What do model railways and chocolate tasting have to do with teaching dyslexics?
With every child with dyslexia that one encounters, the question of how best to understand their particular patterns of strengths and needs inevitably arises, as does the challenge of knowing the best way of approaching intervention. Over a decade ago, in the rather unusual position of being a newly qualified teacher and speech and language therapist, I clung ferociously to packaged assessments and interventions rather like a shipwrecked sailor might cling to a rock. I tried them all, across the board, and followed each with an almost religious fervour. All of them have their merits, and all played a role in enabling me to help particular individuals at whatever age or stage on their educational journey they crossed my path.
Over the years, though, I have begun to question our adherence to education packages in the same way that I gaze sceptically at bottles of multi-vitamins which claim to provide 100 per cent of our daily vitamin and mineral requirements. I have often wondered whether a single multivitamin capsule could work as effectively for my six feet, seven inches tall brother as it would for me, at five feet, four inches. I have pondered whether, by taking multi-vitamins, I negate my responsibility for taking a good look at my dietary choices, exercise and general well-being. Does packaged healthcare provide me with a licence to keep my eyes closed about the impact of the everyday decisions I take on my long-term welfare?
Similarly, while packed assessments and interventions for dyslexia have their uses, particularly for newly qualified practitioners, I have found that the greatest benefits arise from an individual approach which takes account of the uniqueness of every child. This approach is built upon five key tenets: history, observation, exploration, personality and creativity.
We each carry with us personal histories that are as unique as our fingerprints. Although we group ourselves under generic labels, such as male/female, each of us, and the children we work with, are much more than can be encapsulated in a single description or phrase.
How many of us have been presented with a huge file of assessments and reports and not gone beyond the National Curriculum levels? I have gained the greatest understanding of children by giving equal weight to family, developmental, academic and social information. Sometimes, children provide a summary of their experiences by the look of anxiety on their face when they first step into school, or by their hunched over shoulders which carry the burden of years of failure, frustration, isolation and despair. Sometimes, it is the tearful mum or the silent dad who provides the clue. At other times, it is the almost palpable atmosphere of strain when high achieving parents are faced with the collapse of their expectations regarding their longed-for child.
Knowing where children come from is vital if we are to ensure that the direction we steer in will help them achieve their learning goals. It is important, therefore, not to simply give the greatest weight to academic performance alone.
Observation is as important as testing, and much can be revealed by how a child approaches tasks within the classroom, for example, how they cope with uncertainty, whether they seek help, if they have the endurance to see tasks through to completion or whether they utilise a bank of strategies. In a recent BBC documentary about her struggles with dyslexia, the father of former Eastenders actress Kara Tointoin spoke movingly of how her teacher first raised concerns about Kara’s progress with literacy when she was seven years old. The teacher had observed that Kara was 26 books behind everybody else in her class over a period of just five weeks. Luckily for Kara, her teacher and parents were able to provide some help and support for her. Seeing what a child is able to do is as vital as noting what is different or is missing. However, noting what a child responds to is sometimes harder to identify than what they shut down to. True observation without expectations or preconceptions can reveal many surprises and, as practitioners, we benefit from being open to seeing things with fresh eyes.
Observation is so important because it tells us how an individual navigates and negotiates life’s challenges. I would argue that our role, as practitioners, is to develop children’s navigational capacities and skills rather than teaching them to memorise a set number of facts. We want to develop individuals who can apply their skills in a range of familiar and unfamiliar contexts.
Observing the individual
Observations and assessments may reveal certain behaviours, symptoms and difficulties. As a fledgling practitioner, I frequently assumed that if two children in my class demonstrated the same difficulty, such as reversing the letters “b” and “d”, then the problem was inevitably caused by the same issue. However, exploration of each child’s individual issues frequently revealed underlying differences at the root of the symptom visible in the classroom.
Mary, for instance, could write the letters “b” and “d” correctly when asked to write them in an alphabetic sequence, but reversed “d” when she began learning to write in a cursive style. Miles & Miles (1999) discussed how some children reverse the letter “d” when beginning cursive handwriting because it is the only ascending letter where the vertical line is written last. In all other ascending letters, such as “b”, “h”, “k”, “l” and “t”, the vertical line is made first.
Toby, on the other hand, had a history of disordered speech development and as a pre-schooler had replaced all words containing the sound “d” with the sound “b”. Thus, “dog” became “bog” and “dinner” became “binner”. These early difficulties with phonology, although no longer in evidence in his speech, persisted as problems in his phonological processing. They now found expression in his difficulty discriminating the letters “b” and “d” in literacy tasks.
This form of exploration, where one looks beyond superficial symptoms to underlying causes, is expounded in the psycholinguistic framework model devised by Stackhouse & Wells (1997). Problems with speech and literacy can be ascribed to breakdowns “at the level of input, representation or output.” Those children experiencing the most severe and persisting literacy difficulties may experience problems at all three levels. Of key importance is the fact that children who have the same diagnosis can experience individual differences in the underlying causality. As practitioners, it is essential to explore this possibility in order to help formulate appropriate interventions.
Breaking down barriers
I now work at a specialist school for children with dyslexia and dyspraxia where we not only consider multi-causality but also the types of input children have received in the past and their preferred learning styles. Children often arrive at a special school as a last resort, having received extra help within mainstream school or with tutors. They present us with a wall of resistance built up from years of dents to their self-esteem, boredom, frustration and disengagement. They have completed more worksheets and paper-based tasks than your average civil servant or job centre applicant. In short, they don’t want to know.
Our task is to find a chink in their armour and stretch it wider and wider until it is no longer worth their while to hide themselves away, because learning becomes achievable, engaging, enriching and fun.
I have learned to create lessons in ways that are multisensory and recognise the particular personalities, interests and needs of the children I am working with. What child can fail to be engaged when taught the “ai” pattern by constructing a railway line around his/her classroom and racing trains labelled with different “ai” words written on them? Or how about learning the “ch” pattern with a chocolate tasting competition, or taking a stroll around Tate Britain as part of learning the “ture” pattern? When learning is fun and feels like play, children no longer need to keep their psychological defences up.
Some of the greatest contributions to scientific thinking, and our everyday lives, have been made by people who are dyslexic – Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, to name but a few – and what characterises all these individuals is their ability to think outside of the box; they are all unique thinkers.
How much more can we practitioners achieve if we take the leap, dump the one-size-fits-all packaging and begin to think more creatively about how we approach supporting individuals with dyslexia.
Sonia Aboagye, a qualified speech and language therapist and teacher, is Development Director at Fairley House School:
Fairly House is a member of CReSTeD, a register of schools that help children with specific learning difficulties, including dyslexia. For further information about schools on the CReSTeD Register, visit:
Miles, T.R. and Miles, E. (1999) Dyslexia a Hundred Years On (Second edition), Buckingham, Open University Press.
Stackhouse, J. and Wells, B. (1997) Children’s Speech and Literacy Difficulties. A Psycholinguistic Framework. London, Whurr Publishers.