A practical approach to promoting learning and development in dyslexic children
Dyslexia is a word that has so many connotations. Type it into a search engine and a plethora of different explanations will ping back at you, possibly doing more to confuse than reassure. When talking to parents about their children, I always revert to one of the simplest definitions, provided by the NHS website: “Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling”.
And whilst a diagnosis of dyslexia can sometimes feel like a relief, particularly if it is made around the ages of six to eight when your child is struggling to learn to read and write, there is, unfortunately, no magic formula to overcome this diverse condition. In fact, after diagnosis the confusion can continue, with a myriad of specialist books, websites and programmes all offering different kinds of help.
Keep it simple
My advice is to leave the technical stuff to the schools and specialist teachers and adopt a practical, pragmatic approach at home, which has more to do with interacting closely with your child than anything else. After 12 years of working with the condition both at home and in a school, I have plenty of simple techniques you can employ and everything has been road tested on my own dyslexic son.
Read to your child: there is never a cut off point for this. Just think how many adults listen to Book at Bedtime on Radio 4. If you’re too tired to read, listen to audio books together and embrace the storytelling rather than the typeface. Use an e-reader for private reading and show your child how to use the instant dictionary and adjust the typeface and back lighting.
Watch films and discuss them afterwards: my son extended his vocabulary and ability to construct a plot by watching films like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society.
Play description games: on car journeys, unplug the technology for a while and describe what you see. Create interesting locations and backdrops for essays. At home, help your child with creative writing by jotting down their ideas and shaping them into a plan with a beginning, middle and end. As they approach secondary school, invest in a speech-to-text package that allows them to talk their ideas into a laptop, tablet or phone.
Invest in a whiteboard and mount it opposite your kitchen table. Use the whiteboard to learn spellings, quotes, facts or anything else. Write the information in different colour pens and leave it there for a few days. Observe which bit of information they learn first; can you link it to a certain colour or position on the board? Dyslexics are often visual learners, so help them find which colours and spaces work best for them. It’s important to nurture their development, though, don’t force them down a particular path.
Talk to search engines: search engines that you can talk to are a marvellous invention. Challenge your child to find out a new piece of information every day. It could be the longest river in Africa, the capital of Canada or anything that sparks their interest.
Share in the thing they are best at: find out your child’s particular interest and throw yourself into it with them. They will gain confidence from being good at something. My son and I chose ice skating as he had elements of dyspraxia, meaning ball sports were tough. Saturday mornings at the ice rink created some fabulous memories.
If the school hasn’t given you a proper diagnosis, you may want to pay for a private educational psychologist to produce one for you. It might be expensive, but should provide you with all you need to get the best from the education system.
It is also important to keep in regular contact with the SENCO at your child’s school and make yourself aware of all the potential exam arrangements on offer for dyslexics. Extra time, a reader, a scribe and word processing are all available, depending on the severity of the diagnosis. Use all these methods to get homework done with the least amount of stress.
Different ways to learn
I’ve worked with hundreds of dyslexics over the past 12 years, including my own son, and most of them teach me something new about the condition. It’s wonderful to observe them maturing, coming to terms with their condition and starting to discover learning methods that work particularly well for them.
I’m currently tutoring a Year 10 boy who is studying Macbeth. Although he struggles to read Shakespeare’s prose, once he’d seen a film version, his knowledge and confidence soared. Now, when I read the play to him, he can picture exactly what is happening and thread the story together. He’s begun to realise that his visual memory is supremely well developed. The school and I are currently trying to secure him a reader for the GCSE itself. With that in place, I think he will perform as well as anyone.
Many dyslexic pupils will find it useful to adopt a three-stage approach to their English set books: read the book, listen to it in an audio format and then watch a film version. Absorbing the information three ways is critical to their success.
Another pupil, who has just taken her GCSEs, uses six by four inch index cards for almost all her revision. Because the cards are relatively small, it forces her to revise in “bite size chunks”, which means she doesn’t get overawed by the volume of work in front of her. She also uses them to create question-and-answer quiz sessions to test herself. She is now teaching her younger brother to use the same method.
Spider diagrams are also very useful for subjects like geography. There are many packages on the market to help you put these together, but the most successful pieces of work are often hand drawn, using colour to represent key bits of information.
Lessons for life
Probably the best advice I was ever given about dyslexia relates back to my very first pupil with the condition. I was new to my job in a secondary school and keen to find out how all the dyslexic pupils under my care had coped so far in their school careers. “Miss, the main thing I have to do is work harder than anyone else” this solemn 14-year-old told me. It was such a simple statement, but so wise. Last year he got a first from Bristol University in Engineering.
But what about my dyslexic son? Well, he’s now eighteen and we both recently went to see the Pink Floyd Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. The recommended browsing time is one and a half hours, so I bought timed tickets for the last slot of the day which allowed us exactly that amount of time to walk through the rooms. I figured it would be less crowded at that point and allow us more space to look at everything. After one and three-quarter hours, my son and I were the last two customers being shepherded out of the museum, having been forced to skip the last two rooms. “Forgot about my 25 per cent extra time when you booked the tickets?”, quipped my son. He was right; I’d overlooked the fact that there would be a substantial amount of written information to consume, but isn’t it great that he can now deal with his condition with wit and humour?
Dyslexia is for life, but there are plenty of coping mechanisms.
Theresa Sainsbury is a private tutor and former SEN Assistant in a large boys school in South West London. Her son was diagnosed with multiple issues at ten years of age.