Common sense solutions to solving dyslexia issues

Last week, while reading my SEN news feeds, I came across an article about dyslexia on the Conservative Home website by education expert, John Bald. John is a former OFTSED inspector and contributor to The Guardian. He has almost forty years' experience of teaching people of all ages to read and write, to learn foreign languages and to understand and use arithmetic.

I got in touch with John and asked if he would mind setting out his ideas in an article for Special Needs Jungle readers. He very kindly obliged - and I think you will find it extremely interesting reading:

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Tania's request seemed simple - she had read a posting dealing with literacy problems on another site, which set out to explain what I described as "the dyslexia racket". Could I write a straightforward guide for parents on what to do if their child has a problem?

For some issues, the answer is, "Yes". If the problem concerns literacy, and does not reflect a serious general learning difficulty, bring your son or daughter to see me, and I will fix it for you without charge. This is a big claim, but I deliver on it, time after time, because I know the mental processes involved in reading, and the regular and irregular features of English spelling like the back of my hand. As we read, we use the information contained in letters to do several things at once. We identify words by tracking print closely with our eyes - the latest tracking devices show eye movements following print, as well as changing their fixing point on the page. As we do so put them together into phrases, to reproduce the intonations of the language and reconstruct the sense indicated by the author.

John Bald

The process is a little like reading music. Phonics, the relationship between words and sounds, is at the heart of it, but, unlike musical notation, they are not always reliable, so we have to learn what the letters are telling us in an individual word. For example, the a sound in can has to be stretched to say can't, and the letters don't tell us this, any more than they tell us the difference between do and don't. Once we've learned to use what the letters tell us, without supposing that they tell us everything, we understand that the language is a human construct, with human failings, and that it does always respond to strict logic.

As I say to children, English is roughly a thousand years old, and if we were a thousand years old, we'd have a few wrinkles. Much of the difficulty many people experience with reading in English arises because teachers do not know the wrinkles. It's not their fault - no-one has pointed these out in their training. The reason I came to know them myself was that I did a degree in French, which is the source of over half of the problems. Say table in French and you will hear that l comes before e. It's phonics, but French phonics. William the Conqueror's invasion in 1066 left us with a lot more than castles!

How we put words together in phrases and sentences is also a bit like music, and I only understood this last year, when I read the French government's national curriculum for learning English. It points out that, except for very short words, one part of each word is almost always picked out for stress. Again, the letters won't tell us what this is - we have to know it, and it is not even the same in words of the same family - photograph, photographer, photography. The last straw for foreign learners is that we pick out one word in each phrase or sentence for extra stress on its own, usually without even knowing that we do it. Controlling these patterns of stress in real time requires very detailed knowledge of the language, and is one reason why so few foreign speakers of English have no detectable accent.

So, if someone comes to me with a reading problem, I explain this and we practise. First, though, I have them read to me, and ask myself two questions:

1. What is it in this person's thinking that is preventing them from reading?

and

2. How do I help them adjust their thinking so that they can read?

These questions focus my mind on the person I'm working with, and not on some theory - my own or anyone else's. We need to tune into print, and to help people do this, we need to know the causes of interference. The most common are guessing at words, usually from their first letter, not seeing clearly - some people are sensitive to certain wavelengths of light in a way that only becomes clear when they have to apply their eyes to the tightly disciplined activity of reading - and not hearing clearly, sometimes because of misconceptions developed in early childhood through conditions such as glue ear. Teachers should know all about these things. Alas, most don't. So, if your child has a problem with literacy, take him or her to someone who does.

I use a similar approach to spelling , Slimmed Down Spelling, but that is for another posting. An account is at http://johnbald.typepad.com/language/2009/06/slimmed-down-spelling-and-government-nonsense.html. I am currently working on maths.

But what if the problem is not with reading, spelling or arithmetic? What if it is a behavioural issue, Asperger's or Autism? The truth here, I think, is that our knowledge of these issues is not far advanced from that of our general knowledge of science in the seventeenth century. We can see things that we can't fully explain, and our attempts to solve problems are therefore not fully effective. Even respected scientists such as Simon Baron Cohen resort to blatant speculation, such as his idea that autism is the "extreme male brain" when the evidence runs out.

But I still come back to my two questions, perhaps extended. What is it that is making this person angry, or anti-social? What is it that they need to understand and don't, and how do we make it clear to them? We know of successful techniques such as social stories to help children focus attention on other people as well as themselves or, more recently, of practising telling the time quickly in order to focus attention on detail. One thing I can say, from extensive experience, is that anger and poor behaviour often arise from children's frustration at not being able to do their work, and in some extreme cases because of the effect of sensitivity to light that is not identified because no one is looking for it. If the issue that is causing concern is anger, however it is expressed, then if we are to tackle it, we need to move beyond our concern with managing the anger, find out what is causing it, and do what we can to remove the cause.

Find John's blog and contact details here: http://johnbald.typepad.com/

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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6 Comments

  1. In case you think the offer above is too good to be true, here are some details:

    1. You bring your child to see me in Linton, Cambridgeshire, and sit in on the session, so that you can see exactly what I do and follow it up. I am, of course, CRB checked.

    2. Sessions last between an hour and a quarter and an hour and three-quarters, with breaks if your child needs one. The length of time depends on how easily they understand the explanation. Sue Palmer’s account of her daughter’s session with me is here: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=110462

    And why is it free? Because I happen to believe that families should not be penalised financially because their child has a problem that the education system should know how to deal with, and that is often caused by poor teaching in the first place.

  2. I enjoyed the article enough to report the typo in “such a social stories” . Funny how a missing letter can make my reading stutter sometimes.

    I would like to point out that the sensitivity to light that causes reading difficulties can generally be identified just by asking someone about their vision and reading. Most visual dyslexics can describe their visual problems that make reading difficult and the rest usually will reveal their problems in a discussion about how they see letters.words and text. Many assume their vision is normal like the girl who wondered if everyone saw their words jumping. She looked at a classmate’s paper and saw the words jumping there too and concluded it must be normal but could easily report that the words move when asked if they were still , complete , uniform and in focus at the same time.

    Taking a different approach than most, See Right Dyslexia Glasses are designed as universal visual dyslexia glasses to remove the need for the personal evaluation . That approach increases the success rate ,reduces the cost and allows for a money back guarantee . Marketing the glasses only to those that can describe visual problems that make reading difficult eliminates much of the confusion of who will benefit.

    1. Thank you. My rate of typos has definitely increased as a result of the sheer speed of publication brought about by the internet. Sensitivity to light needs to be part of the screening process for reading difficulties, and in most schools it isn’t. I know of two cases of severe behavioural difficulty, one misdiagnosed as Asperger’s, that were not simply related to sensitivity to light, but unequivocally caused by it. Once the light sensitivity was tackled, the extreme behaviour stopped.

  3. Mark

    I have a friend that seriously needs your help, but we live in the US. We are both college students and now it’s hard to deal with a problem that has only been realized 19 years later. Is there any way you can point us in the right direction? or skype? We live in Boston, MA.

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