What is dyslexia?
Over 10 years ago (October 2007) the British Dyslexia Association Management Board approved the following definition of dyslexia:
“Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It is likely to be present at birth and to be life-long in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities.
The definition is deficit-based and it’s hard to see the individual within it.
In the summer of 2016, we went to London for an exhibition on colour at the Natural History Museum. The exhibition, though slightly disappointing, did serve to crystallise some of my thoughts on the nature of dyslexia.
My main takeaway was that insects, such as dragonflies have incredibly sophisticated, complex eye structures but very simple brains. In contrast, humans have fairly simple eye structures but highly complex brains, so complex that we are only just beginning to understand them. We ‘see’ with our mind’s eye, not really with our eyes at all.
The literal meaning of dyslexia is: ‘dys’: difficulty, ‘lexia’: with words. Most people might think of it as a difficulty with reading. Others still, think that letters move around, some that dyslexia does not exist at all. Whatever we call it, the difficulty, or difference exists.
Dyslexic people, unlike most people, can be thought of as processing language in the ‘mind’s eye’, which is where ‘thinking in pictures’ comes in. Dyslexic thinking typically mushrooms outwards instead of focusing in, this is the Big Picture style so often referred to. They have a tendency to see potential and possibility, not just what IS. The connections they make are circuitous and do not serve them well within the environment of formal education.
If you can begin to accept this, you might start to understand dyslexic thinking.
Why my interest in dyslexia?
My son was a very happy toddler. Robust, resilient and curious, he was into every cupboard in the house, every corner of the garden – took apart every toy. Early to walk, late to talk (around 3 years) but we had been told not to worry. He started school in Reception and I happily delivered him into the hands of the System.
It became apparent quite early on that he was not thriving, he couldn’t write his name and was not picking phonics up. The comparison to his classmates was painful when we went in class to help with the morning activity. He now remembers being kept in at break to learn phonics; watching his friends play outside.
I remember one parents’ evening where the teacher told us he had made all of our family names out of plasticine. At the same parents evening, she suggested that he go on the SEND register which we had never heard of before.
My journey to support my son and be informed has led to an MA SpLD (Specific Learning Difficulties) and a job that I love with a passion. It has been arduous but ultimately fulfilling and rewarding with lots of opportunities for self-discovery and to learn. My job teaching dyslexic children is, quite simply, the perfect job for me and I feel very lucky to have arrived here.
The field of dyslexia is fertile with campaigners and activists, many of them mothers, striving to raise awareness of this abstract difference.
What is it about dyslexia? Parents know that outside of school, their children are capable, curious and critical thinkers. Parents know first-hand the damage caused by negative experiences at school, where dyslexic strengths too often are not celebrated, where dyslexic difficulties go ignored until it is too late.
The first thing I do when teaching is to try to build self-esteem by aligning myself with the child’s perspective. Whilst it’s often said that no two people with dyslexia are the same, I find they have many similarities when it comes to teaching and learning. Moreover, my sessions are a bit like rehabilitation; reconstructing self-esteem, scaffolding until confidence as a learner is regained.
‘The lightbulb moment’ is much referred to in teaching. With dyslexic children, that lightbulb moment can have a blinding intensity. I cannot express their hunger to learn and the powerful impact of an interested, skilled adult that wants to understand their unique perspective.
Success breeds success and from small steps, significant progress can often be made, self-esteem grows and the child starts to understand how they need to learn and that they CAN learn.
So often at first, my learners will say, ‘I can’t remember’ and look apologetic. It seems their memory has let them down so often that they have learnt not to rely on it. Why? Under pressure and time constraints, dyslexic children will not be able to remember. Give them thinking time. Teach them how to remember and watch their confidence grow. The process can transform a child from a passive to an active learner.
The Alphabetic Principle, the fact that letters have names AND sounds generally needs to be taught to dyslexic learners explicitly and this is one of the key components of any structured programme. When practising letter sounds, it is very important that learners make ‘pure’ sounds i.e. that no additional vowel sound is made. I always include games and children enjoy this: mixing up letters, taking them away; close eyes and point to a letter.
After this, an hour’s session will typically include memory work, reading and spelling packs, handwriting practice, reading, revision of previous teaching point (a point of grammar or spelling) and discovery learning for the new teaching point. All sessions are multi-sensory and sequential.
Whilst overlearning is considered essential for dyslexics i.e. lots of practice doing the same thing, what interests me is finding creative ways to help the student learn and remember.
I ask a lot of questions, I teach, question and rephrase, repeat. I throw them lots of lines to catch: make it funny, tell a story, make up a character, give the history and etymology of language. Give them the semantics, meaning. Give them the WHY, they are very hungry for this. I give them visuals.
Dyslexia might be thought of as a sensory difficulty: eyes, ears and touch are involved in processing, naturally this impacts on attention and arousal. If a student is looking sleepy, I include activities that involve movement. If they seem over-active, I might ask them to stand to learn or engage in a sorting activity that will help them to focus.
I also ensure that, at times, the student is involved in something totally independent with no interference from myself and this is important. The rest of the time, I’m like a detective, looking for clues: how does this child need to learn?
I am a coach too: giving the child a belief in their ability, in their particular approach to learning and in their strengths. It’s very much about noticing the small parts that make the whole. In handwriting, I will focus on one join or letter shape and model it. I choose my favourite and so does the child – they begin to apply care and attention to all writing. I give LOTS of praise and encouragement and gradually the motivation starts to come from within.
Dame Alison Peacock:
‘If we foster recognition that difference enriches, rather than demanding conformity at all costs, we model a micro-society within schools that celebrates alternative thinking.’
Ask questions. Listen. Be explicit, be prepared to rephrase, be playful and encouraging, then stand back.