Dyslexia: courting controversy

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Looking to the future of dyslexia provision, in light of a much-publicised report in The Lancet calling for better support for those with dyslexia

There are currently as many as one in five children and young adults in the UK with below expected levels in literacy. Research from Sheffield University earlier this year tells us that over 20 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds are functionally illiterate. A large percentage of these children and young people will have a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) such as dyslexia, which affects two to three children in every classroom to some degree. It is therefore no surprise that a recent report in The Lancet (April 2012) highlighted that the current provision for those with dyslexia is under question.

Dyslexia predominately affects reading and writing, though it can also cause problems with memory, organisation and mathematics. A lack of phonological awareness (which is an ability to recognise the sounds that the letter combinations make) is the main characteristic feature of dyslexia.

Dyslexia is predominately biological in origin, caused by differences in the language areas of the brain and is seen to run in families. It does not affect intelligence but if left unrecognised, it can put the individual at a serious long-term disadvantage.
The Lancet report, which argues that work needs to be done to improve the lives of children with dyslexia, states: “Professionals should not wait until children are formally diagnosed with dyslexia or experience repeated failures before implementation of reading treatment, because remediation is less effective than early intervention”.

Professionals agree that more needs to be done to improve the lives of those with dyslexia. The biggest barrier to children with SEN is the lack of expertise within the system to both identify those at risk of dyslexia but also to provide the right educational support. We should be focussing on empowering teachers to detect and support those with dyslexia and other literacy difficulties.

Early intervention

Early intervention will reduce future public spending and therefore has huge societal benefits. Research by Dyslexia Action tells us that 20 per cent of UK prisoners have an SpLD, with 50 per cent having below expected levels in literacy. That is not to say that if you are dyslexic or have a reading difficulty you are predisposed to a life of crime; rather, this is directly linked to the reduced educational and employment opportunities that such difficulties can lead to.

Interventions must address individual abilities and needs.As the Lancet report states, many children are only identified with dyslexia after they have experienced serious difficulties or behavioural issues in school. The problem is that, by this stage, those children will have already developed coping strategies and bad habits that are harder to rectify. The individual is therefore at a huge disadvantage from having a learning difficulty and has missed the opportunities they should have had. Implementing early intervention strategies would hopefully mean that all children have access to the opportunities they deserve, and those acting out of frustration have an avenue to learning and support.

Individual needs

The release of the journal’s dyslexia report has also stirred opinions from some who suggest SEN is “over-identified”. Experts are not advocating identifying individuals with dyslexia if they are not dyslexic. The argument has been and continues to be that teachers, parents and carers need to be further informed to provide support for those who do have an SpLD and this can only be done by understanding individual learning needs.

The issue is not one of over-identification, but of misidentification and of some people being missed altogether. The call to scrap meaningless catch-all categories such as “a special needs child” or a “behaviour problem” makes a lot of sense. What we need is careful diagnosis of the problems that lie behind behavioural and learning problems, which will enable children to receive the right kind of support and intervention that addresses their particular needs. Despite progress in recent years, there remains a need for better awareness and understanding of dyslexia for those performing assessments, in schools and elsewhere.

This further promotes the need for an effective strategy of early intervention and long-term support for those with dyslexia and other SpLDs. This includes effective mandatory training for all teachers and teaching assistants both initially and in the form of continuing professional development. We need to be giving all teaching staff the support, training, resources and teaching materials they need to better equip them to identify children at risk and support them within mainstream schools.

Setting the agenda

The call for teacher training as part of early intervention isn’t new. Sir Jim Rose’s 2006 Review on dyslexia/SpLD, the 2006 Bercow Review on speech and language difficulties, the 2009 Lamb Inquiry on parental views and Sir Alan Steer’s 2009 review on behaviour all agree on the need to improve the level of SEN expertise in our schools.

Building on this, the recently published SEN Green Paper “next steps” update sets out a summary of the Government’s future vision for SEN. The main concern is that dyslexia does not get over shadowed by more severe learning difficulties. There are now opportunities for us to shape the future of how we manage SEN, but educators fear that too much time and energy will be used addressing the severe cases, to the detriment of the higher incidence but lower severity children who are in danger of being left to flounder in ill-defined categories of special educational needs and disability (SEND).

On balance, the SEN Green Paper update is primarily positive, but closer attention will need to be paid to its associated impact on particular groups and teacher training. The limited depth and breadth of training that will be provided through the replacement of School Action and School Action Plus with a single assessment process means schools will need advice and support on how to implement this new process.

Literacy should be at the top of the Government’s agenda and recognising and addressing the needs of people with dyslexia should underpin any action to address the current literacy crisis. A solution to literacy-related problems starts with the implementation of a dyslexia strategy in schools. Professionals are calling for improved training for all teaching staff; by providing them with the right teaching materials and with instruction in how best to use them, we can ensure better outcomes for children who are not meeting expected levels, which would have an impact on the literacy attainment levels of the school generally. Such a model is sustainable because the knowledge and expertise are left with the school.

The Lancet dyslexia report may not have given us any new information but it has sparked interest in issues we have long been fighting to change. The focus now needs to be on ensuring that no child is left to fail or feel like a failure. We know what works and the next steps should be to incorporate evidence based interventions into the school curriculum and provide teachers with the resources, support and the training they need.

Further information

Paul Keenleyside is Director of Services at the charity Dyslexia Action:
www.dyslexiaaction.org.uk

Pictures courtesy of St Teresa Junior School, Liverpool and Dyslexia Action.

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