What is dyslexia? How can we identify it and why do dyslexic people need support?
This article discusses the importance of the identification of dyslexia and other SpLDs in children and young people (and adults).
Every year SATs results and other national testing show that too many children and young people are not meeting expected levels in literacy, and 20 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds are leaving education functionally illiterate. If you cannot learn to read, you cannot read to learn, and too many children are unable to access the curriculum due to poor reading skills. It is these children who then become disengaged and leave school with few or no qualifications, resulting in significantly reduced opportunities.
There are many reasons why a child might struggle to learn to read and it is important to identify the precise cause. Dyslexia is one reason why a child might struggle at school but it is much more than just a difficulty with reading. Often described as a hidden disability, dyslexia can have a huge impact on future success and fulfilment. However, it need not and should not be a barrier to education or opportunity. It is very important, therefore, that dyslexia is identified early and that the correct help and support is provided.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that can cause difficulties with reading, spelling, writing, mathematics, memory and organisation. Characteristic features of dyslexia include difficulties with phonological awareness (ability to recognise letter to sound combinations), verbal memory and verbal processing speed. It can occur across the range of intellectual abilities. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor coordination, mental arithmetic, concentration and personal organisation.
Dyslexia is biological in origin and is seen to run in families. It is believed to be caused by a difference in one or more of the language areas of the brain and/or the connections between them.
Dyslexia can vary in severity from mild to severe and its impact will depend on numerous factors, such as intelligence, schooling, family support, personality and/or socio-economic factors. For many, if this hidden disability is left undetected and unaddressed it can result in significant under achievement throughout education and into adulthood, which can cause confidence and self-esteem issues.
Dyslexia affects anyone of any age, background, religion and/or social class. It affects up to ten per cent of the population, which is as many as two or three children in every classroom.
How is dyslexia identified?
If dyslexia is suspected, then diagnosis is achieved through assessment with a specialist teacher or psychologist. The assessment takes approximately 2½ hours and looks at a wide range of abilities such as: spelling, single word reading, comprehension, maths, memory and verbal reasoning. The results provide a specific profile and the assessor can then conclude whether the individual is dyslexic and, if so, the severity of their difficulties.
It is possible to assess a child as young as five years, but seven is the optimum age.
Can dyslexia be cured?
Dyslexia is life-long but, with the right help and support, the difficulties it can cause can be managed and overcome. The assessment processes is a very important part of identifying individual need.
Specialist tuition with a teacher who has been trained to postgraduate level in dyslexia and literacy is the most effective method of support. The specialist teacher will use a wide range of teaching methods and tools. This is something that can benefit individuals of all ages.
In addition, modern technologies and other adjustments within the classroom or workplace can be made to ensure a dyslexic person has equal opportunity to perform to the best of their abilities.
The importance of identification
Dyslexia is much more than just a term or a label; it provides understanding of why a child or adult has specific difficulties.
Government figures show that there is in excess of £10 billion per annum in lost revenue through unemployment, underemployment and crime. It is well documented that those with poor literacy skills are over-represented within these populations. Research by Dyslexia Action shows that over 50 per cent of offenders have below expected levels in literacy, and approximately 20 per cent have a specific learning difficulty. If these individuals had been picked up at school and provided with the correct help and support, it is fair to assume that the link between reduced opportunity and crime and deprivation would be broken.
Despite the economic arguments, every child should be given the same opportunities to be all they can; every child should be able to realise their strengths and abilities and not have these overshadowed by poor reading ability. A child who is unable to acquire the skills necessary to be an accurate and fluent reader is at a serious disadvantage and will be unable to access the curriculum of any subject at school.
“It makes me cry sometimes when I think how low down I was and now I am up there with the best; it was just so frustrating because I knew I could do it. If you feel like you are not coping with reading then you should tell someone and be confident; there is nothing to be ashamed of.” Abagail (aged 12).
Addressing the issues
There have been numerous reviews over the last few years, including Sir Jim Rose’s Review of dyslexia/SpLD, The Bercow Review on speech and language difficulties, The Lamb Inquiry on parental views and Sir Alan Steer’s Review on behaviour. They all agree on the need to improve the level of SEN expertise in our schools. They emphasise the need for appropriate and evidence based literacy teaching for all children, as well as improving the identification and provision for children with more specific learning needs. It is also well documented that children with severe difficulties should have access to specialised support.
Dyslexia Action’s Partnership for Literacy programme has demonstrated the effectiveness of different levels of training across the whole school. By up-skilling all teaching staff, particularly the teaching assistants, and providing them with good quality evidence based teaching materials, the results from partnering with 41 primary schools has shown that it is possible to increase the reading standards of all children across all age groups.
“To anyone concerned they are dyslexic, it does not mean you are stupid, you just need some additional help. I just think it is really beneficial for people to access services and get their dyslexia identified so that they can get the right help and support. I wish my dyslexia had been picked up sooner.” Tola (adult learner).
Kerry Bennett is Corporate Marketing & Communications Manager at UK educational charity Dyslexia Action: