What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is not a new condition but it is still largely misunderstood. It is perceived as a learning disability, rather than simply a learning difference. Nor is dyslexia a measure of intelligence or competency. Research shows that it is an issue of how the brain is wired and how it processes written language. The level of a person’s dyslexia can vary on a scale from mild to severe. It is encouraging to know that there are some well known high achievers with dyslexia. However, while these success stories can represent a validation that dyslexia does not equate to intelligence, this does not necessarily reflect the typical life experience of people with dyslexia.
In reality, the impact on the life outcomes of people with dyslexia tend to be both negative and overlooked. Typically, people with dyslexia underachieve at school. They are more likely to end up in jail and leave school early with no qualifications. For the students with dyslexia who transition successfully into post-school life, it is most likely because they are supported by a family with sufficient social and financial capital – to be able to afford remedial tutoring while at school and/or, able to provide access to a job upon leaving school. Which suggests that while dyslexia does not discriminate between economic or social boundaries, its impact is felt most severely on the economically disadvantaged.
Does my child have dyslexia?
You will know if your child has dyslexia. To varying degrees, they will be struggling with reading, their writing will be illegible and their spelling will be atrocious. They will also be good at avoiding tasks that have a literacy component. This reality will belie how clever, engaging, articulate, curious, insightful or intelligent they are. Over the years I have met parents of children with dyslexia who recognise how they also displayed similar characteristics of dyslexia when they were at school. It takes one to know one, as they say.
If you are a parent of a child that displays the traits of dyslexia described in the previous paragraph, that is all you will need to know in order to do an assessment on your child. Of course there are diagnostic tests for determining whether a person has dyslexia. But unfortunately, they require an expert to implement, which means they are very expensive. A diagnostic test will give you an abundance of information about your child’s learning profile which may be interesting but is not essential. You may find that an official diagnosis will come as a relief and you will feel reassured to know that your child is not stupid. It may even empower you to find a solution. But in reality, an official diagnosis does not provide you with a solution or a way forward. So, what do you do if you think your child has dyslexia? Read on.
Dealing with dyslexia: 1. what are you up against?
As I have already indicated, statistics show that there are serious consequences of failing to address the needs of children with dyslexia. And as you have probably deduced by now, schools are not dyslexia friendly environments. I have argued consistently on this site that schools are failing many students, but students with dyslexia feel the impact of that failure even more acutely.
The prevailing teaching and assessment methods used in schools are 1. far from optimal and 2. heavily weighted towards a relatively narrow group of neuro-typical learners. I advocate for implementing a teaching and learning environment that works effectively for all students equally. And if we are serious about achieving that goal, teachers will need to change their teaching practice. It may seem obvious to point this out but, students with dyslexia have no control over the way their brains learn but in contrast, teachers do have control over the way they teach.
And while it is encouraging to see the attempts to upgrade the current remedial reading programmes, I believe that effective and sustainable change will only come when every classroom teacher is delivering a literacy programme that enables every student to develop to their fullest potential. I got to witness what that kind of success could look like in a classroom setting but at the same time I got to witness the resistance that comes with attempting to make the necessary shifts in teaching practice to achieve it.
Based on personal experience, it is easy for me to describe how a student with a learning difference like dyslexia could end up on the dust heap of social statistics. If you take a bright, articulate student and ply them with content that does not develop their learning strengths or support their learning weaknesses, it can be a recipe for disengagement and non-compliant behaviours. In this scenario, the student starts to believe they are stupid. I still remember the day, the moment, in my sixth year of school, that I started believing I was bad at maths.
And of course, this message doesn’t need to be made explicit by the teacher. A student with dyslexia will be in the bottom reading group or be kept behind during breaks to finish incomplete written work. It is at this point that the student enters the downward spiral. This is the point in which failure to cater appropriately to the learning difference from the earliest stages evolves into issues of behaviour – avoidance of demand, I would suggest. This takes a variety of forms such as the student starting to disengage with school and being “non-compliant” or the school steering the student into less demanding subjects.
In this scenario, the student’s poor behaviour starts to become the focus of the problem. Resources are poured into managing the behaviour. The onus to resolve it is put onto the student – the person with the least power in the teacher/student relationship. Meanwhile, the best solution is being ignored. Instead of focusing on the failure of the student, the focus needs to be put on the teaching and learning programme that allows this scenario to be created. This could be avoided by making small tweaks to the teaching and learning programmes on offer plus having a much better understanding of the science of behaviour.
Dealing with dyslexia (2) – practical steps
So, you have come to the conclusion that 1. your child is struggling at school due to some kind of learning difficulty and 2. your child’s school is unable to cater to their learning needs. What do you do now? Of course, knowing about the issue and acknowledging it, is an important start. And the earlier the better. It will mean you will have more chance of avoiding that dreaded downward spiral in which a child’s negative sense of their ability begins to have a negative impact on their behaviour and their social and emotional wellbeing. At this stage it would also be useful for you to develop an informed understanding of what an effective education should look like for your child. This process may encourage and support you to remove the shackles of what a perceived “good” education looks like. In doing so, it may also allow you to manage your child’s schooling experience more effectively and gain some autonomy.
Of course, finding an experienced literacy tutor who can guide your child through the reading and writing process in an engaging and supportive way will also be an important next step. In a future post, I will describe what you should be looking for when choosing a literacy tutor for your child.
Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.