One of the highlights of my week is the hour I spend with a 31-year-old English GCSE student I'll call Jo. We start by discussing what she's been reading (usually a thriller, sci-fi or fantasy novel) and then we talk about her week, both at work and in her English class, and how many times she's lost her temper and chastised herself for being "stupid".
Jo isn't stupid at all. In fact she's particularly bright, with wide-ranging interests and sophisticated opinions. However, this is not reflected in her writing. Not only do the letters look like they've been written by a child but almost every word is misspelled. Unless you knew what she had planned to write, it probably wouldn't make any sense at all. Jo is dyslexic.
Teachers don't need to be told that dyslexia is a learning difficulty that is not connected to intelligence. Many successful people are dyslexic, including Sir Richard Branson and acclaimed journalist A A Gill. John Lennon was thought to have been dyslexic, as was Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. People with dyslexia often have strong visual, creative and problem-solving skills.
The disorder tends to affect the way people read and spell words, although it manifests itself in different ways. Jo devours books, whereas other dyslexics would struggle to read a line. I've been told that words can dance around on the page or form an indecipherable chain. People with dyslexia sometimes have short-term memory loss; they may be disorganised, confuse left and right, get lost easily or even have poor coordination.
According to the British Dyslexia Association (BDA), about 10 per cent of the population is dyslexic and 4 per cent severely so. Exact figures are not known: many remain undiagnosed.
Jo's dyslexia was identified only when she entered adult education. She's not alone. Research shows that almost half of people with dyslexia are diagnosed as adults; for a third, the issue is not identified until they join higher education. It is not unknown for some to reach PhD level before it's flagged up.
"Huge numbers are not being diagnosed," says Katrina Cochrane, head of education and policy at the BDA. "It is easier to spot if someone is bright, because of the discrepancy between ability and attainment." Yet dyslexia may never be identified in people with lower levels of intelligence. Even now, I talk to adults who say they struggled to learn to read as children but no one noticed.
The problem is that teachers are not being trained to spot the disorder. Presently, the BDA visits university PGCE courses to deliver lectures, but these are not mandatory. The association hopes to set up a voluntary code for universities, saying that dyslexia awareness should be a compulsory element of initial teacher training.
"All the research shows that early identification is best," Cochrane says. "It's much better for the child as they can then become a compensated dyslexic [someone who has learned to overcome their dyslexia]. If they're missed, their frustration levels often increase."
A chance for change
Jo had been excluded from mainstream school by the time she reached her GCSEs. She was so infuriated by her inability to put her thoughts and ideas down on paper that she would storm out of classes, swearing at the teachers. She didn't take her exams because she didn't believe she would pass. She waited more than a decade before returning to study as an adult.
It's the same story with lots of my students: many were thrown out of school for bad behaviour; very few sat any GCSEs. They fell through the net. Coping with an undiagnosed disorder like dyslexia can impact negatively on future life choices, too. The BDA works with prisons and penal institutions because a staggering 50 per cent of offenders are thought to have dyslexia.
I have had a limited amount of training in supporting dyslexic students such as Jo; a proper qualification takes up to two years. "It's important that a specialist programme is put together so they do succeed," Cochrane says. "Because if they fail again, their confidence can decrease further and go right down to zero."
Nevertheless, I spend an hour a week with as many students as I can, offering one-to-one support with their homework so they don't fall behind in class. Together we navigate new ways of learning. We discuss strategies for remembering spellings and recognising words. This could be through phonics, kinaesthetic approaches (such as touching an apple that represents the letter "a") or other techniques.
Not only does support help these people to learn but it also benefits them outside the classroom. Dyslexia is a disability recognised by the Equality Act, yet Cochrane has been called into workplaces when adults have been disciplined. "I've had to speak to their manager to explain that this person has dyslexia and how to help them," she says. "Many adults get stressed and stop sleeping, and it can spiral into a breakdown. It stems from the fact that they've been trying to hide that they've got difficulties."
No stigma should be attached to dyslexia. If teachers are equipped to diagnose it early on and specialists can then offer the correct help, more students will be able to cope. Until then, I will continue to support my adult learners as best as I can, helping them to realise their potential.
Kate Bohdanowicz teaches English to adults in East London and is also a journalist. For more information from the British Dyslexia Association, go to www.bdadyslexia.org.uk
Tips for teachers
- Print instructions on coloured paper. Many people with dyslexia find that writing is clearer when it's not black on white.
- The same applies to computers - installing a coloured background on a student's screen can make text clearer.
- If you are introducing a new topic, give students the work in advance so they can look over it before it is presented to the class.
- Break instructions into small, easily remembered pieces of information and write them down so students can refer to them if they forget.
- Adjust your expectations. If the rest of the class is learning five spellings a lesson, give your dyslexic student two. That way you provide a goal that is achievable, rather than setting them up to fail.