What schools can do to identify and meet the real needs of dyslexic pupils
Every class, like every pupil, is different. But unless it is very unusual, it will include children with dyslexia.
With up to ten per cent of people having dyslexia, on average three pupils in every class of thirty will have the condition. For some, the condition will be so severe that alarm bells will ring. For others, the difficulties might be relatively minor or the child might have learnt to disguise it. This can make it more likely that their condition may not have been identified and prevent the child receiving the help they need. But even if the condition is suspected, it does not mean children will get the right support.
This is not because of any lack of interest from teachers themselves. A recent survey by the Driver Youth Trust (The Fish in the Tree, 2013) found that teachers overwhelmingly agreed that they should have the skills to help children with dyslexia. However, over half said they had received no formal training about dyslexia during their initial teacher training. Nine out of ten admitted that their training amounted to less than half a day.
The price of failure
The results of failing to provide the right support for dyslexics can be devastating. Children with dyslexia can find themselves written off as stupid or lazy. Without the skills to participate in lessons, they can become demoralised, and are far more likely to be excluded from school or leave without qualifications. In many cases, this blights the rest of their lives. Being unable to read or write properly makes getting and keeping a job much harder, particularly in today’s employment market.
But it is not just the individual, of course, who suffers. Poor literacy, of which dyslexia is a major cause, costs the country an estimated £2.5 billion each year. By the age of 37, each illiterate pupil costs the tax-payer an extra £45,000 through school, unemployment support and the criminal justice system. The sad fact is that as many as two out of every five people in prison suffer from dyslexia.
It doesn’t have to be this way. After all, we know a great deal more about dyslexia. We know that it has nothing to do with intelligence. We also know that most dyslexics can be helped with their literacy challenges. Research has consistently shown that the earlier the intervention, the greater the likelihood of success.
I know about this from my own family. My husband is dyslexic, as are three of our children. The condition has not prevented my husband forging a successful career. With the right support, my two eldest children are now at university and one is studying English. The tragedy is that many children are missing out on this support in the classroom.
Time for change
The best answer, of course, is to provide better information and training for teachers when they are at college themselves. There have been big improvements in recent years but when 70 per cent of providers report that they still spend less than a day with their students on dyslexia-specific training, there is a long way to go.
There is a growing movement which is lobbying the Government for all initial teacher training courses to include a module on SEN, including dyslexia. SENCOs should also have a mandatory minimum level of training around the support of children with literacy difficulties. Until recently, some SENCOs received little or no special training.
But while these long-term changes are put in place, what can teachers and schools do? How can they spot children with dyslexia in their classrooms and, more importantly, how can they help provide the support needed?
The first step for many teachers is improving their understanding of dyslexia. While it is commonly known that dyslexia hinders an ability to read and write, there is less awareness that it can affect memory and concentration, as well as numeracy. Typical symptoms include difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.
Identifying signs of dyslexia and beginning discussions with key staff and parents is an essential starting point for schools. Dyslexia screeners often indicate areas of difficulty and can be a quick way of clarifying the key challenges a pupil may be facing.
But an assessment, although essential, by itself achieves very little. What is needed is for teaching to be matched to the learning needs of the child. All too often, children with dyslexia are simply presented with books or worksheets beyond their reading level or asked to fill a blank page with writing.
With a little creativity, though, they can be helped through their difficulties. Teachers need to discuss how words work with their pupils and how to keep key spelling rules at the front of their minds by involving the whole class.
Suggesting inventive ways to remember the spelling of certain words can also be effective. For example, the word “was” can be remembered by using the phrase “whales and seals”. Displays around the classroom can reinforce messages and rules which pupils with weak memories have a tendency to forget.
The blank page of an exercise book can be dispiriting. Better responses can be gained when children are asked to complete sentences using word banks full of relevant phrases. Younger dyslexic pupils respond particularly well to writing tasks when asked first to draw their understanding in picture boxes.
Similarly, the use of ICT programmes which enable pupils to immediately hear the sentences that they have chosen to produce can be very effective. Electronic support has made tremendous differences to dyslexic students young and old and needs to feature as early as possible in the dyslexic pupil’s educational career.
Reading progress can be supported by dyslexia friendly books written by popular and current authors. Audiobooks, too, should be available. And reading, of course, with a skilled educator who can help the child to understand how the words on the written page fit together, can make a huge difference.
There are other tools that schools may consider. Some children are likely to benefit from reading rulers, which provide a coloured film to place over print which helps to make the text more distinct. Some schools will plan for pupils to write on buff coloured paper as well to minimise the visual stress they may be experiencing.
Above all, schools need to be willing to abide by the principle of “notice and adjust”. As Neil MacKay (the originator of the dyslexia-friendly schools concept) put it, “if a child won’t learn the way we teach, then teach the way they learn”.
Together we can make a huge difference to the lives of children with dyslexia and, in doing so, help them fulfil their potential to the benefit of us all.
Sarah Driver is the founder of the dyslexia charity the Driver Youth Trust:
Sarah would like to acknowledge the input into this article of Sally Bouwman, Network Lead Teacher for Dyslexia with ARK Schools: