Learning one language is bad enough for a dyslexic, learning two could be a nightmare. Swansea's creative solution is now regarded as a model for others. Susannah Kirkman reports
Learning a second language, whether it is English or Welsh, is difficult for most schoolchildren. But it poses a particular challenge for dyslexic pupils. They find it hard to process language and usually have short-term memory problems. There is therefore a danger that bilingual dyslexics could grow up illiterate in two languages.
Nia Wood, an advisory teacher for Swansea's Special Educational Needs Service, says it's very important to catch these children early. "They need a structured language programme which includes phonological awareness, and it has to be a whole-school approach. Otherwise, children are already three years behind before they qualify for any help, and their self-esteem has sunk to rock-bottom."
The number of bilingual children is set to grow in Wales, now that all children learn Welsh from the age of four. Several authorities are also increasing the number of Welsh-medium schools in response to rising demand from English-speaking as well as Welsh-speaking families.
Parents like the traditional values of Welsh-medium schools, which have a reputation for combining a friendly family atmosphere with excellent discipline. The pupils are also immersed in Welsh culture, singing and reciting in Welsh, and performing in eisteddfodau.
"The Welsh culture suits children with learning difficulties. There are so many performing activities, which build their confidence. If you are Welsh, the expectation is that as soon as you can stand up, you perform," says Nia Wood.
As Welsh is a phonetic language, it is easier for dyslexics to learn than English, but the grammatical rules are complex and some of the sounds are difficult. Some consonants change and soften in different contexts and three of the vowels have the same sound.
The view in Swansea is that teachers must be equipped to identify and support dyslexics. "In the past, school staff have felt unqualified to deal with the situation. They were also afraid to say that a child was dyslexic because of the funding implications," says Nia Wood.
When local government was reorganised in 1995, the new unitary authority in Swansea inherited one of the highest statementing rates in the UK. Four per cent of pupils, many of them dyslexic, had statements of special educational needs. And frustrated parents of dyslexic children were demanding places in independent and out-of-county schools that offered specialist support.
Now Swansea is regarded as a model authority by the British Dyslexia Association, which says that the city's dyslexia-friendly policy has been a "resounding success".
According to Carol Orton, policy manager at the BDA: "It is the only LEA to have cut the number of statements quite dramatically for dyslexia at the same time as generating interest among teachers and gaining the confidence of parents."
Funding for pupils with dyslexic-type problems is no provided through an annual literacy-based survey. Nearly every school in Swansea also has a staff member who has attended a specialist course on teaching dyslexic students, recognised by the British Dyslexia Association and accredited by the University of Wales.
"Before I took the course, I didn't know anything about specific strategies for teaching dyslexics, like the multi-sensory approach and structured learning," says Rhian Peachey, the learning support teacher at Bryniago primary, a Welsh-medium school just outside Swansea.
"But we are finding that what is good for the dyslexic child is good for all; the methods we are using improve the literacy of all the pupils."
Half of Bryniago's pupils come from English-speaking homes but staff reckon that all the children will be fluent in Welsh by the age of seven. The dyslexics will receive a highly structured phonological programme which appeals to different senses; research has shown that dyslexic children need to touch letters as well as hearing and looking at them.
When English is introduced in Year 3, dyslexic pupils will follow the same methodical, building-block approach to learning the language.
Mrs Peachey has passed on what she has learnt to the classroom teachers, who are now far more confident. Schools such as Bryniago now only call on the special needs service for support if a pupil is severely dyslexic, leaving advisory teachers freer to run courses, carry out research and develop resources.
Parents are very happy with the new levels of expertise, according to Catherine Davies, headteacher and special needs co-ordinator at Bryniago. "Parents used to think it was the end of the world when they found out their child was dyslexic. It's wonderful to have teachers on hand who can assess pupils and then tell parents how they can help - suggesting games which will improve short-term memory, for instance."
One of the problems for Welsh-medium schools is the dearth of materials in Welsh for teaching and assessing dyslexics. Nia Wood is currently developing a structured early-years language programme in Welsh based on the system recommended by the BDA.
Swansea teachers are also involved in two action-research programmes to identify the most effective methods of teaching literacy skills in the early years. Several schools are trialling a phonological-awareness scheme developed in Pembrokeshire by a speech therapist who was appalled by the lack of expertise in schools.
Others are trying to find the most successful assessment programmes and teaching methods for young children (see story left).
Small steps are essential, says Nia Wood. "Dyslexic children are afraid of failing every minute of every day. If you ask them to do too much straightaway, you are setting them up to fail."
Achieving Dyslexia Friendly Schools is available, priced pound;5, from the BDA, 98 London Road, Reading, Berkshire. RG1 5AU. Tel. 0118 966 2677. Email firstname.lastname@example.org . Nia Wood and Enid Jones will be speaking on dyslexia at midday on July 14.