philosophy, German literature, and his studio art. Ben could finally be his full self.

Ben’s experience taught me how essential it is not simply to give space for the [artistic] talents, but for them to have recognition by their worlds—both of the various gifts [people with dyslexia] were given, and also of the perseverance that they require for their success. It has been many years now since my son graduated from RISD. He’s now a wonderful artist with two studios, one in New York and one in L.A., and is a lecturer at Yale, where he helps critique young artists. It is not coincidental that so many of the people that he works with have a dyslexic background. There is a propensity towards the arts in individuals with dyslexia, as well as towards entrepreneurial professions.

Leonardo da Vinci gives us an example par excellence of how strengths and weaknesses live right next to [each other in] the same brain. This unbelievable genius had weaknesses that he probably never understood. If I had a time machine, I would wager a great deal that da Vinci possessed a form of dyslexia characterized by issues in fluency and word-retrieval. The mirror writing is ultimately a red herring that actually reflected his strengths. But the historian Vasari described how da Vinci thought of himself as an “analphabetica,” one who couldn’t learn Latin and whose favorite wish was to have someone to read to him.

da Vinci did not become a lawyer like his father wanted, because he could not learn Latin. Remember that Leonardo’s mother tongue was Italian, which is based on Latin. It is my hypothesis that this characteristic in da Vinci is part of a profile in which weaknesses in the word-retrieval system are revealing the slower speed with which the visual andlinguistic areas of the brain are connected. These connections and their automaticity are the basis of reading’s development, and their impediments are the basis of reading difficulty like dyslexia.

Ed&IS: What are some of the strengths of individuals with dyslexia that give them a unique advantage, especially in the realm of the arts?

Wolf: Many but not all individuals with dyslexia have visual-spatial abilities that allow them to see the world differently. My son started out in Hollywood in set design, and what he was so good at was finding solutions to immediate problems in whatever set was there. He could “see” what was needed before anyone else. He brings that same visualization to problems in many other realms, not just in art and design. He makes connections that are often “out of the box” till you realize that he sees and thinks and solves problems in a whole different way.

I’ve [spoken at] conferences arranged by very important international and national companies, corporations that wanted to know why so many entrepreneurs are dyslexic. Silicon Valley is full of CEOs and startup managers who are dyslexic. At one of the conferences, they had these small, intimate groups of multimillionaires [and] entrepreneurs who were dyslexic. Each of them had a different background, but the three things they all said were that they can see visually and spatially in different ways. That leads them to solve problems in different ways—they visualize the problem [and] they can translate what they see as a problem into a kind of pattern that they then use as the basis for solution.

A great many architects have an unusual characteristic: [they] can’t spell. It is non coincidental that a lot of my son’s friends are architects, and they are dyslexic and can’t spell. Yet they can draw and do things spatially that other people simply can’t do. Again, it is this extraordinary mix of advantages and disadvantages that underlies the cerebrodiversity that made our species survive. The dyslexic brain existed millenia before literacy was invented! We would be the less if that brain hadn’t helped us survive.

Ed&IS: What are some of the societal costs of a lack of understanding for dyslexia and other learning challenges?

Wolf: There is no coincidence that some of the studies out there show as many as 60% of people in prisons have some form of learning disability. In some states, they project the amount of prison beds needed on the basis of 3rd or 4th grade reading scores. The societal and economic losses are horrific when the potential of these youth is lost.

There’s a wonderful film called “How Do You Spell Murder? Illiteracy and Crime,” that highlights the life of an African-American man who when he was 18, accompanied someone on what he never realized would turn out to be an armed robbery. The leader of his group panicked, shot, and killed a person. As a result, this [other] man spent his life in prison. When the filmmakers interviewed him about why he was there, he asked, “How do you spell ‘murder’?” This is one example of a thousand in which our youth enter the prison pipeline when they are never given the tools to read, whether through dyslexia or other struggles. We can’t lose these youth, many of whom were never diagnosed with a reading difficulty and never had a chance to contribute their potential.

One of the areas that the UC-CSU Collaborative on Neuroscience, Diversity, and Learning is pursuing is to change that pipeline. One way towards that change is the combination of early screening, differential instruction, and intervention that enables our young to show their strengths. For those with dyslexia, emphases on the arts and other strengths can be, literally, a life-saver.

Ed&IS: You designed the RAVE-O reading intervention system many years ago and have now revamped it to include a focus on the arts. What are the “minute stories” you are now using?

Wolf: The subtitle of RAVE-O is, “Where Science meets Story.” For me, story is a metaphor for the arts and also, for what I call “deep reading”. We are emphasizing the strengths of dyslexic individuals, all the while we use our understanding of the reading brain to work on the weaknesses. We are using the strengths to strengthen the weaknesses.

A few schools in Orange County are using our newly redesigned RAVE-O and a few more in Massachusetts. It is a work in progress and very rewarding. I have taken and rewritten little “minute stories,” as we call them, that will emphasize the arts and empathy, critical thinking, and perseverance. And then at almost every unit, the children will have a chance to do something in the arts as part of what they’re learning. When I say arts, I mean drawing, music, charades for theater, and motoric activities too. 

Ed&IS: How will Prop. 28 support students with dyslexia and other diverse learners across California?

Wolf: I think this initiative, which gives art teachers and art a focus of attention in our schools, could not be better conceptualized to help our individuals with neurodiverse patterns. The Arts and Music in Schools Funding Guarantee and Accountability Act is a well-timed but difficult initiative to bring to life and to implement for our children. It will have to be done well, but it has great potential to release the potential of our children. We have studies that show that giving music instruction in kindergarten is correlated with higher reading scores later. Never cancel the arts to increase literacy!

It’s an example of what society and this kind of initiative [can] do for these individuals…give them an opportunity to show their strengths. One of the darker shadows of my research is that if we can’t get them fluent enough by 4th grade, we lose the potential of some of our most interesting minds and fascinating brains. These children get passed on through the grades, but the teachers don’t know what to do with them [and] the children think they’re failures. These wounds last a lifetime if they are never treated along the way. The more we can disseminate our ever-expanding research on dyslexia the better the prospects for our young. For, the more a teacher knows about dyslexia the better that teacher will teach all children.


Professor Wolf is the author of more than 160 scientific articles. Among her awards are the Fulbright Fellowship, the Chapman University Presidential Fellow, the Norman Geschwind and Samuel Orton Awards. She received the Christopher Columbus Award for Intellectual Innovation for her work as co-founder of Curious Learning, a global literacy initiative with deployments in Africa, India, Australia, and rural United States. Among Wolf’s publications are “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain” (2007), and “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World” (2018).