From speaking to reading

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
The excellent message given by Professor Julian Elliott is being lost in irrelevant controversy about whether dyslexia exists.

The problem which is called dyslexia certainly exists. But it is part of the larger and more important problem addressed by Professor Elliott. Polly Toynbee (The Guardian, August 17) called attention to the "blindingly obvious fact that society can no longer reject 70 per cent of its children at 11". Something has gone wrong with the British education system. It fails nearly half its children, and those who fail reading tests at seven are unlikely ever to catch up.

Professor Elliott addresses the problem of how to teach all children to read so that they can all be functionally literate and participate in building a modern hi-tech society. This can be done by proper teaching that focuses on the individual child rather than on futile political reading wars between "phonics" and "whole language". Devoting excessive effort to classifying failing children, labelling some as dyslexics, does not help them to read and join the mainstream and neglects all the others.

For guidance on how to implement Professor Elliott's recommendations we look at The International Book of Dyslexia (published by Wiley) which has chapters on dyslexia in different countries all over the world.

A chapter on "Dyslexia in Israel" calls attention to a programme which teaches children to read in Hebrew and Arabic. It is described as "providing a unique contribution to our understanding of how to deal with the problem of dyslexia". This programme, called LITAF, has a record of success over 20 years and is now used in more than 300 schools in Israel teaching 18,000 first-grade pupils each year.

It emphasises the early identification of pupils having reading difficulties, analysing the difficulties and specific weakness of each pupil. The source and name for the difficulties are not considered relevant. The programme bypasses the reading wars between sound (phonics) and meaning (whole language) by recognising that every first-grade pupil knows that words have sound and meaning and uses both effectively in speech. The teacher starts from this point and guides the pupils to transfer these skills from speech to reading.

Children with learning disabilities are in special classes. All children are successfully taught to read with fluency, comprehension and enjoyment, including the dyslexics who are present in any normal population. This extensive reservoir of experience with real children in real classes deserves serious attention.

Harry J Lipkin Professor Emeritus Weizmann Institute of Science Rehovot Israel

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