Dyslexia: background part one

abc books chalk chalkboard
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In today’s classrooms, children have to ‘read to learn’. Children who cannot read are ‘effectively disenfranchised’ (Department for Education, 2013:13). In the span of civilisation, however, mass literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Written communication began with a picture or sign to represent something and alphabetic writing came last (Clayton, 2013). The English language has a ‘deep’ orthography – it is phonologically opaque with an inconsistent grapheme-phoneme correspondence, which may exacerbate the difficulties faced by struggling readers (Malatesha & Aaron, 2006). Other languages such as Finnish have a transparent orthography with a one-to-one direct grapheme-phoneme correspondence.

Whilst language and literacy are linked, supporters of linguistic nativism (Chomsky, 1975) believe humans are born with the ability to speak. Perhaps not all humans are born with the ability to link speech sounds to their written representation? This seems to be the case with dys (difficulty), lexis (language), (Ott, 1997). Moreover, it would seem that dyslexia is as much a speech and language difficulty as one of reading and writing (Snowling, 2000b). Children may struggle to retrieve new words in speech and to sequence and articulate them. It seems that where dyslexic children are reading, they still struggle to spell and get their thoughts on paper.

Within the field of dyslexia, experts rarely agree (Elliot &Grigorenko , 2014). Whilst this makes for a lively debate, it is inhibiting research and understanding of the difference. It is a dynamic area of study, probably due to the fact that there have been many advances in the area of brain-based research. Within the field, the same issues are thrashed out: the relevance of IQ (Siegel, 1992), the importance of phonology (is this cause or effect?) (Nicholson and Fawcett, 2008) and whether dyslexia should even have a separate category within the field of reading difficulties (Elliot and Grigorenko, 2014).

Controversially, Elliot and Grigorenko (2014) would suggest not. In their book, they argue that because experts disagree on the cause of dyslexia, the term should be dispensed with. Ramus responded in an article (2014:3371) arguing that dyslexia is a ‘specific cognitive disorder’, he concluded that where a child does not respond to early intervention, dyslexia should be considered.

In support of this, dyslexia is largely constitutional in origin, there is a neurological difference, though the exact detail is not known. Within the left hemisphere of the brain, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are thought to be involved in language comprehension and processing. In non-dyslexics, these areas are larger than on the right. However, dyslexic post-mortem brains showed a symmetry, (Geschwind and Levistky, 1968). A study by Paulescu et al (1996) suggested a disconnection between the two hemispheres.

In dyslexic brains when reading, there is under-activiation in the left hemisphere and over-activation in the right (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 1998), known as ‘the neural signature for dyslexia’ (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2008:1336). With the rise of the ‘read to learn’ style of classroom, dyslexic children are placed under considerable stress as they struggle to learn to read and to ‘read to learn’. This may not be helped by the fast pace of phonics programmes such as Letters and Sounds. Intervention is often left too late because of the ‘wait and see’ approach.

What Rose (2009:44) suggests is early, tailored intervention to reflect ‘individual language needs’. However, practitioners tend to wait to see if what can be developmental differences (learning alphabetic code, discrimination of phonics sounds), correct themselves over time. Assessment is important both to screen for the difficulty but also to provide a thorough profile of the learner, with strengths, weaknesses, an understanding of environmental factors (at school and home) and behavioural challenges.

What is the medical background of the learner? eg glue ear can affect the processing of speech sounds. Developmental information, such as when a child walked or talked is useful, did they crawl? (Nicholson & Fawcett, 2008). This information helps to build a profile. Each case is unique in the complex tapestry of dyslexia. The environment has an impact on dyslexia (Morton and Frith, 1995), and the brain is highly plastic throughout life. With the correct intervention, dyslexia can be alleviated, without it, symptoms will be exacerbated and this impacts hugely on self-esteem, (Burden, 2008, Humphrey, 2002). Early assessment and specific, evidence-based intervention is crucial before affective issues, including behavior, become a barrier to learning.

Assessment of dyslexia is problematic because the exact cause is unclear and scientists cannot agree. Working in the field, one gets a ‘feel’ for dyslexia and how it is different to other learning difficulties. It is hard to pin down. An early pioneer, psychologist Tim Miles, (2006) wrote about the specific symptoms shown by children (poor spelling, lack of phonemic awareness, sequencing difficulties, difficulties with consonant clusters) who had been referred to him for emotional issues. This led to his awareness of dyslexia (which he called an aphasia) and to the first dyslexia screening tool in the UK, the Bangor Assessment Test.

The test was designed from the behaviours shown (b/d and left/right confusion), more recent tests strive to be scientific, addressing underlying causation and cognitive processes. Before we can assess for dyslexia, it is important to get some idea of what defines the difficulty. Teachers and other practitioners need guidance to identify it.

For years, the Discrepancy definition ruled (Nicolson, 1996). It is easy to understand and for teachers to identify i.e. a pupil who seems bright in other areas, who is struggling to learn to read. To some extent, this will still be used as an indicator in schools. More accurately, the sort of discrepancies to look for may be a discrepancy between oral ability and written work (Rose, 2009), reading comprehension and decoding (Phillips et al., 2013). Nicolson and Fawcett also argue that their postural stability test does differentiate between poor and dyslexic readers (Fawcett, Nicolson, & Maclagan, 2001).

One of the first official definitions (World Federation of Neurology, 1968), indicated that all other factors should be ruled out before dyslexia could be identified i.e. an Exclusionary definition. In line with the Discrepancy Theory, it too mentions intelligence as a factor and the social background of the individual. The impact of this kind of definition might be lots of children from lower social groups with seemingly low IQ who are dyslexic and escape diagnosis. The theory of ‘adequate intelligence’ was reiterated in a 1994 definition by the International Dyslexia Research Committee some years later, which suggested that difficulties (in single word decoding) were unexpected in relation to a pupil’s other abilities (Lyon, 1994). This theory went unchallenged for some time.

Snowling (2000a) makes some important contributions to the Discrepancy Theory, pointing out that some dyslexic children struggle more with writing and spelling than reading and also that children who do not practice reading (and these may come from higher social groups) might show a discrepancy but not be dyslexic. Badian (1994: 45), found that one could distinguish between dyslexic and poor readers, specifically in the areas of ‘automatic visual recognition and ‘phonological decoding of graphic stimuli’. IQ is very hard to measure and there are now lots of theories about intelligence, Gardner (1983, 2006) being one. Does one have to be intelligent to learn to read? Research would suggest not (Allor et al, 2014).

In the 50s, Miles was presented with children because of their emotional and behavioural issues, he discovered their difficulties were educational. Here we have one of the biggest challenges in dyslexia: a condition that is medical in origin but educational in treatment (Miles and Miles, 1990). Sometimes, children withdraw their intellect (Holt, 1964), known as learned helplessness, they can’t succeed and stop trying (Burden, 2008).Social background and the environment in school (Morton & Frith, 1995), can have a massive impact on learning and one must be mindful of this in assessment. Within the framework of Morton and Frith’s environment framework, come physical, social, cultural and dietary factors. Taking the environment into account and understanding that the brain is highly plastic (able to change) helps to explain the many different presentations of dyslexia.

Dyslexia should also be considered in English as Additional Language children who struggle with literacy, one cannot assume any difficulties are simply to do with the acquisition of an additional language (Deponio et al, 2000). One 1994 definition (Lyon, 1994), mentioned cognition and later definitions focus on differences in cognitive processing and are more descriptive, giving teachers and support staff better guidance on what to look for. A 2001 description (Peer 2001:3) mentions slow processing, short-term memory, visual and auditory difficulties and sequencing as some of the difficulties. It says the difficulties might include ‘alphabetic, numeric and musical notation’. This definition says of these children ‘All have strengths’ – a good assessment should indicate what those strengths are. This is helpful for the child, their parents and teacher.

Dyslexia is a ‘different learning ability’ (Pollock and Waller, 2004), with many students compensating through excellent oral skills, creativity and imagination. Through an assessment these strengths can be brought to the fore and weaknesses can be supported, raising achievement. The current definition of dyslexia adopted by the British Dyslexia Association is one based on the Rose Report (2009), which introduced the idea that dyslexia is a continuum with no cut off point. In line with current theory, it also mentions difficulties in phonological awareness and the need for specific intervention. The BDA made an addition in 2011, which acknowledged visual processing difficulties, although there is some contention around this.

Dyslexia + maths = no problem (10 tips)

number heart

There are LOTs of ways to help dyslexic students become not just okay at maths but great mathematicians. Here are a few suggestions and I’m sure you’ll find some of your own!

Always be explicit eg we have place value because there are only 10 symbols for number. Place value – whereby a number’s POSITION conveys its value – is key.

In addition to this, use and make maths dictionaries and provide cribsheets so that students can practise the language and processes of maths to build automaticity.


  1. An obvious one! Use concrete manipulatives. I am not averse to using fingers but this should not be for counting in ones but number bonds and doubles!manipulatives

2.  Give the students something to hold to orient thems2lves eg on a 100 square, a clock, number lines, perimeter.



3. Don’t assume the issue is with knowledge when it could be language eg confusing ‘ty’ and ‘teen’ numbers is an issue with word finding and naming rather than understanding what the numbers means.

Tell your learners to look at place value and think of meaning before naming. Where there are no units, the place is empTY from 13 – 19 are the TEENage years.


4. Use different coloured pens for place value, drawing graphs and division – any aspect of maths where students are confused by the whole and need to ‘see’ the parts.


5. Use real, concrete objects. This was for mixed fractions to explain how parts make up a whole in the same ratio.


6. Explain the language using pictures.


7. Explain the language using etymology eg perimeter means ‘peri’ around, ‘metron’ measure.

8. Work on number reversals. Whilst a student is still making reversals this is creating additonal cognitive load.


9. Use plastic numbers, this will enable them to focus on the concept, without the cognitive load of writing and laying out information on the page, which can be exhausting and undermines their learning.


10. Encourage use of the mind’s eye or imagination.

Eg if they have used fingers before, then encourage them to visualise the fingers. Where numbers are added, imagine the units dropping into the empty units.


Lollygagger or learning difference??

six assorted color lollipops
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How do schools create ‘lollygaggers’?

Teacher and TA dynamics


I was pretty disheartened by a post from Ben Newmark, expressing frustration at the ‘lollygaggers’ in his classroom, the needy children with ‘learned helplessness’.

Apparently, his most read post.

What is particularly worrying is the level of ignorance displayed by some teachers; the lack of understanding around the child’s previous journey through education, and what low working memory or processing difficulties look like.

It seems to me that the teacher and TA dynamic is a key theme here. Unless this relationship works, it is likely to impact negatively on outcomes for children and on staff wellbeing. Interventions outside of the classroom may be successful but the child may then go back into class and not transfer what they have learned. It is vital that these skills are embedded and this requires communication.

There has been a world movement in education toward accountability and performability at governmental level, by imposing tests, targets and data collection without detailed consultation with the profession, as follows (Hancock and Eyres, 2004):

  • 1988 National Curriculum introduced
  • 1991 Standardised Assessment tests (SATs) and use of published league tables of school performance in 1992.
  • 1992 OFSTED formed
  • 1998 NLS National Literacy Strategy
  • 1999 NNS National Numeracy Strategy

The role of the TA has changed considerably and there has been a significant increase in numbers employed in mainstream schools in England in the last 15 years (Department for Education and Skills, 2005). The majority of TAs are female; 92 percent compared with 74 percent of teachers. Blatchford, Russell and Webster (2012) give two reasons for the rise in TA numbers:

  • Concern over teacher workload and retention leading to the National Agreement.
  • Increased role for TAs in supporting SEN students. (pg4)

The high numbers of TAs working with students with SEND led to research in their effectiveness, led by Peter Blatchford. The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project (DISS) (Blatchford et. al. 2009a and 2009b) raising serious questions about how TAs are deployed. It is argued that it is decisions about rather than by TAs which might be inhibiting their effectiveness (Blatchford et. al. 2010).

In the teachers’ standards, TAs are barely mentioned, merely stating that it is a teacher’s responsibility to:

‘deploy support staff effectively’. (DfE, 2011 p.13.

The professional standards for TAs (Unison et al, 2016) states that:

The primary role of the TA should be to work with teachers to raise the learning and attainment of pupils while also promoting their independence, self-esteem and social inclusion’ (Unison et al, 2016 p5).

This suggests that there are inconsistencies, with the government suggesting a ‘leadership and management’ role for teachers, rather than collaboration as suggested by the National Agreement (Howes, 2003 p.148).

Suggestions for creating more collaborative practices between teachers and TA’s could be less effective if:

‘they leave untouched relations of power that positions TAs in a subordinate role to teachers’, (Trent, 2015 p29).

In a recent study, Griffiths and Kelly (2018), TAs were encouraged to reflect upon the specialist dyslexia training they had received and the impact on their settings. In particular, they reflected on the impact of their status as an ‘expert’ upon: school policies, culture and practice. ‘Enabling’ (positive moderators) and ‘blocking’ (negative) factors were identified. The study found that communication was an issue with:

‘…little opportunity taken by class teachers to follow up the work done by the specialist TA in most cases’ (p352).

It seems then that difficulties in communication between teachers and TAs may be hindering the learning process and that hierarchical factors may be at play.

85 percent of TAs work part time, compared to 23 percent of Teachers and this may also have an impact on communication, as there may be less consistency.

Moreover, in additional to poor communication, there may be deeper, ideological issues at play which Griffiths and Kelly dub ‘the paradox of the expert’ (p. 354). This is not the first time this concept has been raised. Bell (2013) suggested that the specialist practitioner is often perceived as expert and ‘other’, taking a Foucauldian approach, he suggests that special education is viewed as a field for experts or specialists, perhaps because areas of it are so highly medicalised.

Thomas (2009) notes that mainstream teachers may be made to feel that they:

‘…may not be sufficiently knowledgeable or sufficiently expert to help children who are experiencing difficulty: that they do not have sufficient technical expertise or theoretical knowledge to teach all children. (2009, p.21)

This may help to explain why teachers seemed less involved with students with SEND in the DISS study into TA effectiveness (2009). The results from this study suggested that TAs were not effective. However, certain circumstances make it hard for TAs to be effective. Collaboration seems key.

Some key issues:

  • There is a myopic emphasis in Primary on ‘Greater Depth’ children, as if the SATs were an end to a child’s learning journey.
  • Practitioners will not identify children ‘at risk’ of failure in the Early Years.
  • Many children are left to struggle, clinging to one to one support to stay afloat.
  • By KS2, teachers feel powerless because the child is so far behind.
  • By KS3 teachers expect a level of independence, have no learning support and, in some instances, blame the child.
  • By KS3 the amount of auditory information/ direct instruction increases, whilst working memory capacity may have developed, many CYP will not have learned strategies and are disaffected – becoming ‘helpless’.


As one individual put it: I have missed the bus and will never catch up.

Who creates ‘learned helplessness’ in the classroom?

Seeing things differently



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.

  • A different way of seeing

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.


  • A different way of seeing and thinking


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 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.


  • How do I do this?

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.

Twitter: @thinkpix_suze



Dyslexia and a flat earth



Yesterday, I made the trip to London to the IOE for the dyslexia ‘debate’. At the end of last year, there was a furore in the House of Lords after Warwickshire Council had declared that a dyslexia diagnosis was ‘scientifically questionnable’.

I was hoping for an interesting debate and that I might learn something. The debate hinged around whether the label of dyslexia should be dispensed with.

Sadly, the event was disappointing. I did not learn anything and there was no debate.

The event kicked off with Jules Daulby, who was pro-label on the grounds of needing to be equitable. Next, came Julian Elliot who clearly relished being on stage and filled it like a pantomime baddy; sneering at the BDA and poking a stick at ‘so-called’ dyslexia who hadn’t had a robust defence. The word bully comes to mind.

Several claims were made which were inaccurate, one that the word dyslexia came first and then a set of characteristics to fit.

Fact: Dyslexia was ‘discovered’ by psychologists, presented with children with ’emotional difficulties’, they found these children had shared characteristics. If you want to learn more about the history, read Tim Miles: 50 years in Dyslexia Research.

Perhaps the problem is with SCIENCE after all and not dyslexia. Taking only a positivist stance: if I can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist – what evidence are we missing before our eyes. In measuring the small parts, how are we missing the big picture? Perhaps a more relativist approach is needed.

We all know that dyslexia is present in EVERY classroom. Do I think that money should be spent on costly assessments and support? Well, no – avoid this with early identification and intervention.

After Elliot came Jonathan Solity – who I hadn’t realised was at the heart of proceedings at Warwickshire. Again, I learnt nothing as I had seen the same presentation in the summer at the UCL. He did add some new buzz words: Direct Instruction, interleaving and spaced practice most notibly. It seemed ironic to me that after damning the ‘dyslexia industry’, this and what followed was essentially a plug for Solity’s services. Daulby also referenced a commercially available service.

The essence of Solity’s approach can easily be followed by schools:

  • teach fewer phonemes
  • practise High Frequency Words
  • do not stick slavishly to book bands, use picture books.

Finally, we had the team from the council. They presented data to support their stance on dyslexia (treat all children with reading failure the same and do not acknowledge the ‘label’). Dyslexia, throughout, was framed as a ‘reading failure’ only. The message: assess children and address the needs of all under-performing readers. Again, no argument with that.

The reading intervention was based around the procedural aspects of reading: fluency and word level. It did not look at comprehension. One of the tools used was the Salford which I have been advised against as the standardisation of this is too narrow, rendering it inaccurate.

I’m afraid that what Warwickshire Council proposes is not enough to support all dyslexic learners. The word ‘spelling’ kept being tagged on to the end of statements but there was no talk of spelling support or evidence of it.

As we know, the picture of dylsexia in the classroom is much broader than reading difficulties alone and schools that teach reading and phonics effectively, with a reading for pleasure ethos, will find their dylsexic children are reading! They still can’t spell or write though and will have difficulty in aspects of maths.

Elliott distilled dylsexia research into 3 (negative) quotes, in what was overall an outrageous display of propaganda, to a receptive audience. I was surprised at the vitriol.

Science has made a mess of dyslexia, medicalising and pathologising it. And now suggesting it doesn’t exist. Perhaps time to give it back to the teaching profession and ensure that teachers are supported with the knowledge and skills they need. Key for me is the Morton and Frith framework – consider how the environment impacts on dyslexia – it is highly receptive to the right intervention and support, if addressed early.

Maybe one day we can dispense with the label, but this will be when there are no signs of dyslexia in the classroom.


We are not there yet.



Where do we go from here? dyslexia


On the 31/1/19 there will be a discussion about dyslexia at the IoE involving some eminent people in the field: ‘Dyslexia diagnosis, scientific understandings and belief in a flat earth.’

This follows a statement last year from Warwickshire and Staffordshire County Council that a dyslexia diagnosis is ‘scientifically questionable’, with other schools now saying that dyslexia ‘doesn’t exist’…some schools have been saying this for a while.

Where do we go from here?

Perhaps the answer lies with greater teacher agency and autonomy. Too long undermined, perhaps it’s time that teachers be acknowledged as the experts and given the training, status and permission to act.

This is why I so strongly support Alison Peacock and her work with the Chartered College; raising the status of the profession and giving teachers a voice allowing them to have high expectations for all pupils.

I feel there needs to be a focus on how accountability measures are impacting on teachers’ daily practice. What are teachers feeling and experiencing and how can they be better supported moving forwards? It is clear that to better support dyslexia:

  • Teachers need more practical guidance in firstly identifying, and in particular, supporting learners with dyslexia and other SEND during teacher training.
  • They need greater knowledge of dyslexia and grounding in theory, offered at the training stage which can provide teacher agency.
  • Schools need to have explicit conversations around dyslexia and address any ideological differences amongst staff before any additional training can have a whole school impact.
  • They need policies which identify and support ‘at risk’ children early, as suggested by research.
  • They need to be given permission to innovate (connected to teacher agency) and to have high expectations for every individual. Dyslexic learners may need a variety of approaches, especially visual ones, they will benefit from personalised approaches.
  • Teachers and TAs need to collaborate and build trust to ensure that children practise new or ongoing skills and transfer them into the classroom. This may involve effective learning strategies, pupils MUST become responsible for their own learning, facilitated by the teacher.
  • Parents and educators need to collaborate, supporting each other and the child, sharing knowledge and experiences. How to do this might be something that can also be addressed in teacher training.

I am driven by a desire to experience, to know and understand the plight faced by teachers that can result in dyslexic children being not just overlooked in classrooms, but sometimes treated in a way which undermines their human rights.

My journey is fuelled by hope, not despair.

Rebecca Solnit explains the nature of hope, which is:

‘to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety’ (2016, p.4).

Analysing spellings: metacognition


Whilst there are many creative approaches to teaching, spelling has not benefited from this in the past.

How has spelling been taught historically in your school?

Typically, spelling is not taught at all but delivered as lists, sent home to ‘look, cover, write and check’ and to be tested at the end of the week. Students who cannot spell exciting vocabulary will not use it in their writing. Difficulties with spelling will slow down the writing process and increase the cognitive load faced by struggling writers who often have amazing ideas.

Why do we need to analyse spelling errors?

Whilst a student may get 10/10 in a weekly spelling test, their free writing may tell a different story.​
In starting to analyse their spelling errors, you can encourage them to monitor their own spelling mistakes.​
The aim is confident spellers, with a repertoire of strategies, who use a range of ambitious vocabulary.​
This can be a better approach for struggling spellers who may make little progress on phonics-based intervention programmes. ​

A note on High Frequency or ‘tricky’ words and why children can’t spell them:

From Reception, children are taught that certain words are tricky, almost as if there were no pattern or link to phonics at all, nonsensical even difficult. These are described as ‘look, say’ words and flash cards are used, even where these words follow phonic patterns , such as the split digraph word ‘like’.

Children tend to spell these words incorrectly from the start (beacuse they are not encouraged to analyse them) and are allowed to build a motor memory of these words until by KS2 these mispellings become deeply entrenched.


Types of spelling error:

Semantics and homophones e.g. there, their, they’re.​
High Frequency Words: whent, becuse
Orthographic/morphological e.g. slipt for slipped, happyness (affixes)​
Reasonable phonic alternatives e.g. teecher, sed​
Transposition (mixing up letters) or articulation e.g. callde, moth for month. ​
Letter reversals and directionality e.g. bad for dad, was for saw.​
Additions e.g. frome.​
Omissions e.g. mouten – mountain (see also articulation).


In starting to analyse your students’ spellings and helping them to analyse and manage their spelling, you are both building metacognitive strategies. Without this, students feel that spelling is random and arbitrary.


Contact me for whole school spelling training.


Assess to progress



Assessment creates a lot of debate, with strong opposition to the testing of Reception children and one headline declaring: ‘Testing has become like crack cocaine to the government’. Is there a difference between an assessment and a test?

The word ‘assessturned up in English about 550 years ago. It came to English from Old French and before that, from Latin. The English association between ‘tax’ and the word ‘assess’ reflects the meaning that the late Latin parent word held. But this Latin word was built on earlier roots.

Believe it or not the words sizeassize, and assess all run back to a word root meaning “sit.”

A test or quiz measures what someone knows, or has learned. An assessment is the process of documenting knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs, usually in measurable terms. The goal of assessment is to make improvements, as opposed to simply being judged. Assessment tools or batteries have been standardised on large samples to establish an average performance, this creates a bell-shaped curve of distribution of scores, with average in the centre and less common scores at either end. Many practitioners are now exploring dynamic assessment which explores what an individual might be capable of with a little support.

I like the etymology of the word ‘assess’, my job as an assessor is ‘to sit’, I am not fond of online assessments for this reason. Sitting is not done passively. Instead, I am trying to get inside the mind of the person being assessed. For me, assessment is so much more than administering a list of test batteries. I am weaving a tapestry, what are the threads? Where is the individual performing, compared to an average, what are their underlying abilities and what are their barriers to achievement? What clues can I get by drawing them out in conversation and by close observation: how they sit, hold the pen, move and think. What errors are they making and what does it tell us? What were their thought processes.

When carrying out an assessment, it is important to consider the story, the individual’s narrative. This helps us to begin to understand their experience of learning. Without conducting assessments, one can only guess from outward behaviours. Often, behaviours are misleading and assumptions are inaccurate.

A good example might be a pupil with poor handwriting who cannot produce enough work. How might this look to a teacher? Chances are, this pupil is perceived as someone who needs to make more effort, who perhaps is inherently lazy, disorganised and underachieving as a result.

By assessing processing speed, working memory and handwriting speed, one can appreciate the actual challenges the pupil might face and begin to support them better. Crucially, the Equality Act protects such individuals, ensuring that where certain scores are below average (i.e. below Standard Score 85), access arrangements are essential. Access arrangements exist so that the exams are fair for all pupils, without changing the exam itself.

Before choosing any test battery, it’s important to consider:

  • Are the test norms relevant, does it provide a suitable benchmark for the individual being assessed?
  • Is it reliable? (age of the test comes into this).
  • Is it valid, does it measure the skill we want to investigate?

Moreover, an assessment may also reveal strengths such as comprehension, visual memory, non-verbal reasoning or receptive vocabulary. These potential strengths can be used to support the learner.

Think carefully because assessment materials are a substantial investment!

I love doing assessments, I enjoy looking for the fine detail, being a learning detective. They are not about making judgements but about empowering the individual and helping them to understand their challenges and strengths. Yes, this leads to the current Holy Grail: an understanding of how one learns, metacognition. Through recommendations, one can provide a way forward and offer new strategies.

Invest in some assessment materials today.

Think dyslexia? Thinkpix

10 ideas for using visuals with dyslexic learners:


  1. As a reminder to use oral rehearsal and to EDIT!


2.    To provide narrative which helps information to stick.

eg It is crucial that students know all the vowels and that they make 2 sounds: long and short/ weak and strong. Vowels are integral to many spelling patterns and create syllables.


3.    Try integrating pictures with phonic sounds – especially the tricky digraphs and trigraphs. A visual as well as auditory clue means the sound is better remembered.


4.  Dreaded homophones – visual clues can help!

HFW homophones

5.   Sentence types can seem very abstract, provide a visual to aide recall and make the concept more concrete!




6. Students may be able to segment syllables but not be able to sequence and recall multisyllabic words, picturing or drawing the word can help…any ideas?

Abominable of course!


7.   Try mindmapping prefixes or suffixes:


8.  Make a word itself into a picture, teach spelling patterns too eg in cried, the y cry changes to i and past tense ‘ed’ is added:


9.  To teach points of grammar: which is the object and which the subject here, is there more than one subject?


10.  Visuals are not just for literacy but work well in maths too; in explaining abstract language and aiding memory. What is the ‘operation’?


Play around with visuals and have fun. You don’t have to be great at drawing, encouraging the child to draw will help them to build supporting strategies too.

Dyslexia: KS2 support

HFW homophones

As a Key Stage Two teacher, it can feel like dyslexia is immutable i.e. unchangeable. This is especially true when the child has not been given any strategies, it is much easier to support dyslexia in EYFS or Key Stage One because their needs are more in line with  teaching.

It might feel like there is such a massive mountain to climb, that you do not know where to start. By Key Stage Two, those incorrect spelling patterns have become embedded and dyslexic children tend only to use phonics as a strategy, unless taught otherwise.

My belief is always that a class teacher can have a powerful impact. Start by focusing on something small and persist. The key is to involve the student in metacognition: thinking about thinking – why did you choose that particular spelling? What were you thinking when…

They will need to practice the same procedural skills: handwriting, spelling (see Nicolson and Fawcett) for longer than other children; give them lots of praise and see them shine.

Spelling, I feel, is the key to writing for dyslexic children. Studies show that whilst they may have a broad vocabulary and good understanding, they will limit writing to what they can spell (or what they think they can spell!).

If letter formation is very poor and productivity unusually low, it could be that letter formation is not automatic ie has not gone into long term memory. If this is the case, see the witing 8 demo:

Writing 8

Top Ten Tips:

1) Start by focusing on High Frequency Words, use the words which are active in their writing, rather than working systematically through the lists. Where there are phonics patterns, teach those. Otherwise, make up stories and draw pictures e.g. would, could and should – o, u, lucky, duck or even better ask the child to make one up (o, u, lovely, dancer).

Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 09.32.49

Have the child engage with these target words and self-check their work during editing time.

2) Look for patterns/analyse spelling errors: do they transpose letters e.g.alos for also (I think they get scrambled in working memory, or perhaps a weakness in visual recall). Do they confuse particular sounds? /f/ and /th/ or /c/ and /g/ if so, draw attention to these sounds by showing the child in a mirror or by feeling the throat. Do they miss syllables out? Again have them feel the movement of the jaw, a vowel creates a syllable. Syllable division shown here, the division is made where the vowel is long (open):

Cut up words

3) Teach spelling ‘rules’ – whilst there are often exceptions, students are relieved to find that there are general rules which work MOST of the time! Teach the split digraph rule properly – one of the biggest mistakes I see is ‘e’ on words where there shouldn’t be one but NEVER on the split digraph words!


4) As with vocabulary, teach affixes and root words, also etymology (history of words), spelling is about meaning more than sounds.

root process

5) Try and give them regular dictation so that a layer of processing is removed – this way they don’t have to compose writing, but have to remember it (the phonological loop) and then focus on spelling.

6) Give them cloze sentences where they only have to insert a word and then perhaps copy the sentence out.

7) Give them writing frames, support for writing: again this reduces the amount of processing and allows them to absorb the language and structure of sentences.

8) Give them plenty of oral rehearsal opportunities – with one counter for every word – or record the sentence and play it back; use props or draw a picture to aid memory retention.

9) Have them write less and give them more editing time.

10) Interleave spelling with vocabulary and handwriting practice.

The teaching of grammar and spelling is best done in a systematic, cumulative way, programmes like ‘Conquering Dyslexia’, (Kathleen Kelly and Sylvia Phillips) can provide an excellent framework for this.

Plus, there are fabulous resources to download from their website to accompany this.

See my previous posts on spelling:

High Frequency Words

Spelling tips


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