I knew my son was dyslexic in Reception.
We were ‘lost’ parents and did not understand the system. We agreed to have him put on the SEND register. He finally received a specific dyslexia intervention in year 4 (by a HLTA, untrained in dyslexia, who was receiving instruction from a qualified SpLD teacher).
We would go to progress meetings where she complained that he was slumped over the table. He disliked being ‘taken out’, especially when something fun was going on, and missed science for a whole year.
I had not been able to get his needs met by the school.
My own background: brought may have informed how I managed and responded to communications with the school. Several parents of dyslexic children took their children out of the school and home schooled them. I often wonder if this would have been a better choice for us.
But then, is this close to exclusion?
From a working class, single parent family I received school dinners and when I went to Manchester Polytechnic, it was on a full grant. Education was not given high status within the family though. Graft was. My grandfather was ‘self-made’ and financially secure, built his own house.
Until recently, I was the only one in the family to have gone on to study in Further Education.
As a parent, I had the static cultural capital – we visited museums, I engaged my children in interesting debates, took them on exciting holidays and I supplemented their learning at home. Whilst educated, my background was essentially working class. I did not have the skills, experience, or support from my family to negotiate successfully with the school.
Importantly, I did not have the relational cultural capital – the middle class sense of how to go about getting my child’s needs met. I’m not sure this can be learnt.
I watched other mothers achieve this with envy, trying to look for clues.
The social mobility gap is a particular focus at government level (Department of Education, 2017). There has been a specific focus on the teaching of vocabulary to close the ‘gap’ but in reality, there are far more complex issues at play which are harder to address.
There have been several studies on high vs low Socio-Economic Status (SES) families, their approaches to education, and how this might impact on outcomes (Ciabattari, 2010; Tramonte & Willms, 2090). Whilst Kimelberg (2014), suggests that middle class mothers are actively choosing urban state schools because they are aware of their own cultural capital (and ability to support their children’s education), other studies point to the neoliberalisation of education and the illusion of choice, choice for some but not for others (Reay 2006; 2008).
Schools AND parents are complicit in this, it is seductive. If we really want equity though, it’s time to be present to it.
‘Closing the Gap’ by teaching vocabulary seems like a much easier option.
I had a group of friends when my children were small, we would go to playgroups, play centres and drink coffee. All three of them managed to position themselves to get into schools which were highly regarded or ‘outstanding’ before their children started school. They rented or moved houses to achieve this. Hansen (2013) showed in her study that education-related house moves do occur in the pre-school years. Her paper used data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) and linked it to Land Registry data. Particular types of parents (more educated and advantaged) ‘gear up’ their quest for what they perceive to be better schooling for their children before they start school.
We had bought our house when I was pregnant because we loved it, and we sent our children to the nearest school. Already, I had not shown strategic competency, at this point it did not matter because we did not know about our son’s dyslexia. He was a happy, curious and robust toddler.
I didn’t know what to do or how to help him and eventually trained to be a TA and ended up working in my son’s school, trying to support him by being close to the situation. I saw him in tears every day for 2 years. The school suggested that my presence in school made him anxious.
We will not achieve equity in our education system by filling an imaginary gap with words. Instead, consider how your setting relates to and communicates with all members of their community. Does the school demonstrate favouritism, make special allowances for some?
Are these parents on the PTA, Governing Body, ‘special’ friends of the school?
An ethos of ‘everyone’ should mean everyone and demonstrate daily that every child, every parent, matters without special exceptions, regardless of class and socio economic status.
The children I teach are often the ones who have given up on themselves (and their memories), made to feel that learning is for others, not for them.
I want to share some theories about how memory works. It’s useful to connect with these ideas and to start to be curious, how can your students be better supported to remember?
The main approach I, and other specialist teachers take, is to make learning multi-sensory, this means engaging many senses simultaneously. I feel the sense of touch is one of the MOST important, why?
The importance of touch:
The fingertips…contain about 100 times more receptors per square centimetre than the skin on the back…more CNS neurons must be devoted to receiving fingertip sensations…the cortical area that receives input from the fingertips is huge compared to the area that receives input from skin on the back.
The first thing to note is that memory is clearly dependent on whether the student is focusing and attending in the first place. Are they comfortable, interested, do they feel safe?
This also involves the senses, we have seven in all which includes vestibular (balance/movement) and proprioception (knowing where the body is in space). See information about Sensory Processing here:
Working Memory has been big news in education for some time – the gateway to the Holy Grail: Long Term Memory. Working Memory is best likened to a shelf: where information is held temporarily – we all have different sized shelves. With a short shelf, information may get lost or drop too readily out of this area.
How to keep information in so that it gets transferred to Long Term Memory?
‘Working memory limitations may be critical only when acquiring novel information based on culturally important knowledge that we have not specifically evolved to acquire. Cultural knowledge is known as biologically secondary information. Working memory limitations may have reduced significance when acquiring novel information that the human brain specifically has evolved to process, known as *biologically primary information. ‘
NB Biologically Primary information is that which is processed by the senses.
More on that here:
Evolutionary Upgrade of Cognitive Load Theory
Effective learning, at least at Primary School level, is really about memory. Children are required to retain information, so that they can steadily build upon those foundations. How can we ensure that ALL children remember and are successful?
‘Biologically primary information’ can be thought of as that which is processed through the senses: what we see, hear, touch, smell. If we want to limit the restrictions of Working Memory, we need to harness the power of primary information in learning!
The Baddeley model of working memory (2000) shows short term memory (STM) as split between visual semantics (Visuospatial sketchpad) and the verbal STM (Phonological loop). These two areas are not directly connected but interact with the episodic buffer, thought to transfer information to the long-term memory. It would appear that in dyslexia, certain information does not get readily stored in the long-term memory (LTM). The phonological loop has 2 components: the phonological store and the articulatory rehearsal mechanism.
Auditory information is held in the store where it rapidly decays. The articulatory mechanism rehearses the information so that the rapid decay is avoided. It also recodes, turning symbols into speech. In dyslexia, this is thought to be impaired, as tested using Nonword Repetition (Roodenrys and Stokes, 2001).
It is not just auditory memory which is an issue but the processing of language, is this new vocabulary, is there lots of abstract language used, how long has the speaker been talking??
Importantly, there is evidence to show that the visuospatial sketchpad is not impaired in dyslexia and may even be a strength (see meta-analysis by Swanson, 2006). This suggests that this can be used to boost confidence and improve outcomes, using areas of strength to support weaker areas, i.e. Hebb’s law: “Neurons that fire together wire together”. When taught simultaneously with the strong one, the weaker modality becomes strengthened.This may bring ‘dual coding’ or ‘visual learners’ to mind.
Gathercole and Packiam Alloway write about using Long Term Memory to boost Working Memory (2008). Personally, I like to use humour and harness autobiographical memory e.g. if teaching a High Frequency Word, I ask the pupil to make up their own mnemonic. For ‘said’, one child made up ‘Sally’s Allotment Is Damp! (he used to help her grow carrots!). Discussion also boosts memory (Reid, 2009).
How might you harness this knowledge about memory in learning?
Self-esteem is connected to being a successful and independent learner (Burden, 2008). Building strong and trusting relationships between teacher and child is an essential prerequisite for accelerated learning (Brooks, 2007: 31).
Give pupils thinking time! Pupils may often say, “I don’t know”, or “I can’t remember”. Sometimes, they have simply given up on their memory and stop trying. Help them to start to be successful and watch them flourish.
We might conclude from this that the best teaching to lessen cognitive load and improve memory would be:
Dynamic (involve movement)
Real life (autobiographical/concrete)
Explicit (telling) information (semantics)
Achievable – within the student’s grasp (building self-esteem)
Mind’s Eye: this may be using visuals or encouraging them to ‘picture’/visualise something.
Sensory: engage all of the Senses.
See also this blog on memory and learning:
Baddeley, A. D. (2000). The episodic buffer: A new component of working memory? Trends in cognitive sciences, 4 (11), 417-423.
Brooks, G., (2007). What works for pupils with literacy difficulties? London: DCSF
Burden, R. (2005). Dyslexia and Self-Concept seeking a dyslexic identity. London: Whurr
Gathercole, S. and Packiam-Alloway, T. (2008): Working Memory and Learning, London: Sage.
Reid, G, (2009) Dyslexia: a Practitioner’s handbook. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Roodenrys, S. & Stokes, J. (2001). Serial recall and nonword repetition in reading disabled children. Reading and Writing: an interdisciplinary journal, 14, 379-394.
Swanson, H. L. (2006) Working memory and reading disabilities: Both phonological and executive processing deficits are important. In T.P. Alloway & Gathercole, S. E., (Eds). Working memory and neurodevelopmental disorders pp.59-88. Hove: Psychology Press.
It seems the world of SEND is full of embattled women’s voices. Whenever I attend a dyslexia CPD event or conference, I am struck by the high numbers of mothers I encounter who became dyslexia professionals to help their own children and in so doing, found their passion.
Why does this advocacy role fall mainly to mothers, is it because fathers work away more, work longer hours or is it simply that mothers are so bound to their children and their wellbeing that they have an instinct about their child’s needs, are driven to inform themselves and campaign relentlessly to get their child’s needs met?
In (www.teachers.org.uk) the National Union of Teachers lays out guidelines. ‘In loco parentis’ originally embodied the 19th Century common law principle that a teacher’s authority was delegated by a parent, so far as it was necessary for the welfare of the child. A court held in 1893 that a schoolmaster should act as a ‘careful father’ would toward his pupils.
However, subsequent revisions moved further away from the notion of parental responsibility: care and duty, to that of a professional. The concept of what ‘in locus parenti’ means in practice has shifted dramatically, point seven declares:
‘If it can be shown that a professional acted in accordance with the views of a reputable body of opinion within their profession, the duty of care will have been satisfied, even though others may disagree’. (p.3)
In a recent study into high-performing schools and their support of disadvantaged pupils carried out for the Department of Education (DfE), Louise Booth, head teacher at Beeston Hill St Luke’s C of E Primary School said:
‘What does it mean to treat every child as if they were our own? What does ‘going the extra mile’ mean in day-to-day practice? See the link here:
The report found that high-performing schools had high aspirations for all of their pupils, including those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)
(Baars et al, 2018).
I can imagine that every child with dyslexia IS my own, because my child is dyslexic, and this puts me in conflict with the institutions in which I have worked.
As a woman, it can be hard to find a voice, to speak with authority and to be heard. In Women and Power, Mary Beard (2017) writes that illustrations of this prejudice in literature go back as far as Homer’s Odyssey, wherein Telemachus tells his mother to go back to her own quarters: ‘…speech will be the business of men’.
‘What interests me is the relationship between this classic Homeric moment of silencing a woman and some of the ways in which women’s voices are not publicly heard in our own contemporary culture’. (p.6)
In the case of dyslexia and my son, I simply had no choice. Like many mothers, I had to speak out, I had to take action.
The term ‘dyslexia mothers’ is slightly disdainful. I had not been politically motivated before, dyslexia politicised me and with that came a new awareness of issues facing women and mothers in society; an interest in feminism.
Ahmed (2017) sees that diversity and feminism go together:
‘First diversity work is the work we do when we are attempting to transform an institution; and second diversity work is the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution’. (Ahmed, 2017 p91)
Dyslexia and feminism to me seem naturally bound. The world of dyslexia has much to owe to its ‘dyslexia mothers’. Marion Welchman is known as the ‘needle and thread’ of the dyslexia world. In her search to help her son, Howard, she discovered the Gillingham, Stillman teaching programme and ran the first course in England for teachers in Bath in 1969. Her pioneering work lead to the establishment of the British Dyslexia Association in 1972. Daphne Hamilton-Fairley, who founded Fairley House (one of the few dyslexia schools in Britain) said:
‘It was magic from the point of view of parent power, and how they’ll fight for their children.’ (Kirby, 2018).
At the Bangor Dyslexia Unit, part time workers, mostly women ‘were all paid on pinkies’ – claim forms submitted every month or half term. Together with others, this helped to build an evidence base for the existence and diagnosis of dyslexia.
When I visited the Dyslexia Archive at Oxford last year, it was heartbreaking to read the letters written by mothers of all classes, desperately looking for help for their children. It’s even more heartbreaking to think that nothing has changed.
I have often heard SEND mothers (myself included) referred to as over-anxious and over-protective by teachers. The implication is of course that anxious parents are creating anxious children and schools seem unable to reflect on their own role in this; where mothers perceive their child is not safe in a setting, this will create anxiety.
Researchers proposed the following provisions as conceptual ideas for psychological safety (Baeva, 2002; Baeva et al., 2011; Bordovskaia, 2012), points 4 and 5 are as follows:
The main source of psychotrauma in participants in the educational environment is psychological violence in pedagogical and interpersonal interactions.
Pedagogical and interpersonal interactions in the educational environment are psychologically safe if they promote a sense of belonging, convince participants that they are out of danger (the absence of the above-named threats), and strengthen mental health. (p.90)
If a child’s psychological safety is compromised, it is likely that this will impact on the psychological safety of parents and teachers. This issue is referred to by @itmustbemum: parents are sometimes blamed as having poor mental health, as causing the child’s difficulties, and this can become ‘a self-fulfilling prophecy’.
Studies into teacher attitudes are revealing, perhaps an ideological shift is required in order to harness ‘parent power’ as a resource. A YouGov poll from February 2017 of 810 teachers gives an interesting insight into teachers’ attitudes. 57 percent said there was misdiagnosis and 54 percent thought that pressure from parents led to some children being categorised as SEND unnecessarily. 64 percent said they thought parents pushed for a SEN diagnosis because they preferred a medical or psychological explanation for their children’s behaviour, rather than believing that the problem could be resolved by the class teacher. The poll was sponsored by GL Assessment who clearly have an interest in promoting assessment, however, the responses are worrying.
The following studies are not recent but still relevant; included because they illustrate important issues within areas of research and discourse that are often neglected; the parent view. Atkin, Bastiani and Goode (1988) studied relationships between parents and teachers and began to consider that teachers’ claims about ‘what parents were like’ might be rooted in teacher lore and staffroom mythology. There is no evidence that parents of children with dyslexia are any different to other parents. What might differ is the level of knowledge held by schools and how they choose to offer both support and communication.
Insight: how do I look?
Watching rough edits of our dyslexia documentary last year, I saw myself working with my son – using a ‘teacher’ voice, not a ‘mummy’ voice. In one scene, where I am showing him the concept of mixed fractions (using carrots), he tries to tell me something and I talk over him, perhaps wanting to demonstrate for the camera what a good teacher I am. He gets upset and says he wanted to show me he is good at it and has remembered. I comfort him. I am appalled.
When speaking of dyslexia, I might seem desperately trying to assume the role, the ‘mastery’ (Butler, 1997). It is easy to see that this would be irritating for my son’s school: a parent turned ‘expert’. I would infinitely prefer teachers to be the ‘experts’, but seemingly not one had read about dyslexia, or had knowledge to offer.
On reading Holt (1982) I was struck by a particular sentence about a mother he encountered:
‘The only triumphs of his that she savours are those for which she can give herself most of the credit’. (p.268)
I asked myself honestly if this was me, I felt not, but perhaps the teachers would interpret it otherwise. I had been forced into becoming the dyslexia ‘expert’ in the absence of one in school.
The documentary we made last year called ‘Farther and Sun’ was my idea, we wanted it to present a different face of dyslexia, the one we could see in our son. As such, we didn’t cover the extremely negative experiences I had had with my son’s school (most of them whilst my husband was working away), the concern I had for my son’s well being and the sly suggestions from the school that I was a bad mother. Moreover, we did not allude to the fact the SENCO refused to deal with me because she said I was ‘aggressive’ and causing her sleepless nights.
In the documentary, was a scene where I was crying on the bed. In a review, Rachel Cooke refers to this scene and points out:
‘But if all this made Macer’s film seem self-indulgent at times – many parents will watch Arthur’s mother weeping, and think: I’ll take your kid’s problems over mine any day.’
See the review here:
At the end of the film, we show that my son passed his SATs, we don’t detail all the support he has had at home, how hard he has worked and the cost of this to me. My belief is that dyslexic children deserve to succeed and feel smart just like any other kid. A ‘kid’s problems’ are all relative and I would not wish my experience on anybody.
Sadly, I know that my experience is not unique and that other mothers are being bullied, ignored and demonised all over the country.
I am grateful for our challenges, my son is an inspirational young man, I have found my passion.
For Part One see here:
Theories of causation tell us much about how to assess dyslexic students. There are three main schools of thought, yet the theories can sit side by side as in the Kelly and Phillips Integrated Causal Model (2011). The theories deal with different parts of the brain but all seek to explain the phonological difficulty experienced by dyslexics. One of them, the cerebellar theory, also explains the additional difficulties related to sequencing, organisation and memory.
There is an undeniable genetic link, as dyslexia runs in families. Pennington and Gilger (1996) have claimed that where there is dyslexia in the family, there is an increased probability that the child will have it. Snowling (2008) points out that different environmental experiences will influence the genetic impact, both the severity and the outcome of the difficulty. We can also see this in the Morton and Frith Basic Causal Framework (1995).By talking with parents, the genetic link can be investigated. Sometimes, parents are diagnosed after their children.
The Phonological Deficit theory, the fact that dyslexic children struggle to link speech sounds to their written representation, has been popular. However, Nicolson and Fawcett suggest it is a symptom rather than a cause (2008). The theory does not explain the other difficulties shown by dyslexics: problems sequencing, forming handwriting and following instructions.
Nevertheless, speech is the foundation for written language and Snowling, (2000b) suggests that dyslexia is a speech-processing difficulty. To support this, abnormalities in the Perysylvian region of the brain, involved in phonological processing, result in impairments in phonological awareness. There are also studies, which show poor language skills predict poor reading, well before any reading instruction (Puolakanaho et al, 2007). It is important that we assess phonological ability as one of the main indicators of dyslexia. It is useful to look at how children acquire the skill of reading to inform how and what we assess. Phonological awareness is an important skill in learning to read, whether this is a pre-requisite or is brought about through the process of learning to read is debated in the field (Muter et. al., 2004).
Frith (1985) identified several stages of reading : logograohic (whole word), alphabetic (phoneme/grapheme correspondance) and orthographic (spelling patterns). This links with assessment of reading and spelling as these are the stages a successful reader goes through acquiring reading skills automatically. It helps to identify where the gaps are with dyslexic readers and gives a focus for intervention.
Wagner and Torgensen (1987) state the importance of several phonological skills in reading, including awareness, rapid automatised naming and verbal short-term memory. Therefore, knowledge of high frequency words, testing short-term memory e.g using a digit span test and knowledge of the alphabetic principle should also be part of any assessment. In addition, a learner’s ability to manipulate sounds, using phoneme and syllable deletion needs to be tested.
Coltheart’s dual route model of reading (2001) shows how some words are processed by a lexicon but non words cannot because they have no meaning, non words test the ability to link graphemes to their sound rather than relying on a memory of the word shape and/or it’s meaning. This further explains why non-words should feature in an assessment semantics and meaning come into this model, a learner’s comprehension should be assessed as well as their decoding ability.
A relatively recent study (Ramus, 2014), showed that it was a difficulty in retrieval i.e. access to phonological representations rather than the representations themselves, that dyslexics experience. Rapid automatised naming tests should expose this, an important indicator of dyslexia and one which differentiates it from a Specific Language Impairment (Bishop and Snowling, 2004).
Difficulties in phonology are explained by visual disturbances, or temporal processing difficulties in some studies. In the Magnocellular Theory, Evans (2001), Stein (2003, 2008), it is suggested that abnormalities in the Magnocellular (large) and Parvocellular (small) pathways in the brain are responsible for a visual disturbance resulting in reading difficulties. This has echoes of the original theory of ‘word-blindness’ (Hinshelwood, 1917). As well as problems with visual stimuli, the theory suggests that phonological difficulties are caused by an inability to detect rapidly changing auditory stimuli (Tallal 1993, 2007). As with the phonological theory, it doesn’t explain all of the difficulties which are associated with dyslexia.
A study by Galaburda et al (2006) suggested that early auditory problems (affecting phonological processing) can resolve themselves in some individuals. In terms of how the Magnocellular theory impacts on assessment and behaviours, what we can look for are tracking difficulties when reading eg losing place on the page, also sequencing sounds and syllables. Phonemes may get missed out of spelling and reading, because they can’t be distinguished and poor visual perception may cause letters to be transposed or swapped around (Kelly & Phillips, 2011). How competently a child copies work would also be telling (this will also test working memory). Deficits in auditory perception and memory storage might explain why certain letters are hard to distinguisheg. /b/,/t/,/k/,/d/ (Kelly and Phillips, 2011)
A study on visual motion processing deficits (Wilmer et al, 2004), revealed two types: a deficit in detecting coherent motion, resulting in low accuracy and a deficit in discriminating velocities, resulting in a slow performance. It is the first time these two deficits have been proven and they link to tracking difficulties, keeping the place on the page and accuracy. In the DST, reading is given a time limit as dyslexic readers have been found to be slow and effortful. These problems are linked by Nicolson & Fawcett (2008) to the cerebellar.
Sperling et al., (2005) found that noise levels affected the functioning of the pathways i.e. dyslexic children are less able to filter out background noise. By speaking to the child’s teacher, TA’s and parents, we can investigate whether they have auditory needs. Pammer and Vidyasagar (2005) suggest that both auditory and visual systems are compromised in dyslexics, arising from general impairment in the dorsal route for sensory impairment.
Whilst many dyslexics have difficulty with eye tracking, it could also be seen as a motor co-ordination or cerebellar difficulty. Since the discovery that the cerebellum has a function in reading, Nicholson and Fawcett have pursued their theory with renewed vigour (2008). In the 1990’s they challenged the phonological deficit theory by showing that dyslexics had other weaknesses which were unexplained: sequencing, handwriting, memory. Using balance, they showed that dyslexics couldn’t do two things at once: eg count and balance. The cerebellum’s role in motor skills is well established (ref?), this impacts on reading and especially writing, as dyslexics never reach the level of automaticity of their peers. Most dyslexics struggle with spelling in particular. It used to be argued that the cerebellum was not linked to the brain’s frontal lobes, which activate during reading, but new studies show it does indeed have the right connectivity (Fulbright et al 1999). Some would argue that problems with sequencing, multi-tasking and motor planning are indicators of dyspraxia. However, in support of the cerebellar theory, patients with cerebellar damage show dyslexic-type symptoms (Moretti et al, 2002).
The main argument hinges around automaticity, dyslexic children fail to acquire the automatic skills of reading and writing enjoyed by their peers. Postural/core stability will be affected if the cerebellum is implicated, therefore an assessment should test this, as poor postural stability would be a useful indicator. Within the DST was a balance tester, which tested stability by pushing into the child’s back. A discussion with the parents and/or teacher would also be useful on this area. Handwriting speed and accuracy is another aspect of the cerebellar theory, as is processing speed. Are letters well formed, legible with appropriate spacing? Has the learner always struggled with fine and gross motor control? eg fastening clothes and skipping. The cerebellar theory is attractive because it does account for several weaknesses that many dyslexics are known to possess. The cerebellum also controls eye movements so relates to the Magnocellular theory.
Theories abound and whilst there is much new research, there is still no consensus. Assessment should be made for the weaknesses we know dyslexics to display and timely intervention provided. The environment impacts massively on how the condition is manifested and may account for the different sub-types of dyslexia that are reported. It is crucial that intervention is tailored, based on a thorough assessment of the learner’s strengths and weaknesses. This will ultimately lead to a more effective outcome (Vellutino et. al 2004:31).
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.
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.
2. Give the students something to hold to orient themselves 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.
And mind’s eye in times tables:
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 students 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 student 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):
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:
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:
As one individual put it: I have missed the bus and will never catch up.
Who creates ‘learned helplessness’ in the classroom?
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.
The following are links to some Powerpoint recordings: what is dyslexia and how might we support students in the classroom?
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.
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:
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.
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:
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).