Guiding an on-screen square along a zigzag is helping children overcome dyslexia, says John Galloway
Suspend your scepticism. Put aside your disbelief. What looks like a primitive computer game really can improve dyslexia. "It amazed me," said Pauline Atkins, whose son Christopher has been through the Brightstar dyslexia programme, "how 20 minutes playing with the mouse can get their brain working. It is like somebody has put a spell over him and suddenly changed the child completely."
But it is science, not magic. The core of the programme is an unconventional approach to the problem. Originally developed in Israel, it is based on the idea that, in people with dyslexia, three parts of the brain are not working as they should - the cerebellum; eye-tracking, and neural pathways. The course aims to make these areas more efficient. For 20 minutes, twice a week for six weeks, participants sit in a dark room, wired up to a heart monitor, doing little except keeping a red square on a zigzag road while strings of coloured lights drift around the edges. The path is on screen, then off again, the background is white, then purple, and the display of light-trails is constant, but not distracting. Interaction is limited to using a thumb on a handheld device to keep the target in place.
It is uneventful.
The sessions are backed up with more traditional, one-to-one multi-sensory teaching, although only once each week for 40 minutes, from one of six teachers qualified in this field. So over the six weeks students get four hours tuition in total, but some of them make extraordinary gains in reading and spelling; 97 per cent of those who attend show improvements, with two out of three improving by more than 12 months in at least one aspect of literacy. Follow-up studies so far show that these gains are sustained.
All potential students, adults and children, are tested when they first apply to ensure that they could benefit from the work and to provide guidance for the tutors. They also provide a benchmark so that students can see the progress they have made. The testing regime, and the subsequent programmes of study, have all been devised following training with the renowned Helen Arkell Centre, which has also trained some of the tutors.
Brightstar is deliberately setting out to allow comparison with accepted methods of addressing dyslexia.
American Matt Speno provides a structured teaching programme and also tries to boost his clients' self-esteem. Having seen the impressive gains his students make, he is readily prepared to acknowledge the role of the technology: "Two years, three months in six weeks. I'm good, but not that goodI I just know it works. You've got to be sceptical. But day in day out I've seen the benefits. People reaching their true potential."
Christopher, of Friars Primary School, is one of those who has benefited.
He came to Brightstar when the company offered a free trial of the programme for 10 Southwark pupils. The effect on his literacy skills and self-esteem is reflected in his school performance. "I did a PowerPoint project on dinosaurs for my interviews at secondary schools and I think that Brightstar helped me feel confident to do this. I also did some stories which Mrs Summers, my headmistress, published in our school newsletter. She said she was very impressed with my imagination. I don't think I could have done that stuff last year."
The pound;1,400 fee seems high, but there are payment plans and, given the big gains in a short time, Brightstar could compare favourably with the cost of similar gains through recognised methods. As well as opening a second centre in the Paddington area of London, Brightstar is hoping to reach more people by developing a portable system to take into schools, or even, after training, to let the schools use themselves.
Brightstar Learning, 157-168 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8EZ. Tel: 0870 3000 777
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