A household word defined;Cover story;Dyslexia Awareness Week

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Dyslexia has become a household word and most people think they know what it is. But do we recognise it when we see it? In particular, do teachers recognise it? On average, any class in a mainstream school will have at least one seriously dyslexic pupil and the chances are that most classes have about four other children with some of the same sort of difficulties.

Many parents of dyslexic children become deeply frustrated because they believe that their child's condition is not being accepted and dealt with at school. The Dyslexia Institute published a survey this year of more than 750 parents who have turned to it for extra teaching support for their children. It found that 60 per cent believed provision for dyslexic children in mainstream schools to be woefully inadequate. By contrast, more than 60 per cent of those with children in independent school were satisfied that the school met their child's needs.

Sometimes, if a dyslexic child is particularly bright and their dyslexia not very severe, schools may not accept that there is a problem at all. But the dyslexia could be turning a high achiever into an average achiever. Such cases can become especially contentious.

It is now generally recognised that early detection is crucial, and that without a highly structured, building-block, multi-sensory approach to teaching literacy, dyslexic children will never make real progress. Working in the early years with dyslexic children to make connections between written letters and sounds will save time and money later on, because young children are keen to learn and there will be less catching up to do. Later on, a keen sense of failure, the belief that they are lazy and "thick" and the development of poor learning attitudes will make the job of helping dyslexics harder, longer and more complex.

It is also widely accepted that though some children with more severe problems will need long-term one-to-one intervention, there is much that can be done to bring many dyslexics on in the ordinary classroom.


Elizabeth Henderson, headteacher of Oldfield Primary School, Maidenhead, also advises local education authorities and headteachers on dyslexia.

A dyslexic herself, she believes she is in a privileged position to understand what dyslexic children have to face and the serious consequences of not providing for them. She says: "I was bright enough to pass my 11-plus exam but the grammar school was a disaster for me and I was expelled. I couldn't spell and I couldn't learn from the way they were delivering the curriculum, which was to do with teachers talking a lot and writing quickly on the blackboard. We were expected to take notes and that's the aspect of school life I found the hardest, so I cheated and lied and became destructive."

With the support of her parents, Elizabeth Henderson did eventually gain some O-levels and went to teacher training college, where she discovered she was a gifted teacher. She became particularly interested in the "two or three children in a class every year" who were not making their age on reading, despite good teaching and being "quite bright". Eventually, as part of an MEd in education management, she took a training course in dyslexia teaching, and has spent "the past 18 years adjusting how I teach to cater for these children".

She has 260 pupils in her school and believes that up to 20 per cent have dyslexic-type difficulties. Ten per cent of her children, she says, require some form of special intervention. But she believes strongly that the stuctured, multi-sensory, highly stimulating methods of teaching that suit dyslexics benefit all children.

She says her school writes its own individual learning programmes for dyslexics. "We include a huge amount of literacy over-learning, wrapped up in games and activities, because the only thing they have in common is spelling difficulties; outside of that they all have completely different profiles. Some can read quite well, some are hopeless; some are good at games; others are malco-ordinated and very clumsy.

"I can pick up signs from the first hour they are in reception class. One of the first things I do is invite them all to sit with me while I read a story. There will always be somebody who is so engrossed in something else that they don't notice what the rest of the class is doing, or some child who will sit in the group but with their back to you. That is a sign of obvious poor spatial awareness, which can be a sign of dyslexia. That child is screaming out 'I don't know where my body is!'" She is keen to help a child learn "in whatever way they can". For example, some dyslexic children have great difficulty in sitting still and making sense of the purpose of a lesson. She gives them a "stress ball" to play with. "Some children learn better if they are doing two things at the same time. I am like that myself. No matter how old they are I give those children a big ball of plasticine to fiddle with."

Coping with dyslexia can demand imaginative and lateral thinking on the part of teachers as well as knowledge of the way the condition can work. She currently has one child in school, "the worst case I have ever seen", who, despite a term of intensive teaching on three letters still could not recognise them on paper. "In the end I put the letters, in wood, into a velvet bag. When the girl felt the letters she could make the sounds and say words beginning with the letters. When I took them out of the bag she couldn't recognise them at all.

"A girl like that who learns through her hands is never going to make progress with the National Literacy Strategy because she cannot learn through her eyes and ears."

Maggie Snowling, professor of psychology at York University and a leading expert on dyslexia, shares this anxiety about the literacy hour: "The strategy has given teachers a much better understanding of the building blocks of literacy, but I think it could be scary for dyslexics because they cannot respond in the same way to the kind of verbal learning the strategy uses. Research has shown that even when teachers use highly effective, highly structured phonemic schemes, they have much less of an impact on children at risk of dyslexia." The literacy strategy, she says, has removed the opportunity for individual teaching that dyslexics respond to most of all. All teachers and teaching assistants at Oldfield Primary School are dyslexia trained. Elizabeth Henderson says: "There is now a conviction in this school that the way we teach for dyslexics is to the good of all children."


Roundhay School in Leeds is an oversubscribed secondary of 1,300 children. One of its great attractions is that it has a dyslexia base which takes in statemented children from across the local education authority. Its reputation as a dyslexia-friendly school also means it attracts the parents of dyslexic children whose difficulty is not severe enough to gain a statement.

Suzanne Jakeman and Linda Riley have both worked as full-time dyslexia teachers in the base for nearly 14 years and believe that they have transformed the culture in the school. Although the dyslexic children return to the base for intensive literacy teaching and for general advice and support from the specialist staff, they attend mainstream lessons, supported by teaching assistants who are also dyslexia trained. Ms Jakeman works hard at providing in-service training in dyslexia for all the school's teachers and making them aware of the specific needs of the dyslexic children they have in their lessons. Her work has paid off because teachers now refer other children from within the school who they believe display dyslexia-type tendencies.

"Teachers will come for advice on how much homework to give dyslexic children, or how to mark work which may be unreadable, specific needs of the dyslexic children they have in their lessons, " she says. Her work has paid off because teachers now refer other children from within the school who they believe display dyslexia-type tendencies.

"Teachers will come for advice on how much homework to give dyslexic children, or how to mark work which may be unreadable, but which they nevertheless wish to praise," she says.

Back at the base pupils are given intensive tuition in the school's own literacy scheme, an adaptation of the Dylsexia Institute's Literacy Programme.

The scheme encompasses all the sounds and spelling patterns in the English language and aims to reinforce correct choices and an understanding of probabilities. For example, on the day that I visited the base, Kate North, a bright girl in Year 11 who intends to take history and politics at A-level and go on to university, was working intensively on "ou" and "ow" sounds and spellings.

Bethany Lawrence, also in Year 11, and hoping to go on to study business studies, received a statement for dyslexia when she was in Year 6 of her second primary school. She had become so distressed by the lack of recognition of her condition in her first primary school that her mother had removed her. "The teachers treated me like I was really dumb," she says. "They said I was slow and kept me back after school because my work wasn't neat enough and my spelling was bad. In the end I got so mad I threw my pen at a teacher and had to spend the rest of the week sitting outside the headteacher's room. That's when mum moved me."

Suzanne Jakeman says: "The nonsense is that for many of our children we are the first specialist intervention they get. Some of them are on such a knife-edge when they get here. They are on the borderline of getting into serious trouble. Some are already in trouble with the police, but we usually manage to pull them back."

Many of the children who come to the base are also very able and show above-average abilities in subjects that include art, drama and information and communications technology. Headteacher Neil Clephan believes their presence enriches school life. During a recent Office for Standards in Education visit inspectors were struck by the the way dyslexia awareness affected how teachers thought and taught. "They see that what's appropriate teaching for dyslexics can also open doors for other children as well," says Mr Clephan.


Ever-sensitive to parental concerns in an acutely competitive market, independent schools make it their business to meet a wide range of pupil needs. So when a highly acclaimed academic school such as Westminster provides a specialist teacher in dyslexia, we can safely assume that society's understanding of the condition has reached a critical level.

In crude economic terms, with one child in 25 displaying severe dyslexia and one child in 10 showing dyslexia-type difficulties, schools able to provide dyslexia support are likely to boost recruitment. Increasingly, independent schools are working in partnership with the Dyslexia Institute, buying-in screening, assessment and teacher-training packages.

Steve Chinn is chairman of the Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils (CreSTeD) and the principal of Mark College in Somerset, which caters for dyslexics and is now a Department for Education and Employment beacon school.

Dr Chinn believes that in many respects it is the independent sector that has spearheaded innovation in the teaching of dyslexics, and that the small classes and highly structured teaching methods that independent schools have long favoured are crucial in educating dyslexic children.

However, although hundreds of independent schools now advertise dyslexic provision, only around 90 are registered with CreSTeD, which grades their level of provision and sends out consultants to verify claims that are made. Specialist units, for example, should be well-resourced with up-to-date technology.

Alexander Faludy, a 16-year-old who can barely write his name or peel a banana but can expound at length on the rationalist argument for God, hit the headlines when at the age of 15 he became the youngest person this century to win a place at Cambridge University.

His parents, both English teachers, believe that it was a scholarship to Milton Abbey, a small boys-only boarding school in Dorset, which saved the day. Previously Alexander had suffered years of bullying, and failure on the part of state schools to recognise his specific difficulties and abilities.

About one third of the 200 boys at Milton Abbey are dyslexic and, according to headmaster Jonathan Hughes-D'Aeth, they make a hugely positive contribution to school life. Thirty per cent of staff in-service training is spent on teaching methods for dyslexia and attitudes towards dyslexics.

Mr Hughes-D'Aeth says: "In the world of education we rate spelling, precision and neatness above other things.

"That's the easy way. It's much more difficult to measure sociability, creativity or the ability to think laterally and make connections between things."


The history of relationships between schools, local authorities and the parents of dyslexic children has largely been one of bitterness and aggravation. But a local education authority that is highly praised by the British Dyslexia Association and the Department for Education and Employment for providing for dyslexics in a comprehensive and imaginative fashion is Swansea.

Until two years ago, Swansea was in a deep crisis over its special needs budget. Not only did it have one of the highest proportions of statemented children in the country (4.8 per cent) but it was also attracting some of the highest levels of dissatisfaction from the parents of dyslexic children, with threats of litigation.

When Swansea made concerted efforts to reduce the number of statements it found itself in even deeper water. Cliff Warwick, special educational needs adviser for the city and county of Swansea, remembers it well: "We intended to release money from statements and put it into preventative work with non-statemented children. But although we were managing to relieve pressure from statementing for children with moderate learning difficulties, there was upward pressure from dyslexics.

"Inadvertently we found ourselves re-distributing resources from moderate to specific learning difficulties, in other words from downtown Swansea to the suburbs."

In a town that suffers some of the highest levels of socio-economic deprivation in the country, that was political dynamite. The authority had to act quickly if dyslexia was not to become the steering pressure on the whole SEN budget. In a bid for help and co-operation Mr Warwick braved a hostile meeting of parents and headteachers and asked for volunteers to form a forum to devise a new strategy. Luckily, some were prepared to put their doubts aside and come on board.

Since that time Swansea has dramatically reduced the number of statements for dyslexia from 14 to 2 per cent of the total. "The way we now fund special needs is very consciously different from the way most authorities do it," says Mr Warwick. In most authorities SEN budgets are distributed to schools based on the number of children who receive free school meals. Administratively this is relatively easy, but Swansea has adopted what it says is a more complex but much more effective strategy.

Every year Swansea now undertakes a literacy-based survey of every school and funding is given out on the backs of named, individual children graded at one of three levels. Children funded at level A receive a small amount to cater for mild difficulties. Children on C level gain a "significant" amount - at least pound;4,000 - for severe difficulties. If a child improves they can easily be moved to a lower level of funding. This system dispenses with the statementing process, which uses up the precious time of educational psychologists, who are now used to greater effect in working proactively with teachers. It is also more flexible. And it has gained the approval of parents, because part of Swansea's strategy has been to ensure that every school in the authority also has a trained dyslexia teacher. With some hefty pump priming, the authority has embarked on a massive training programme and 65 per cent of schools now have a teacher on a training course, validated by the University of Wales, Swansea, which the authority has devised itself to have an especially practical application.

These trained teachers conduct assessments themselves and also lead in-service training on dyslexia for all other teachers in their school. Two of the city's secondary schools are also working with the Dyslexia Institute in Bath to provide centres of excellence in supporting dyslexics.

Mr Warwick says: "We now have the confidence of parents that we are managing the process properly. We still have a long way to go, but one measure of our success is that though the local BDA helpline is busy with calls from the region, nowadays it gets very few calls from the parents of Swansea."


The Dyslexia Institute was founded in 1972 for assessment, teaching and teacher training. It now has 150 institutes around the country and assesses up to 7,500 children a year, double the numbers of five years ago. As many as 60 per cent of these are affirmed dyslexic.

In the past local authorities and schools have reacted defensively to parents armed with a DI assessment of their child, but the Institute now finds itself working increasingly in partnership with schools, both in the independent and state sectors, with LEAs and, more recently, with the Teacher Training Agency. It has also formed a partnership with York University to offer a post-graduate dyslexia teaching diploma.

Some in the field see its future principally in teacher training as mainstream schools increasingly take on the dyslexia issue, but Liz Brooks, the Institute's director, believes there is no better replacement for the kind of provision it offers: targeted teaching in a withdrawn setting to a highly structured scheme.

Desperate parents may travel many miles to visit the Institute and stretch meagre resources to pay for its services: an assessment can cost nearly pound;200 and teaching costs more than pound;20 an hour. But there is a bursary fund to help the less well-off and some institutes make great efforts never to turn anyone away.

The Institute's teachers and assessors are used to harrowing stories. John Rack is in charge of assessments at the York institute, which provides an example of a particularly sensitive and distressing case.

David and Pamela Watling (not their real names) had travelled from Cumbria to York to seek advice on the steps they should take next with their son George, a pleasant, though somewhat withdrawn 12-year-old.

George, an adopted child, had worried his parents from his early years. He had been slow to pick up a pencil, shown little interest in words and by the end of Year 1 in primary school he still wasn't reading and "his writing was all over the place and back to front". The school assured them he was a slow starter and would catch up. He never did. George became distressed about going to school. "He used to say that he'd been adopted because he couldn't read and write and his mummy didn't want him," said Mrs Watling.

Two years ago, Mr and Mrs Watling travelled to York to have George assessed. Dr Rack diagnosed him as being dyslexic, dyspraxic and suffering severe dyscalculia (difficulties with number). On the strength of this they obtained bursary funds to send him to a local private school where he could have one-to-one specialist teaching and smaller classes. They also obtained a statement of special educational need from the LEA, but only after they had threatened to take their LEA to a special needs tribunal.

Now George is 12 his parents have had to move him back to a state comprehensive, as they cannot afford the increased fees of private secondary schooling. George is having problems. The statement, they say, is not being implemented as it should, his support teachers are not dyslexia-trained and cannot address his needs and teachers at the school are insensitive to his condition. They are afraid he will become increasingly withdrawn and school phobic. They are considering selling their home to put George back into private school. They are also considering suing the authority.


Dyslexia is dramatically more prevalent among prisoners than other sectors of society, which suggests that the disaffection experienced by many dyslexics can sometimes slip over into crime. Screening of inmates at Feltham Young Offenders Institution in London revealed 17 per cent meeting stringent criteria for dyslexia, about four or five times the incidence expected in a random sample of the general population. Screening for a recent Channel 4 documentary on Polmont Young Offenders Institute, Falkirk in Scotland, revealed half of the inmates having indicators of dyslexia.

The Feltham project was carried out in partnership with the local Dyslexia Institute, with a grant from the National Year of Reading. Laura Allchorn, head of the Institute's southern regional services, says prisoners were very willing to co-operate: "They talked a lot about school. Many had truanted from a very early age."

The Nottingham DI is also working with the Nottinghamshire probation service to screen and support probationers with dyslexia. In partnership with the British Dyslexia Association, 82 dyslexic inmates at Pentonville Prison, London were offered the chance to undertake the computer course "Touchtype, Read and Spell". Eighty showed consistent improvement, 20 used the course as a springboard into higher education and 15 began part-time studies.

Ken Thomas, a prison officer, is also dyslexic. "I saw what the prisoners were doing with 'Touchtype, Read and Spell' and I asked if I could do it too."

At first he worked in private during his lunch-hour, but now he does it as part of in-service training with his employer's sanction.

The images with this feature are taken from 'Visual Learning', a teaching resource by Pencil. Pencil are a designer and artist, Matthew Wood and Fabian Hercules. They are currently seeking sponsors to produce the 2nd edition of the resource. Tel: 0141 946 5429. Email:Fabianhercules.ftech.co.uk

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