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Support for dyslexic learners must start with a thorough understanding of how the condition really affects them, says Sally Collard

The definition of dyslexia posted on the Department for Education website states that pupils with dyslexia may have “a marked and persistent difficulty in learning to read, write and spell, despite progress in other areas. Pupils may have poor reading comprehension, handwriting and punctuation. They may also have difficulties in concentration and organisation, and in remembering sequences of words. They may mispronounce common words or reverse letters and sounds in words.”  

Other definitions also describe dyslexia as a difficulty with words, a continuum of difficulties that are persistent over time, a singular, genetically disposed condition cited within phonological processing centres, a magnocellular dysfunction within neural networks, or a composite of neurological causal possibilities precipitating a range of different dyslexic profiles.
Whilst these definitions may give us a platform on which to stand supportive teaching practice and resources, without a clearer understanding of the impact of dyslexia on the individual, there is a danger that remedial interventions may be served in a poisoned chalice.

Dyslexia is a difficulty with things most people find easy

This definition emphasises the impact of dyslexia on the everyday social and emotional aspects of learning.
Dyslexic children are immersed in a curriculum infused with language, literacy and expectation. Their peers appear gifted in their ability to understand and remember not only the variable letter-to-sound code of alphabetic text, but also the additional convoluted patterns of English spellings which most dyslexics find confusing, irrational and downright infuriating.

An early diet of synthetic phonics is known to develop the brain's ability to assimilate the concept and coding principles of written text. However, many high frequency words, such as “said”, “was”, “their”, “there”, “two”, “four”, “come”, “does”, “what”, and “know”, act as everyday riddles to dyslexic learners, who are often unable to identify the source or cause of this discord, which further exacerbates their sense of stupidity.

Poor spellers are often provided with learning tasks such as the “look, say, cover, write, check” method, popular in many schools. However, methods which lack the use of meta-cognition fail to stimulate sufficient neurological activity necessary to overcome the memory storage and recall weaknesses associated with dyslexia. They may retain the spelling pattern long enough to be tested, but their ability to transfer this success into mainstream writing is often impeded by their dyslexia. Presenting solutions to learning failure which do not work only adds to the dyslexic's misery and confusion.

Dyslexia friendly spelling memory lessons

In order to engage those with dyslexia, spelling memory lessons should include:   

  • multi-sensory processing, including amusement, emotions, novelty, colour and varied application. For example, “Sally Anne is dead, said the vet”, is much more effective than “Sally Anne is dancing”
  • pictorially-linked memory traces to enhance visual memory storage and recall
  • spelling prompts which link spellings with word meaning. Such prompts trigger their recall in mainstream writing as this is when word-meaning is the focus of working memory. For example: The cat show was a catastrophe!  My cat was in a strop...he bit one of the judges!
  • over-learning to practice and enhance memory storage and recall relating to context, meaning and word extensions.

Dyslexia is invisible

The problems experienced by many dyslexics are often invisible to others. Anxiety about a forthcoming activity and confusion surrounding terminology, memory storage and recall weaknesses may not be apparent, or may be hidden behind other behavioural responses. Reading failure is also a common catalyst of silent emotional despair. Failure is tainted with disgrace, emphasised by matching struggling readers with books pitched at younger, less-able learners.

Reading for meaning stimulates a variety of emotional responses, all driving the reader on to explore actions and outcomes set within real or imaginary worlds. Invasive word-decoding challenges quickly distract the brain from indulging in these emotive thoughts, replacing the extraction of meaning, implication and enjoyment from texts with disinterest, lack of motivation and exhaustion.

Persistent demands for word-level decoding activities, heaping progress-based learning responsibilities onto the shoulders of the hapless learner, and denying access to stimulating texts by virtue of reading impediments, further disable the learner from the purpose of reading – to access meaning and discovery from the written word.

A number of publishers provide books that match learner's age and interest to story-lines written using lower-age text, buff pages and pictures. By also using paired-reading techniques, adults can open up access to reading goals for children by removing the barriers of word-by-word decoding. To do this, adults should provide immediate and unconditional access to unknown words, removing anxiety, stress and distraction from the reading activity.

These “access to reading” techniques bring relief to the struggling reader. By maintaining a flow of meaning, the brain is better equipped to predict forthcoming text – a vital component of reading fluidity. A selection of words can then be revisited at the end of a page for discussion and analysis.

Emotional costs of failure

Dyslexics have difficulties acquiring skills which others use to measure success, such as reading and writing. The failure to achieve competent literacy skills can create serious, long-term consequences for the child concerned. Once a label of failure has been issued, individuals can adopt this identity as a measure of their self-esteem.

While positive attributes of dyslexia, such as lateral-thinking ability, problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills, are well known, they are rarely utilised within the curriculum to boost the image and skills of dyslexic learners. Often, attention to failure over-rides investment in the development of alternative sources of success.
To help raise the confidence, self esteem and positive identity of dyslexic learners, everyday changes can be made by:

  • endorsing creative skills
  • accrediting empathetic skills and enterprising ventures with the recognition and respect they deserve
  • nurturing technological competencies to empower learners with alternative modes of expression, experiences and skills
  • replacing expectations of failure with positive images of success.

Understanding dyslexia

The more we investigate dyslexia and its impact on learners, the clearer it becomes that it is often the emotive responses to failure, frustration and confusion that pose the biggest challenges to learning success. Definitions which cite cognitive difference are useful to identify dyslexia, but many require displays of failure before supportive responses are triggered. Tests and assessments expose areas of learning vulnerability, and guide practitioners towards remedial need, but schools must also employ empathetic practices to ensure a learner's confidence and capabilities are also developed and nurtured.

Removing barriers to literacy through the use of appropriate teaching/learning strategies which recognise issues of memory and the de-motivating impact of failure and emotional distress, may not raise spelling standards to perfection, but will greatly increases a dyslexic learner's access to literacy, achievement and self-esteem.

By harnessing positive attitudes, expectations and opportunities, dyslexia need not be associated with derision and despair, but embraced and congratulated on its ability to widen the range of possibilities harboured within the complex workings of the human brain.  

Further information

Sally Collard (nèe Raymond) runs SpLD training courses in Cornwall and is the author of a number of books:
www.dragonflyteaching.org

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