Blind to dyslexia no longer;Opinion

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Amid all the claims and counter-claims about the causes and precise nature of dyslexia, one thing appears certain: it is better to be a dyslexic Spaniard than a dyslexic English-speaker. As one dyslexia expert said this week: "What we ideally need is a test that spots dyslexics at the age of four months. Their families would then be able to emigrate to Spain, where they would learn a more phonologically-regular language than English."

In the real world, however, dyslexic children have no choice but to wrestle with the illogicality of words such as "rhythm" and "ricochet" as well as seemingly innocent tricksters like "climb". And all too often the cavalry arrives to rescue them years too late, if at all, because their learning problems have been misunderstood or misdiagnosed.

This week's announcement that British researchers have uncovered further proof of dyslexia's genetic roots is therefore a cause for some celebration. But few teachers, surely, will be surprised by the findings. Although some doubting Thomases still refuse to acknowledge that dyslexia even exists, most teachers have long been aware that it can run in families (a boy with dyslexic parents apparently has a 50 per cent chance of being dyslexic). Furthermore, a raft of studies in Europe, Scandinavia, and the United States, where about $18 million (pound;11.25m) a year is spent on such research, has suggested that there is a genetic component to dyslexia.

Nevertheless, the research by Professors John Stein and Tony Monaco makes it harder to dismiss dyslexia as nothing more than a convenient excuse for middle-class parents with less-able children. Professor Stein hopes that his finding will alleviate the depression and low self-esteem that so many dyslexics experience. But salvation has been a long time coming - "word blindness" was first identified in 1878 - and it is not yet at hand. The hunt for the genes controlling language development and organisational skills is likely to continue for another five years. But the debate will probably continue for many more years. Dyslexia is as difficult to "capture" as any cloud, and equally hard to describe. Does it have sub-groups, and if so how many? Can it really affect children's ability to play field sports, such as football, which require broad vision? Is the word "dyslexia" itself a problem in coming to understand the difficulties with which some children are grappling?

Clearly there is a need for more research that does not involve white coats and test tubes - and much more help must be offered to dyslexic children while that research is proceeding. Greater use should be made of the tests for five to 15-year-olds that can help to identify the condition; at present just over one in four schools is thought to employ them. Even earlier screening tests would also be helpful, but infant teachers need to be better equipped to identify dyslexic children, too. That means more time must somehow be found to address the issue during initial teacher training - even though the teacher training curriculum is already overcrowded.

More in-service training should also be offered for the many experienced teachers who still find it almost impossible to distinguish between dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties. Many teachers - and parents - need better information on the most effective ways of tackling dyslexic children's problems, and there must be a firm commitment to continue offering help for as long as it is needed.

None of this will be cheap, of course; but if we are serious in our commitment to literacy for every child, it has to be achieved somehow. Unlike the Spanish, when it comes to dyslexia, Britain cannot afford to wait until ma$ana.

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