Reading weak: building dyslexia awareness in schools
Ten per cent of British children experience dyslexia or similar problems during the course of their school career. Yet there is still no national plan to help them. Samantha Laurie looks for rays of light
When Angela Guettoch took her 12-year-old son to an educational psychologist in an attempt to unravel his learning difficulties, she was unprepared for the hopelessness that came with it.
“The report listed all his problems, but there were no answers,” she says. “I felt kicked in the stomach, sick, wounded. Having a child with learning issues is like filling a hole that keeps getting bigger. You try to put in all this extra help, but he was just getting further and further behind.”
Desperate, Angela enrolled her son in an intensive summer course run by American organisation Lindamood-Bell, that teaches children with dyslexia and other learning issues to read. Every morning of the summer holidays she took him into London for four hours of one-to-one tuition. It came at an astronomical price – £2,000 a week – and at huge cost to the family’s sanity. But her son’s reading comprehension soared from the fifth percentile to the 50th – and his progress continued back in school.
This summer Lindamood-Bell will be running the course in Woking, and there will be no shortage of parents weighing up its academic research. With little guidance and no industry standards, it’s a daunting process. For many, however, there is very little choice, as state provision for dyslexic children continues to flounder.
It’s been three years since Sir Jim Rose drew up a blueprint for helping the 10% of schoolchildren suffering from the range of phenological and memory problems that dyslexia presents. Yet there is still no national strategy. Central to the problem is one of the most baffling conundra of British education: despite the fact that one in five children will, at some point, require special needs provision, teachers are not obliged to study special educational needs (SEN) as a mandatory part of their training.
“It’s a nonsense,” says Dr John Rack, head of research, development and policy at Dyslexia Action. “Why equip teachers to meet the needs of just 80% of the class?”
Last month the Government promised to tackle the ‘over-identifying’ of children with special needs and to look more closely at the behavioural and social issues behind their problems. The new system will mean more streamlined assessments and extra training for teachers to deal with challenging behaviour, but it falls short of making specific learning difficulties core to teacher training.
That learning to help poor readers is not a fundamental part of training is hard to comprehend. And the frustration of those in the dyslexic world is compounded by the lack of progress since Rose reported in 2009. He recommended that 4,000 specialist dyslexic teachers be trained to serve small clusters of schools, but a change of government and dramatic cuts to local authority budgets have seen the plan stagnate. Kate Saunders, CEO of the British Dyslexic Association – which is drumming up signatories to a petition to have dyslexia made a core component of teacher training – rates the current provision as “worse than 15 years ago”.
Many believe that the focus should move from diagnosis – and the educational pluses of extra time in exams – toward more whole school awareness of what works for all poor readers. In Cornwall, where dyslexia has been prioritised by the local authority and geography has encouraged schools to share resources, teaching assistants deliver a whole school programme for poor readers using a superb adapted version of the Rose clusters.
And there are pockets of hope closer to home. At New Haw Community Junior School, in Addlestone, a dyslexic teaching programme designed and funded by Dyslexia Action – Partnership for Literacy (P4L) – has achieved dramatic results by identifying all poor readers as they enter the school at age seven, and by training all teachers, assistants and support staff to spot the signs of dyslexia and literacy problems. The 20-week multisensory course is delivered by teaching assistants trained by the charity. The beauty of it, says the school’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCo), Jan Keating, is that it picks up those children who have learnt to mask their difficulties – the screening found that several 10 year olds could not sequence the alphabet – and builds dyslexia awareness in the school.
What is striking about both P4L and Lindamood-Bell – very different schemes – is that each is built on simple, repetitive, multisensory techniques proven to work for all poor readers. Teaching all kids as if they were dyslexic and picking up those that need help early is sound policy. And ensuring that all teachers know something about dyslexia would also be no bad thing.