Alien mission to find earthling dyslexics

7th June 1996 at 01:00
A computer program starring rabbits and a creature from outer space is helping to identify children with reading difficulties, writes Susannah Kirkman. A family says the test could have spared them heartache

We can't go on accepting children have to fail before we do something about it," insists Dr Chris Singleton, head of the dyslexia research unit at the University of Hull. After five years of research, his team of psychologists has produced a computerised diagnostic test, which claims to accurately predict future learning difficulties in children as young as five. The test is already used in more than 400 schools and seven local authorities.

The program, known as the Cognitive Profiling System or COPS for short, has an 83 per cent success rate in predicting problems with literacy or numeracy by the time a five-year-old reaches eight. Conventional infant checks fail to identify more than a fifth of the pupils likely to need special help, and teachers' assessments can miss nine out of 10 children with potential problems.

Psychologists are reluctant to test children younger than six or seven, as the results will be inaccurate. A full psychological test is time-consuming and expensive. In some areas, children with dyslexia have to wait until their reading age falls two years behind their chronological age before the local authority will act.

One advantage of COPS is that it can be given and interpreted by a trained class teacher, cutting the cost. It is easy to administer because children love doing it. It uses amusing and colourful cartoon characters - rabbits who waggle their ears and the tubby Zoid "from another world" with an engaging grin.

The driving force behind COPS was Chris Singleton's conviction that the traditional diagnostic system was failing thousands of children, based on his personal experience as an educational psychologist.

"In 15 years of doing assessments, time after time I would be diagnosing dyslexia in children of 13. The parents would be in tears, or angry at the way the system had let them down," he said. "The child would have suffered years of humiliation and frustration and would probably have very low self-esteem. "

COPS will not just bring prompt diagnosis for the 10 per cent of children estimated to suffer from dyslexia. It can also identify glue ear, another common cause of failure to read. And a new version, due out in January 1997, will provide a complete baseline assessment for all five-year-olds and help schools to work out what they have contributed to their pupils' achievement. COPS I Plus will include six additional modules testing reading, spelling, numeracy, motor co-ordination and verbal and non-verbal intelligence.

Dr Singleton denies that COPS is "labelling" young children. "It gives teachers a profile of children's strengths and weaknesses which they can act on. It's a way to differentiate," he said. "A child with a visual memory difficulty will fail at the first hurdle if flashcards and look-and say is used. Here, it's simply a case of using phonics instead; you don't have to call a child dyslexic or remove him from the class."

As Dr Singleton says, labels can be useful in identifying needs and ways of meeting them. The traditional resistance to recognising dyslexia stems partly from the outdated view that dyslexia is a pretext for pushy middle-class parents to corner more resources for their offspring, and partly from fear of the costs.

Singleton's research with 400 Humberside pupils has shown that dyslexia is as common among working-class children, but went unrecognised because of inadequate assessment. To identify dyslexia, psychologists first looked for a gap between chronological age and performance. If they found this, they then excluded any pupil whose lack of success could have been caused by "deprivation", which automatically ruled out most working-class children. In the 70s, Chris Singleton was one of those pouring scorn on the concept of dyslexia, but he is now urging his colleagues to take a look at the weight of scientific evidence which has emerged since then.

As for resources, it is obviously easier and far cheaper to take action early, before the child has developed a deeply-engrained sense of failure. While a 12-year-old with literacy problems will need expensive one-to-one tuition from a specialist, a five-year-old with potential difficulties simply needs a class teacher who can use a different approach.

Several LEAs are now investigating ways of giving classroom teachers the skills and support they need to identify and deal with specific learning difficulties and using COPS. The code of practice puts the onus firmly on the schools to provide specialised help for the vast majority of pupils with special needs. As Chris Singleton warns, it could soon be the schools on the receiving end of litigation by parents if it they ignore their new responsibilities.

Hampshire is trialling an identification and intervention system for teachers and classroom assistants in Year 1. As well as testing the effectiveness of COPS, the project will give teachers and classroom assistants some training in using diagnostic tests. They will also learn how to use a highly-structured, multi-sensory phonological programme developed by Hampshire psychologists for pupils with specific learning difficulties. It will be funded by the local authority and Grants for Education Support and Training through central government, but schools will use some of their delegated special needs budget to pay for software. In September, the county plans to introduce the training to a third of its Year 1 teachers and classroom assistants.

"It's thrilling," said Gill Tester of the special needs advisory service. "It's the first time we've ever been able to intervene so early with these pupils."

Anne Kerr, an advisory teacher for pupils with specific learning difficulties in Suffolk, says that early identification of special needs doesn't have huge resource implications; what's needed is in-service training in the basic teaching of reading. Suffolk, one of the areas where COPS was trialled, is now planning to introduce it into all its primary schools, backed with training for teachers and resources.

The British Dyslexia Association, with sponsorship from British Telecom, is developing an early intervention resource pack for dyslexia which includes COPS with Bradford, Devon, Cumbria and Newcastle local authorities. This scheme also involves training classroom teachers to use COPS and to modify their teaching techniques to meet the needs of dyslexic pupils.

Meanwhile, in response to demand from schools and educational psychologists, the Hull team is developing a COPS for 9 to 15-year-olds. Eventually, Dr Singleton hopes to compile a sourcebook listing all the resources developed by the different schools and local authorities working with COPS.

* It has nine tests using colours, shapes and sound to assess sequential memory, associative memory, phonological awareness, auditory discrimination and colour discrimination.

* It diagnoses children who are likely to have problems with literacy and numeracy. A child who performs badly on a visual sequential memory test - which holes did the rabbit pop down? what colours were Zoid's friends? which order did the shapes come in?- could develop difficulties with reading and spelling; for instance they might read or spell "girl" as "gril".

* A low score onthe associative memory test - which colours were these shapes? which name goes with which shape?- would predict problems with numeracy and learning letters.

* Poor performance in tests of phonological awareness and auditory discrimination - which words rhyme? which characteris saying the word? - could suggestglue ear.

* After each test, the child is rewarded bya short game for fun. The tests are administered by classroom teachersor assistants.

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