It's easier to spell in Welsh

5th January 2007 at 00:00
A bilingual approach is working for dyslexic pupils at a ground-breaking school in Aberystwyth. Diana Hinds learns how

Dylan Morris, like virtually every pupil at Penweddig School in Aberystwyth, speaks both English and Welsh fluently. However, the 13-year-old's dyslexia gives him considerably more problems in English.

"English spelling is difficult but it's not that difficult in Welsh," he says. "The way you say 'y' in Welsh, for example, is the way you write it but in English, the letter 'y' confuses me."

Dylan is one of about 40 pupils benefiting from specialist help at the school's bilingual dyslexia centre, possibly the first of its kind. The centre was officially opened last term by Scott Quinnell, the former Wales rugby star, who has dyslexia and whose interest in Penweddig's dyslexic pupils made them the envy of their classmates.

It was founded as a bilingual school in 1973, moving into airy new buildings six years ago. About half its pupils are from Welsh-speaking backgrounds and the rest from English-speaking. Almost all come from primary schools where Welsh is a first language, so speaking in both languages is generally not a problem. At Penweddig, pupils choose which of the two languages they want to learn maths and science in, but all other subjects, apart from English, are taught in Welsh.

The school has developed an inclusive ethos, accommodating pupils with emotional and behavioural problems as well as specific learning difficulties. Out of an intake of 667 pupils, 187 are on the special needs register and up to 120 have some form of dyslexia, from mild to severe.

Dyslexia numbers have risen partly as staff have become more attuned to the condition, tutored by Angharad Evans, the school's specialist. "Teachers are on their toes to pick up pupils' difficulties," says Arwel George, headteacher.

The idea for a dedicated dyslexia centre arose just over a year ago out of a conversation with an inspector. Deciding where to site it was a sensitive issue - "there is still an element of stigma attached to dyslexia," says Arwel.

The school settled for an integrated approach, converting a smaller teaching room next to the support department.

"It's very important we have a separate room," says Angharad. "Often dyslexic pupils are very intelligent and putting them with children of lower ability in the support department could make them feel disheartened."

The bilingual nature of this dyslexia centre, painted a handsome dark blue, is apparent from the moment you enter the room. On the right-hand side is the "word wall", complete with colour-coded words, alphabet, days and months; on the left is the "wal geiriau", with the equivalent in Welsh.

Some dyslexic pupils work on their English, some on their Welsh, and some on both, depending on what is agreed by the school and parents. Those who do both, do so on alternate weeks - an hour of Welsh one week, an hour of English the next.

Welsh is highly phonetic as compared with English, which means, according to Angharad, that dyslexic children can progress more quickly to working on polysyllabic words.

Pat Riley, 11, is English-speaking but finds spelling easier in Welsh. "It is a lot easier because all you have to worry about is the double letters - like 'ff' - whereas in English, there's all these silent letters and stuff."

In the centre, pupils work on their phonological skills, matching sounds to groups of letters, by playing word games, using computer programs and multi-sensory activities involving large wooden letters and trays of sand.

Finding materials for dyslexia in Welsh is a great deal more difficult.

With the help of the Welsh department, Angharad has devised her own spelling programme, which is also used in mainstream classrooms.

Good links and shared approaches between all the language departments in the school mean she has a pretty good idea what her pupils will be doing in class. Mainstream teachers generally also know which groups of words a dyslexic pupil is working on and they make good use of a "pink slip"

referral system to pass on any worries to her.

"The dyslexia centre cannot accommodate every child who might benefit and that's why the whole-school approach is so important," says Arwel.

"Teachers are picking up on little things and developing their own repertoire of techniques to help dyslexic pupils."

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