It’s time to take a fresh look at some of the commonly held beliefs about dyslexia.
Over time, and building on my experience working in a large secondary school as an SEN Governor, I have adjusted two aspects of my thinking in relation to dyslexia. I completely agree with the label “dyslexia”; after all, we don’t pretend blind people are not blind. It gives those with the condition an understanding of their needs and it means teachers can adapt their teaching in an informed way. However, the label is not a magic wand. I find it now more helpful in classrooms to talk about those who struggle with literacy, whether this is because of dyslexia, developmental issues, personal issues that have resulted in school absence or other reasons. Whatever the cause, very often the same steps are taken within the graduated approach to address the problem. The upshot is that I now talk about those who struggle with literacy and may be dyslexic, as opposed to just those with a diagnosis of dyslexia, which in itself can pose challenges for children and their families due to the cost.
The other aspect of dyslexia that I have begun to take issue with is the idea that it is a “gift”. We often hear this said, especially about those dyslexics who have “made it” and are famous. Whilst I applaud the rationale of holding up high-achieving role models, we must not forget that even successful dyslexics will tell us how hard school was for them. They will report that they felt like “outsiders” and often left with a feeling of failure. As one young person said to me coming home tired and frustrated, “If someone says dyslexia is a gift, then I don’t want a birthday present from them!”.
There are many myths about dyslexia. It is important to address these ideas because most of them define a condition in a set way that is neither helpful for the dyslexic nor for their teachers; there is a real need to be clear in our language so that we understand the dyslexic as an individual, like any other. Following on from this, we must use sound classroom practice to address their specific needs.
Dyslexics have superpowers
Linked to the idea of a “gift” is the notion that dyslexia is often regarded as a strength or a superpower. For every dyslexic who has made it, though, there are others who do OK but still struggle with literacy, having gone through school quite possibly not having achieved their full potential because they weren’t supported in the right way.
Dyslexics are creative
It is often said that dyslexics are creative and, like many non-dyslexics, they can be. However, this is not always the case. The writer and critic A A Gill said he was quite good at art because he was made to do a lot of it, because his reading and writing were so bad. The point is that there are many dyslexics who are not artistically creative but who excel in other subjects such as maths and science. An example is Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a renowned British space scientist and presenter on the BBC’s The Sky at Night.
Diagnosis will solve my child’s problems at school
This is a hard one. Many parents, myself included, sought a diagnosis for dyslexia, believing this would be the proverbial magic wand to use within the school system. It wasn’t. Whilst it gave teachers some insight into the things my children found difficult, only the better reports gave any guidance on how to support them in the classroom and at best, these were only general suggestions. A dyslexic pupil does not need a diagnosis to get the support they need; the new legislative framework should do that.
The exception to this is for public exams in Year 11 and at A Level, when an assessment is required to give a dyslexic learner the access arrangements they need to “level the playing field”. However, in good schools, these arrangements should have been made early on in a learner’s journey for any school tests that are particularly important, such as those used in determining sets. It takes time to learn how to manage extra time, master additional skills such as touch typing, use software and work with a reader and a scribe. It can also take time for teachers to understand the issues. My son, who is very good at maths, was put in the bottom set when he went to secondary school. When I questioned this, the teacher smugly showed me an unfinished paper with eight blank pages and a comment to Archie saying, “if you’d finished the paper, you might have got into a higher set”. To this, Archie replied,“if you had read about my needs and arranged for a reader and scribe for me, I would have.”
Dyslexia is a middle class condition
Schools and clusters of schools should have access to specialist teachers who can assess learners, for free, on site. The reason dyslexia is often referred to as a “middle class” condition is because only those who can afford to pay for a diagnosis, often costing in the region of £300 to £500, can get one. This is wrong and discriminates against children and their families who simply cannot afford a private assessment. In addition, a specialist within a school setting is able to support and train senior leadership including governors, SENCOs, teachers and parents in understanding the needs of pupils who struggle with literacy and how as a school, in a systematic way, this can be achieved. It is no longer about taking a child out of class for twenty minutes a week to give them catch up lessons; rather, it should be a joined up response that starts from the leadership and feeds into every aspect of school life.
Dyslexics are the same
No-one is the same! Whilst dyslexics share common difficulties they, like others with SEN, will not share the exact same issues to the same severity, and their difficulties will not be expressed in the same way. My eldest son became quite good at reading, albeit slowly, whereas my youngest at 18 has a reading age of a nine-year-old. The point is that teachers need to understand how a pupil’s dyslexia reflects as an educational need, rather than just taking a broad brush approach. I visited a school that prided itself on being dyslexia friendly but it was a one-size-fits-all approach and the adjustments they were making, such as printing on buff paper, didn’t match the needs of their individual pupils. Is it enough to pre-prepare a pupil for a piece of work or do they need extra time, or to sit by another pupil who can read to them? Or do they need the work on a laptop that can read to them through headphones?
High (or low) expectations
Dyslexics, just like non-dyslexics, can achieve across the spectrum with the right support. It is not acceptable to assume that because they have specific difficulties with literacy, working memory or processing, they can’t succeed. Fulfilling their potential should be the aspiration for every child. Pupils should be allowed to show what they know rather than how well they can read and write, and this becomes ever more important as they progress from primary to secondary school. However, whilst there will be “genius dyslexics”, there will also be those pupils where dyslexia is just one of the issues they struggle with.
It’s all down to school funding
It is often said that pupils with dyslexia are failed because of a lack of resources. Whilst resources play an important part in a school’s SEN provision, and I know of schools that cannot afford to pay for certain interventions that would make a big difference, it is worth remembering that a lot of support can be offered in the classroom with little to no cost.
Parents always know best
A final point I’d like to make is about the relationship between parents and teachers. Having hosted a roundtable on this subject recently at the Whole School SEND Summit, it was clear that there can be tension between the two. Parents can find schools defensive and feel they are not being listened to, whilst teachers who want to engage are fearful of “opening the floodgates” to parents whom the teachers feel may not have the children with the most serious problems. To use a medical analogy, they are the “worried well” who will overwhelm a teacher with their demands for their child.
What came out of this session for me was that it is always important to communicate. Parents often do have a lot to offer about their child and can support a teacher in their learning. Teachers dealing with parents should always refer to the data to determine whether a child really has a problem or whether they are just expecting them to be reading Shakespeare aged eight! More than ten years ago, when my child simply couldn’t access the curriculum in Year 3, I (and another parent) asked the school if I could fund a specialist to spend an hour a week with my son (how times have changed). They treated me as if I’d asked for him to have private tuition to enter university. I had to point out that he couldn’t read “cat”, “mat” or “sat” and, in his words, was “sitting on the dumb table”. If the teachers had referred to the data they would have recognised his very real needs and then should have been able to address them.
In over 25 years of dealing with dyslexia and literacy difficulties in the school system, I have found that the greatest change that can make the most difference is the willingness to change our attitudes when it comes to teaching those with SEN.
Sarah Driver is the founder of The Driver Youth Trust, a national charity aimed at improving the life chances of children and young people, with a focus on those with literacy difficulties and who may have SEN and particularly dyslexia: