As easy as ABC really

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Sue Palmer describes a simple approach that finally taught her dyslexic daughter to read. A couple of months ago my nine-year-old daughter couldn't read. Now she can. As a one-time teacher of dyslexic children and thus well aware of the extent of her difficulties, the improvement seems to me little short of miraculous. It came about as a result of two hours' consultation with a reading specialist and a couple of months practising his system for 20 minutes a day.

In six years teaching children with reading difficulties myself, I met only two other cases as bad as my daughter Beth. Although her school is marvellous and she's bright, creative and happy in other respects, her progress in the 3Rs has been painfully slow. It's not for want of trying: she's had plenty of practice reading all sorts of books (structured schemes and "real" picture books): we've read to her at home until we were hoarse; she's had endless specialist "dyslexia lessons" with every sort of mod con, and she works like a little Trojan, trying her heart out.

We've tried psychologists, orthoptists, ear, nose and throat specialists, Irlen Institute consultants (yes, we have the coloured glasses), even an educational kinaesiologist (an alternative therapy for the balance of the brain - when your child can't read you try everything). But still, at nine-and-a-half, her reading age was three years behind and she could do no more than pick her way through simple texts, needing help on almost every unknown word.

Thus we ended up one Tuesday morning in the office of John Bald, a former special needs adviser now working as a private consultant in Cambridge. A session with a reading consultant is an interesting experience for one who, in an earlier life, used to do this sort of thing herself. John started with tests of vocabulary and reading and got the results I'd expect from a child like Beth - slightly higher than average vocabulary (10 years 2 months) and severely retarded reading development (6 years 7 months).

Then he launched into his teaching programme, and I sat back in admiration. In the course of an hour he explained the writing system of the English language (drawing on linguistic analysis, psychological research and the history of language) and the underlying reasons for Beth's difficulties with literacy, all in terms comprehensible to a bright nine-year-old. Not that Beth was the main target for this information - it was, of course, intended to bounce off her towards the doting parent, who would later be working with her at home.

Anyway, Beth was too busy carrying out the tasks with which John illustrated his explanation. These too were designed to show a parent how to carry on the teaching at home - simple techniques of repetition and reinforcement which both taught the language knowledge she needed and ensured plenty of immediate success to keep up motivation. One thing he emphasised was the importance of noticing how the same spelling patterns crop up in lots of different words - whenever there was a word Beth had to learn, he always found at least one other that followed the same rule: catastrophe and apostrophe; head, bread and instead; danger, stranger and manger.

It was the sort of knowledge about language and how children learn it which would be helpful to every parent (and teacher) who works with a dyslexic child. In my case, however, as an old hand in the field, most of the content was pretty familiar. For instance, I was already well aware of the importance of analogy in learning to read - those repeated spelling patterns John was so keen to point out - but also of the difficulties in helping older, struggling readers to recognise and use analogy without boring them to death.

It's one of the great problems of special needs teaching: how do you ensure children with appalling short term memory meet similar words in their reading frequently enough to develop analogising skills? Specially-written reading books using lots of similarly structured words draw readers' attention to the similarities, but they can be mind-blowingly boring to read. Interesting books that children choose for themselves tend to be written in interesting language, which by its nature does not consist of the interminable repetition of spelling patterns. I was pondering this particular dilemma when John announced they would now do some reading practice.

Any text would do, he said. Hmmm, I thought sceptically. We had forgotten to bring Beth's current reading book, so he used the test passage she had tried earlier. He started with a short homily to Beth. "Your memory isn't working very well at the moment. But you're going to have to find a way round that. No one can sort it out except you - so: when you come to a word you don't know, learn it. Stop and learn it."

Beth managed two words before she met one she didn't know. It was "final". John helped her, painstakingly, to work it out and discuss the meaning. Then, on his principle of "Never learn one word when you can learn more than one", he also explained the meaning of the word "spinal" and wrote down the two for her to see. She read them a couple of times till she felt confident of remembering them, then went back to the book and started the sentence from the beginning. We continued like this for ten minutes, by the end of which Beth had managed two sentences. It didn't look very productive to me.

However, John then produced an empty grid into which he wrote the groups of similarly-spelled words which had emerged from the reading session - this time mixing them all up. He started Beth reading across the grid. If she got a word right immediately, she was congratulated. If she didn't, he encouraged her to break it down and use her memory to identify the spelling rule. If necessary, he referred immediately to one of the analogous words elsewhere in the grid. I began to understand.

I'd seen grids like this used before as part of a system called Precision Teaching, rife among educational psychologists in the early eighties, which had then struck me as rather deadly. But in PT, words were fed into the grid ad hoc, with no particular method.

John Bald's leap was the use of home-made collections of analogous words, so that if Beth forgot a rule in one of them she had instant access to a selection of others, one of which she would usually remember. The grid provided an artificial means by which a child with poor short-term memory could learn to use analogy in the same way as a "normal" reader.

Like all the best ideas in teaching it's breathtakingly simple and you can't imagine why people haven't been doing it for decades. Who needs a boring structured course introducing spelling patterns in rigid succession when you can just identify the patterns a child needs as she goes along and provide a quick way for her to meet them over and over until they are committed to memory?

When we got home, Beth and I started using John's method in short daily lessons. It's extremely difficult to teach your own child (perhaps especially so if you happen to be qualified in the field), but we've found this system pretty painless. Beth chooses the books herself. The first one was not particularly easy, and we filled five grids before she really took off - but then, suddenly, she began to read more fluently and we were using the grid less and less. Now she's chosen a book with much simpler vocabulary, and is reading it almost faultlessly, which is doing wonders for her confidence. And whenever a word does stump her, we have a simple way of tackling it and providing frequent reinforcement of its most significant pattern.

Of course - again like all the best ideas in teaching - the system relies heavily on the skills and knowledge of the teacher and I don't know how easy the average parent would find it to apply. John's one-hour crash course in linguistics and psychology - tour de force though it is - is no substitute for a full-length programme on phonics, the English spelling system and individual teaching strategies.

Still, until he can be bottled (or better still, videoed) and made available in shorter bursts and greater depth, it's a darn sight better than nothing. And as someone who has tried just about everything on the Anxious Parent's List of Dyslexia Treatments, I would recommend a two-hour consultation with John Bald more than anything else currently on offer.

John Bald can be contacted on 01223 891069 Sue Palmer is General Editor of the Longman Book Project.

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