Don't delay on dyslexia

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Preventing otherwise intelligent children from finding alternative learning strategies is a recipe for disaffection, says Penny Wallace

If I asked you what Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Hans Christian Andersen, Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill have in common, you would probably say that all were icons of their time and, of course, you would be right.

However, something less acknowledged links these individuals. Each exhibited, in retrospect, symptoms associated with the developmental disorder, dyslexia.

The first references to intrinsic deficits in visual memory appeared in the Lancet in December 1895, in an article published by Glaswegian optic surgeon James Hinshelwood, with a contribution in 1896 by W Pringle Morgan, a general physician from Seaford who subsequently became a pioneer for research into developmental dyslexia.

Today broadly described as a collection of abilities or difficulties related to information processing, dyslexia affects around one in 10 individuals in this country. Children displaying a disparity between chronological and developmental age in areas such as reading, writing and spelling are frequently already failing by the time the condition is recognised.

Three years ago, the charity Dyslexia in Scotland conducted a survey looking at provision for dyslexic children in Scotland's schools. The results showed that educational intervention for these children was not uniform and was, in most cases, woefully inadequate. It appears that little has changed since then, parents reporting a significant lack of input for their children in school.

Experts in the field believe that training is the key to making learning accessible in the classroom, asserting that specific learning difficulties should form a compulsory element of teachers' basic training, moving away from its current optional status.

Apparently, part of the problem is that professionals feel the need to follow a prescriptive approach. Modifying the teaching style to include visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic strategies, in addition to offering opportunities for repetition, is likely to provide the best learning environment for dyslexic children in the mainstream setting.

It would appear that many professionals already have the skills they need to make learning accessible but require information, support and reassurance that they have the ability to be flexible in their approach.

This is not simply an issue of cost, although a chronic underfunding of services for dyslexic children does exist. Even before Dyslexia in Scotland introduced charges for the provision of information and training, the uptake of its services by local authorities was, at best, disappointing, leading one to conclude that either local service planners do not rate training for dyslexia a priority or that authorities equate charity-tendered expertise with professional incompetence.

In terms of priority, one only requires to observe the high prevalence of dyslexia in any of the young offender institutions in Scotland to appreciate the individual and societal costs of neglecting to take this disorder seriously. As for the charity's professionalism, some of the world's greatest authorities on dyslexia belong to the organisation along with teachers, parents and other professionals. There is therefore no basis for a lack of trust.

At least as worrying is the apparent persistence of some attitudes that dyslexia exists only because it offers a convenient explanation for underachievement in children of middle class parents, despite a significant body of research confirming its authenticity.

On a more positive note, it appears that the North Lanarkshire reading scheme (part of the Scottish Executive's early literacy initiative) has been most beneficial for dyslexic children in primaries 1-3. Parents would like to see its continuation in upper primary, since there is a perception that children entering secondary school already failing are more or less written off.

Areas of good practice also exist where parents have established good working relationships with their local professionals; teachers can rely on them to reinforce areas of deficit at home. However, these parents are often articulate, knowledgeable and highly motivated. One wonders if all parents would have the ability to negotiate adequate input for their struggling children.

Leonardo et al may have achieved success despite their difficulties but, for most, moving beyond the limitations of dyslexia demands unrelenting toil, dogged determination and access to a style of curriculum delivery that reflects the learning needs of all.

Yet preventing these otherwise intelligent children from finding alternative learning strategies is effectively sentencing them to a lifetime of insidious undermining of their confidence and self-esteem, resulting in disaffection in learning and in life.

Penny Wallace is a writer and former nurse.

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