Why Teaching Children to Read is Not the Answer

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Attractive father teaching cute child daughter reading and writing skills through loving parenting, while lying on cosy bed in bright modern home

Bambi Gardiner, founder of Oaka books, discusses the benefits of developing and publishing resources designed specifically for dyslexic children.

Literacy is the foundation that the education system and everyday life is built on. This is tough if you are one of the 16% of the UK population who is dyslexic (Dyslexia Action 2017). Reading is an important skill, which affects even the simplest of tasks; reading signs or menus, finding your way around a shop or scanning ingredient lists. As such, reading is heavily emphasised at school and has knock-on effects to the rest of the curriculum and life in general. But importantly, schools often focus so heavily on reading skills that the ‘what next?’ can be forgotten. Both publishers and schools have a responsibility to fill that space.

The problem for large publishers is that the SEN market in the UK is very small, so why would you focus on that when you can make far more money in non-SEN resources? For those who do choose to make SEN their passion, the problem is; how do you get schools to take a look at your products and to take a look at the curriculum beyond teaching a child to read? How do you get your products to the children who will really benefit from them? 

Some would say that it is not necessary to market products to schools, as schools will differentiate between pupils themselves while teaching them to read. However, SEN children, especially children with dyslexia, will always struggle with the written word, even if they have mastered basic reading, and in reality, schools do not always differentiate. But these pupils deserve the best shot at education. They need accessible resources to at least have the same opportunities as their peers who are reading fluently.

The ongoing relevance of dyslexia

There’s an assumption that once a child ‘can read’ at the correct level dyslexia becomes far less relevant. It doesn’t. Dyslexia doesn’t go away, you don’t recover from it, rather you learn to work with and around its drawbacks and benefits. But in an environment like school, where life is so text heavy, pupils often experience a daily uphill battle. What can we, as publishers do? We can step away from the profit margin and look at how and who we can benefit. Small, niche publishers can achieve big things for struggling children, but they need teachers to take the time to have a look at new resources and, sometimes, to think differently for their pupils.

For people who read fluently and effortlessly it can be hard to appreciate the struggles faced by those with dyslexia. A dyslexic child does not fluidly scan across a page, grasping meaning as they go. Instead, they battle with every letter and every word. The time, energy, and concentration it takes to read is frustrating and tiring. Reading and writing will probably remain slower and more difficult for the rest of their lives. Processing and comprehension can be slow and painful. Both my husband and daughter are dyslexic and both are exhausted when required to read and assimilate large amounts of text.

The problem with unadapted resources

At school in Years 1 and 2, pupils are often given age appropriate reading resources to work with. The complexity of language used is clear and simple and they can often manage to just about keep up with some help and luck. The problem really becomes evident when children move into and beyond Year 3. They may now have different teachers for different subjects, and not all teachers will be knowledgeable or sympathetic to the needs of their SEN pupils. Things can start to unravel very quickly. 

Struggling pupils are either expected to work from the same resources as their fluently reading peers or they are given resources for younger children because the reading age is more suitable. This can be extremely distressing. For non-dyslexics it is difficult to comprehend, as it is not a problem we have ever encountered. However, it is often a humiliating experience for dyslexic students. Occasionally, they will be given resources that are designed to help dyslexic pupils and are the correct academic age for them. Now, put yourself in the place of that dyslexic child and imagine your relief at being given age-appropriate resources that you can actually use, independently. This can be a real game changer.

Other effects of dyslexia

There are also other effects of dyslexia completely unrelated to reading. Dyslexic children might struggle with planning and organisation or find it hard to retain a series of instructions, losing their thread part way through. The effects of struggling with parts of their classwork can sometimes include difficulty in maintaining concentration which can result in lost confidence and poor behaviour. The knock-on effects of dyslexia can be huge. Cracking phonics does not help here. But providing pupils with well thought out resources that play to their strengths and enable them to grasp logic because there are images to help reinforce information through games and quizzes and don’t require huge amounts of writing will have a big impact. This is not only an impact on their academic achievement but also on mental wellbeing and self-confidence in the classroom. After all, who wants to always be last to finish, or not even get started because you are stuck on the first few words? It is crushing, and it happens daily.

Even children with dyslexia who can read well will benefit from specific resources designed for them. Because reading is such hard work, they respond well to visuals such as illustration and pictures. Large chunks of text are overwhelming and off-putting. Even a single text-book for one subject is incredibly daunting and runs the risk of not even being opened. What’s the benefit in that budgetary spend? Small amounts of information on a page, careful use of colour, reduced distractions, clear page layouts and large amounts of repetition in different ways all create the scaffolding a dyslexic child needs in order to thrive in the classroom.

Dyslexic pupils often have good creativity and problem-solving abilities. They can respond well to using puzzles to take in new information and prove what they know. Quizzes in a verbal format rather than a written one are often successful and give students the chance to shine without the stress of needing to read and write.

Dyslexic pupils are often stuck in a loop of using inadequate reading and learning materials. If you are spending money, try something different, something that works and speaks the language of its most important audience; children and young people with SEN. The ability to read is important, but mastering reading doesn’t mean that a child’s dyslexia is now irrelevant. It will remain a factor for the rest of their education and the rest of their lives. Dyslexia cannot be mended because a child with dyslexia is not broken. We can, at least, level the playing field by publishing resources that work for them and with them. After all, such resources will benefit all the pupils in the class.

A head shot of Bambi, smiling into the camera
Bambi Gardiner

Bambi Gardiner is the founder of Oaka Books, specialist publisher of curriculum-based resources for dyslexic children with the aim to help teachers and parents provide accessible
material for their SEN pupils to enable them to be the best that they can be in the classroom.

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