Unravelling Dyslexia #dyslexiaawarenessweek
Unravelling Dyslexia; How can we get better at supporting dyslexic children?
Are you a parent with a dyslexic child?
10% of the population in the UK are dyslexic (British Dyslexia Association, 2018 ). This represents 3 or 4 children in every state school classroom.
If you’re a parent with a dyslexic child, you may have become concerned and sought a diagnosis, but you will probably know that this is not the end of the journey for you or your child. I have worked with hundreds of parents frustrated that a diagnosis doesn’t really seem to have made much of a difference. The child has a diagnosis of dyslexia, the teacher(s) knows and seems supportive, possibly there’s even been some school intervention put in place but somehow it just doesn’t seem personalised enough and, crucially, it isn’t working.
Dyslexia can affect people of all intellectual abilities, so your child’s dyslexia may not even be deemed severe enough to warrant support in school, this is especially frustrating for the very many bright children who are not able to properly achieve their potential because of ‘mild’ dyslexia that others cannot see.
Parents of children with dyslexia know that, if left, it not only hinders academic progress, even though a child often has a high underlying intellectual ability, but also can impact confidence and damage self-esteem. There are now counsellors available who solely work with children who have dyslexia. So why are we not better at helping children with dyslexia?
Shouldn’t teachers be doing more?
The trouble is that many teachers haven’t received relevant training, and it isn’t their fault. It is shocking that most trainee teachers receive the equivalent of a day of specific training for children with special educational needs – that’s to cover all needs too, so dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism to mention just a few. This is leaving our teachers woefully unequipped to meet the needs of the most vulnerable learners in their classrooms. Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCos) in schools across the country are now tasked with ensuring that teachers in their schools are trained and understand the needs of the children in their classrooms. There is undoubtedly some brilliant work going on across our UK schools but it is not consistent and often it is still hampered by extremely limited time for training on top of large workloads for both the SENCo and the teacher.
Why is it so difficult though?
The problem with dyslexia is that it presents in many forms. What many people think of when they hear the word dyslexia, is difficulty with word reading and spelling - you probably will have heard it described that words ‘dance’ or move for the reader. This is the case for some dyslexics but not for all.
In fact, there are many dyslexics who can read text with no problem at all but cannot process verbal information without additional support. Imagine being in a classroom where a teacher is explaining a set of instructions verbally and you simply cannot compute the information. What happens next is that you become stuck on the instructions or initial explanation and then unable to access the subsequent learning. How often in real life do people provide additional visual clues to help decode important information? Not often, yet this is what you need if you are in a classroom struggling with verbal processing.
Weak working memory can be another aspect of dyslexia, especially if information is delivered only verbally in the first place. So, you may be able to read ok, even to process verbal information quickly enough, but then you can’t remember what you read or understood the next time you have a lesson. Not unless you are provided with specific cues or ‘memory tags’ to help you remember.
Dyslexia is complex, so the explanation above doesn’t cover everything that dyslexics may have to cope with, but it gives an overview - it’s also worth remembering that dyslexia is best thought of as a continuum, so you could struggle with one aspect of it in a mild form, or all of them, acutely.
Personalised understanding and specific strategies
So, what do parents, teachers and SENCos need to do to understand and help a dyslexic child effectively?
First, we need to lift the lid on the individual’s dyslexic needs – just like a doctor needs to diagnose an illness to treat it, we must understand the specific need and experiment with only relevant strategies. How do we do this?
Work with the school and the child to establish specific difficulties:
o Talk to the child’s teachers: What do they notice about where specifically the child struggles? Can the SENCo do a targeted observation of the child?
o Talk to the child: Can they explain what they find difficult specifically?
o Interpret the diagnosis. What does the original diagnosis report say? Is it a diagnosis report from a specialist or from an online screening test? Does it point to the specific aspects of difficulty? Does it include any specific recommendations? An assessment from an Educational Psychologist can provide a more specific diagnosis and overview of an individual’s need. These are expensive to requisition privately but can be worthwhile if the needs are very acute or nuanced.
Focus on devising strategies to meet the specific needs while working collaboratively with school:
o If the problem is with fluent word reading; younger children may need help with learning to read in the first place and need a specific, often phonological, approach. For older children who can read, there are strategies that can help, such as using an underlay to isolate individual words or lines of text. In some cases, an optometrist can help by providing special tinted glasses.
o For spelling, there are a range of strategies. A phonics approach is often recommended, but for older children if phonics hasn’t already worked for them already, it’s probably not going to, and they need a different method. There are a range of strategies that can be tried, for example techniques derived from neurolinguistic programming (NLP) can be very successful.
o If the child is struggling with understanding written or verbal information, ask for pictures to be used in lessons to support new concepts or subject specific vocabulary. For example, if the teacher can provide a vocabulary list, you could spend some time at home with your child creating visuals to help them understand and remember these words.
o If the child is struggling with understanding verbal instructions in the classroom, ask for a ‘visual timetable’ to be written on the board or on a post-it note which can be given to the child.
o Encourage metacognition – if you find strategies that work for your child, for example, using a particular mind map - then encourage your child to use them repeatedly. This develops their understanding of their own needs and develops independence over time.