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Learning support that carries on to exams

At Glenwood High School in Glenrothes, Fife, up to 15 pupils in any given year group may be considered to be dyslexic to a greater or lesser degree, says Alistair Haldane, principal teacher of learning support.

"I would say that 50 per cent of learning support time here is spent on dyslexia, if you include curricular development and going into mainstream classes to support dyslexic pupils as well as extracting them for one-to-one sessions."

Mr Haldane holds a certificate in special learning difficulties dyslexia from Moray House. Two other members of his department are now studying for it with the support of the local authority.

"A lot of Fife teachers take the course because the authority pays to put you through the two years of twilight classes, which is quite unusual," he says. "On the back of this has emerged the council's dyslexia guidance document.

Fife is generally regarded as having an advanced policy on dyslexia. Its guidance document states: "It is expected that all schools and teachers will require to identify and take account of the needs of pupils with specific learning difficultiesdyslexia", which it defines as "a pattern of difficulties of which the most obvious are significant, persistent problems in learning to read, write and spell. The following may also be affected: numeracy, motor skills, spoken language, information processing, memory and organisational skills."

Glenwood High's learning support department liaises with the school's associate primaries as early as the October before the August intake in order to identify pupils who could be dyslexic. Formal tests are then undertaken, followed by "discrepancy testing", which involves the pupil doing tests on his or her own and with the help of a scribe andor a reader. A series of these tests is done over six to 12 months and covers a range of subjects.

"If there is a discrepancy between when the scribe is there and not over the period of time, that's a pretty accurate indicator of dyslexia," says Mr Haldane.

"What is to our advantage," he says, "is that nowadays dyslexia is accepted. It's a safe label for parents and they are often relieved to know there is a reason for their child's perceived problems."

In everyday classroom practice, laptop computers are used to help pupils structure writing as they can cut and paste words, but spell-checkers have their limitations, says Mr Haldane. "Though they will pick up on misspellings, these can be so bizarre that the computer will not come up with alternative options."

Dictaphones are sometimes used, but rarely because it makes the pupils stand out in the quiet of the class.

For those pupils who see rivers of words, sheets of coloured plastic are used to still the print and to ease tired eyes.

"The school's approach to learning, and the Fife approach in general, is known as cumulative multi-sensory learning," says Mr Haldane. "You get the pupil to say the words, to look at the shape of them, to hear them spoken and to write or type them. Then you practise and practise.

"It's based on the Moray House model developed by senior lecturer and dyslexia expert Gavin Reid that's often referred to as overlearning."

Mind maps are also useful, says Mr Haldane, because dyslexic pupils often have problems sequencing ideas. "A mind map makes a good first draught and using visual and aural stimuli helps information enter the brain and stay there."

Each pupil has an individual education plan and teachers also use short-term strategies, often called smart (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timeous) targets, to deal with dyslexia.

The learning support staff work on pupils' self-esteem to raise achievement. Although extreme behavioural problems are rare among dyslexic pupils, the frustration they experience can lead to emotional outbursts or to attitudes of 'I can't do that; I'm dyslexic'.

Each pupil has an annual review, with their parents and sometimes the educational psychologist present. Working with parents is part of the overall approach.

"All the staff have to be aware of the strategies, as have the parents, with whom we very much work in partnership," says rector David Mackenzie.

"We have a very caring ethos in this school. I'm not saying it's easy for dyslexic pupils but our philosophy is to put in place the necessary strategies for each individual pupil's needs."

Glenwood High's in-school assessments take into account such things as dyslexic spelling errors and by S4 the school, in collaboration with the educational psychologist, forwards names of dyslexic candidates to the Scottish Qualifications Authority so that those who need extra time (slowness of reading) in exams are given it, those who need scribes have them appointed and the spelling errors of those who can write reasonably for themselves are not penalised.

The strategies employed at the school work, says Mr Haldane. He cites the case of an S2 pupil who displayed the disorganisation often associated with dyslexia.

"He would come to school with smelly socks in his bag, for example. He would pack the wrong things. He was confused, put down as lazy and perceived as a victim.

"Identifying his dyslexia, we gave him strategies to cope. We upped his reading, writing and self-esteem and he's now in Credit classes."

That said, Mr Haldane does not believe in miracle cures and he is wary of any all-embracing claims such as those from the DDAT centre. "They are dealing with a specific form of dyslexia. But there are many forms, like deep dyslexia, high functioning dyslexia or phonological dyslexia where a child can't sound out words. I'm not convinced the DDAT approach would help them.

"And anyway, the revolutionary claims made for them are not new. Other people have covered similar ground before."

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