Prickly pictures;Special needs;Books

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
A series of photographs is helping students deal with their dyslexia. Justina Hart reports.

All curled up with anger, built up inside, just waiting to be bled out into the open." Violent and visual, this is not a poem, but the verbal response of a young dyslexic to an image of a pencil covered in thorns.

Matthew Wood, a dyslexic graphic designer who is completing an MA at the Royal College of Art, is the creator of the thorned pencil and 13 linked images. At first sight disorientating, even shocking, these photographs of spiked books and broken rulers evoke powerful reactions among dyslexic children.

Both Matthew and his dyslexic collaborator Fabian Hercules, a support tutor of dyslexics at Glasgow School of Art, identify positively with their condition. While they may have trouble learning to read and write, dyslexics tend to have highly developed visual-spatial skills and excel at art, design and in using multimedia technology.

Matthew and Fabian are not alone in realising that these skills are under-utilised in mainstream schools. They and others like them are using their creativity to help young dyslexics. "We'd both had teachers who didn't make us feel successful simply because they didn't understand our behaviour," Fabian says. "They didn't know why we cried or stared out of the window."

To address his own frus-trations, Matthew assembled a series of 3D sculptures for his degree show that expressed his feelings towards the three Rs. The thorned pencil was his first success. "I saw it and it just resonated," he says. The Botanical Gardens in Glasgow sent him a rose twig, which he had drilled with lead, and an idea was born.

Fabian, then Matthew's support tutor, was also teaching at the time in a mainstream school. His "gut instinct" told him that Matthew's images would be useful in the classroom. Worried that they were too negative, however, Matthew expanded the series to include image "solutions", such as a gardening glove to hold the prickly pencil. The children's reactions, Matthew says, were a "revelation".

The pair went on to develop the pencil teacher's pack, comprising a photocopiable booklet, a teacher's handbook of follow-up work and 14 photographs developed from the sculptures.

The pencil pack is intended to help 7 to 13-year-olds tap into their feelings about why and how they learn, to enable them to express those feelings in writing, speech and pictures. As such, it is a starting point on the road to helping children break the destructive effect of negative learning experiences.

While many of the images are about reading and writing, some are about organisational or sequencing skills. The pack can also be used effectively with integrated groups. Non-dyslexic children are very supportive, Fabian says. "They want to understand their friends."

Linda Riley, a dyslexia teacher at Roundhay Schools in Leeds, says:"Some of my Year 9 dyslexic girls used the pictures to give a talk on how it feels to be dyslexic. It helped them express how they feel." She has used the pictures as a talking point: "It's so creative. Dyslexic children see things just as the artists do."

Christine Ostler, director of the learning support department at Cobham Hall School, Kent, says those familiar with using thinking skills will find the pack easy to use. "It's great for getting students' responses, positive and negative, to their difficulties. I'm always suggesting they try to find a solution. It does that brilliantly."

When one profoundly dyslexic girl was shown the thorned pencil picture, she said: "He doesn't like writing, so a spiky pencil gives him an excuse not to pick it up." She then linked it to her own experience: "Nothing makes sense I write down." When Ms Ostler produced the gardening glove image, the girl said: "Never give up, there's always a solution."

A limited number of 'pencil' packs is available from Matthew Wood, 7 Alwyne Road, London N1 2HH. Tel: 0171 354 4588. pound;27 with postage

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