The dyslexia trap

21st October 2005 at 01:00
If you give pupils a 'condition' with a name, the hope of them ever becoming proficient readers is very slim, says Jennifer Baker

ooray for Professor Julian Elliot (TESS, September 16)! At last I can "come out" and admit that after 25 years of teaching English to all abilities in the secondary sector I haven't a clue what dyslexia is.

I have to disagree with Professor Susan Tresman, who claims that trained teachers have no problem spotting the condition. I had no problem spotting the poor readers, but I couldn't tell the difference between them and the dyslexics - except, perhaps, that those who were labelled "dyslexic" had had more attention paid to their lack of reading skills during their primary school years than the poor readers.

There were various reasons for this, ranging from determined parents to primary schools that were involved in the dyslexia programme. I make these claims from observation and experience only - not from scientific research.

But 25 years in the classroom, and eight years heading a faculty where, obviously, I was responsible for the reading progress of all the students in the school, gives me the authority to state the case at least.

Rarely, very rarely, did a poor reader come from a background where the child was surrounded by books from birth; where books were shared and talked about. There was the occasional one, but other circumstances had also to be taken into account. For example, was the parent "dyslexic" and could it be that the condition would rub off on the child?

Actually, I couldn't hide my scepticism. I had to admit at parents'

evenings, when they informed me that their child was dyslexic, that I didn't really know what they meant. That usually brought forth gasps of horror. But it was true: I didn't.

Children who arrive in the secondary school unable to read are a serious problem to the English teacher. They have already spent seven years trying to master what everyone else seems to find easy, have developed coping strategies to hide their problems and are profoundly resistant to any further help with reading. They have given up and it takes a very skilful teacher to rekindle an interest in even trying.

My secret (but now no longer) belief was that, if you give pupils a "condition" with a name, then the hope of them ever becoming proficient readers is very slim. So we slogged on with encouraging statements like, "yes, I know you're dyslexic but we're going to try to conquer that", or "just because you're dyslexic doesn't mean you can't read".

I realise that all of this is very controversial and that, as soon as Professor Elliot claimed that the term "dyslexia" is an emotional construct, the balloon went up as I am sure he knew it would. I applaud his courage. The thought police will come out on this one. People like me will be accused of not caring, of cruelly dismissing what is a country-wide problem. But that will be fighting below the belt because it is important to look at new angles on this.

I cannot imagine the anguish and humiliation of not being able to read. I do not belittle the horror of that, but nor would I ever give up on the child even though I cannot identify the dyslexic. If, as is quoted by Government figures, one in 10 people in Britain is dyslexic, and if by dyslexic we mean that they can't read proficiently, then that is a pedagogical scandal and we, as educators, should be ashamed.

I have done some work teaching English in an island school off the west coast of Scotland over the past two years. According to the statistics, I should have come across at least one dyslexic or a couple of poor readers.

It was remarkable to me from the start that all the children in the school over the age of seven were good to excellent readers.

Maybe it's just a coincidence; maybe it's the clear island air; or maybe it's because there are seldom more than 16 children in the whole school in any one year, so consequently the pupils get loads of individual attention.

Perhaps Government figures would read differently if class sizes were reduced significantly. It would be an interesting experiment and one that is yet to be carried out in the fight to reduce the numbers of poor readers.

There is an amusing linguistic aphorism that has been quoted in staffrooms everywhere. I quote it apropos of nothing at all, but it has always made me smile. It states that middle-class children have migraines, allergies and dyslexia; working-class children have headaches, spots and can't read.

* Next week: Dyslexia Scotland states its case.

Jennifer Baker teaches in the west Highlands.

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