Long gone are the days when Susan Hampshire and Duncan Goodhew were the dyslexic’s pin ups of choice. Roughly thirty years ago, they stood up and spoke bravely of their difficulties with literacy at a time when children struggling in school went to “remedial” classes. Today, although it has become almost fashionable to confess to difficulties with dyslexia at school – with celebrities such as Jamie Oliver, Orlando Bloom and Eddie Izzard topping the list - there is still a huge gap in popular knowledge and understanding of the difficulty. “He can’t be dyslexic; his reading is age appropriate”, I was told by my son’s teacher when he was seven. Such misunderstandings of the condition can significantly affect an individual’s capacity to learn and consequently affect their wellbeing.
There is a common misconception that people who are dyslexic simply have problems with reading and writing, that they reverse letters, can’t spell and avoid books like the plague. Taking a child out of a classroom three times a week for fifteen minutes at a time to study phonetics is seen by some schools as an adequate way to tackle the problem. Understandably, though, a child with these problems finds it hard to cope back in the classroom because of the handful of other issues they have associated with their dyslexia.
Many dyslexics have problems with working memory, concentration and organisation. In a classroom environment this can translate into difficulties with following instructions, processing information, concentrating on the task at hand and completing work. They have difficulty with sequencing, learning to tell the time and remembering where they should be and when. Organising themselves for different lessons is a problem, so they may forget their PE kits on particular days, fail to bring the right equipment in for a class, or simply turn up with their jumper on back-to-front. Dyslexic children can also be more sensitive than others, both physically and emotionally. They may be frequently told by teachers to hurry up, keep still or simply to pay attention, adding to their feeling of failure and alienation.
There is currently an emphasis on the written word in teaching, something that dyslexics obviously struggle with. They are unable to decipher the code and retain it in their long term memory, and, with little or no alternative readily available in the mainstream environment, they can feel excluded which, in turn, can lead to a severe loss of self-esteem.
Children at my son’s school all started off at mainstream school before moving to this small independent school for children with specific learning difficulties (SpLD). I asked a few of them about their school life and they wrote eloquently about their experiences:
“At my previous school I was trying really hard to get better and I was finding it boring because it was simply just writing not much else would happen.” Bruno, aged eleven.
“I felt so lonely and abandoned from other children at my old school. Other children thought I was different because I did maths in different ways and got my English wrong.” Max, aged nine.
“At my old school I found everything hard because they didn’t know what dyslexia is so they gave me really hard work and they didn’t care. And I had lots of homework! I didn’t really have friends at my old school.” Lewis, aged eleven.
“At my old school I was kept in at playtimes because I was slow doing my work. Me and my friend were kept in once because we were having problems with our spelling.” Jason, aged ten.
“Before I came to [this] school I used to wander around the playground looking for a friend, whilst they would talk about the dumbest boy in the school – me. The only friend I had was my brother, he stuck up for me and when I went into lunch no one would sit with me, they would move onto different tables to me. Until I got home, I would walk down to a little wood I know. I would walk far into the distance where no one could find me. There is a tree there that I know and it is all on its own and me and that tree are terribly alike, because no one would come near us.” Matthew, aged ten.
Another problem that children with dyslexia face is that they may also have one or more of a handful of neurological difficulties, making it difficult to diagnose. Dyslexia is just one of a variety of conditions, including dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Asperger’s syndrome, that all have a neurological root. Many of the symptoms overlap and it is therefore difficult to separate them out. This can be a problem, especially in a system where, in order to get the relevant help, a diagnosis is often required.
In my experience, most of the initial problems I encountered involved getting my son’s difficulties understood and acknowledged. His literacy and numeracy skills were within “average ranges”, though they were at the very bottom of this spectrum and such evaluations did not take into account his potential. When I finally took him to be tested at the Dyslexia Institute I was told that he was in the top five per cent for intelligence. The report stated that he was moderately dyslexic, a little dyspraxic and that he had difficulties with his concentration. Yet his reading was, and remains, above average for his age. For his teacher, who thought that dyslexia was just about reading and spelling, this was a revelation.
But my son’s experience is not at all unusual and, sadly, a lot of teachers still have a poor understanding of this common condition. Jane Gaudie, the head teacher at my son’s school, runs regular sessions with teachers and teaching assistants from mainstream environments to inform them about the nature of dyslexia and how best to teach children with the condition. “Many of the teachers tell me afterwards”, she says, “that they have learnt more in one afternoon about specific learning difficulties and dyslexia than in all their years of teacher training.”
Many children with dyslexia feel like a square peg being forced into a round hole. Teaching methods need to be adapted to meet their needs, and not just with literacy. It is crucial that there is greater understanding and awareness of the problem at school to avoid low self-esteem and alienation. Poor spelling and bad reading does not equal dyslexia. Throw in a mix of poor organisational skills, bad short-term memory and a tendency towards poor concentration and, if this is not readily acknowledged and engaged with, you have a recipe for failure.
Liz Bourne is the mother of a child with dyslexia who attends Chiltern Tutorial School in Otterbourne, Hampshire:
This article was first published in issue 49 (November/December 2010) of SEN Magazine.