Poetry helped me to read between the lines

29th April 2016 at 00:00

I was used as a test case to prove that dyslexia existed in Stirlingshire in the 1970s. There wasn’t a manual of “Dyslexia and How It Works” – little was really known about how the condition operated, only that it seemed to be centred around spelling and grammar, and wasn’t “just laziness”. A lot of what I was experiencing was unexplained, but I was diagnosed as severely dyslexic at the age of 10.

At 18, I spectacularly failed my exams – an experience documented in my poem D is for Dragons. Erratic work in low-paid jobs led to nine months of homelessness and single parenthood at 21. It’s fair to say that my prospects looked pretty bleak.

Yet although I struggled to fill out official forms without help, I had a love of language that endured. And something else happened when I was 10: I was introduced to poetry via memorising and reciting Robert Burns’ Scots Wha Hae. This experience ignited something in me, which was fuelled by my P6 teacher. She recognised my difficulties and my passion, and gave me a poem to learn every week for a year.

These are the two major experiences that have shaped and informed my life and my teaching.

The dyslexic brain experiences two to three times the amount of stress-processing information as a typical brain, and can crash like a computer. Dyslexic students may have a variety of intermingled “neurodivergences”, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyspraxia and Asperger’s, which can manifest in different ways and to different degrees.

By the time they enter a classroom, students may already have built up a resistance to learning. The teacher, seeing the individual as a whole, can work out what their passion or talent is and focus their learning through this lens. Young people can be helped to understand their dyslexia and other neural differences via websites, and can be encouraged to discuss how these conditions uniquely affect them and their learning strategies. For example, I cannot distinguish between vowel sounds, which means phonetic learning is ineffective for me.

I would say to teachers: be creative. Dyslexia creates both weaknesses and strengths, so focus on the strengths to build confidence and resilience. Dyslexic people are the primary experts on their situation, so you can build on the coping mechanisms that they have (often unconsciously) devised for themselves.

Combine learning with physical activity. Encourage learning through seeing, doing, saying, listening and acting. Break down written tasks into smaller chunks, use visual references. Keep it interesting, stress-free and fun. Using something like poetry as a tool for learning enables students to familiarise themselves with language in a powerful way, as I did at the age of 10. And learning to cope in a written world can transform a person’s entire life.

Performance poet Anita Govan is working on Scotland’s first national youth poetry slam, which will take place later this year. For details, go to www.confab.org.uk/sypslam or email admin@confab.org.uk

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