I was a couple of months off sitting my A levels when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Despite some obvious indicators throughout my schooling and a conversation with a teacher, who admitted the possibility of my having dyslexia had crossed her mind a few times, it was never investigated and was left to my parents to seek a private assessment. I was awarded extra time in my A level exams and this was considered a reasonable adjustment to make up for 13 years of schooling with no differentiation or additional support.
There is a myriad of reasons why my dyslexia was not picked up on sooner, including a lack of knowledge and understanding of the condition, and how to go about assessing and providing support. By secondary school, I had developed my own coping strategies which meant I went under the radar and focus was spent on those students with more obvious needs. The condition is complex and can impact individuals differently and so can be difficult to spot.
Primary school was a struggle both academically and socially. My handwriting and spelling were poor and being asked to read out loud in front of the class was tortuous. Easily distracted, I was chastised for not concentrating and taking too long with my work. Navigating relationships with my peers could be bewildering. I felt different, and it didn’t feel good. By secondary school I had managed to develop enough coping strategies to get by. I was put into a lower class and found a peer group of others like me; I learnt to keep my head down and avoid attention. School reports always praised me for my effort but consistently criticised my spelling. Not much was expected of me; an attitude which has impacted my self-esteem through the rest of my life.
I remember the immense feeling of relief when I received my diagnosis; to have recognition that there was a reason behind my struggles, that I wasn’t just ‘stupid’ which is how I had been made to feel throughout my schooling. Suddenly all of the other difficulties, which until then I had put down to ‘just me,’ started to make sense. Difficulty telling the time, telling my left from my right, reading numbers the right way around and managing my time, and problems with my short-term memory (which proved a real challenge when it came to revision) were all difficulties relating to dyslexia.
20 years on, the condition has been further researched and technological support has come on in leaps and bounds, but have prospects for students like me improved?
Dyslexia is the most common specific learning difficulty which affects approximately 10% of the UK population (DFE, 2018). The Department of Education defines dyslexia as a condition which ‘primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling’ (DFE, 2018).
Personally, I experience a wide range of difficulties due to dyslexia which go far beyond reading and writing. I therefore find this description on the British Dyslexia Association website to be a more useful explanation of the condition:
‘Dyslexia is usually hereditary. A student with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and words within sentences while reading. They may also have difficulty with spelling words correctly while writing; letter reversals are common. However, dyslexia is not only about literacy, although weaknesses in literacy are often the most visible sign. Dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved, with problems of memory, speed of processing, time perception, organisation and sequencing. Some may also have difficulty navigating routes, left and right and compass directions.’ (British Dyslexia Association, 2018)
Despite the prevalence of dyslexia within the population, figures show that just 1% of children in UK schools have a diagnosis (McNicol, 2008).
Often it will be the child’s teacher who first recognises when they are having difficulty, so being equipped with the knowledge and understanding to recognise the condition and put in support is key, however, studies show that 14% of teachers are confident in recognising dyslexia and less than 9% feel able to teach students effectively (McNicol, 2008).
Resolving this issue is not an easy task. Dyslexia is not straightforward; there are many different definitions in use, the terminology can be confusing, guidelines are vague and most challenging is the inconsistent nature of the condition itself.
For all students, good self-esteem underpins everything they go on to achieve. For students with dyslexia, negative experiences faced in early education can be hugely damaging. Research shows that individuals with dyslexia can experience a range of emotional problems (Passa, 2016). Mainstream education can feel debilitating, where all the skills which are valued and celebrated by teachers and peers are the exact skills which someone with dyslexia struggles with.
Samuel T Orton’s research into the emotional aspects of dyslexia showed that the majority of pre-schoolers with dyslexia were ‘happy and well adjusted.’ Their emotional problems begin to develop when early teaching does not meet their learning style. Students begin to feel isolated and inferior. They experience frustration and humiliation at not reaching expectations, as well as frustration with themselves for not achieving their own goals. Often developing unrealistic/ perfectionist expectations of themselves, with huge fear of making mistakes or failing (Orton in Ryan, 2016)
According to Eric Erickson, the first few years of schooling are crucial in the development of a child’s positive self-image. Success allows them to develop a good image of themselves and their ability. Failure causes feelings of powerlessness and incompetence. Erickson found these feelings of inferiority develop by the age of 10 and once developed it becomes very difficult to turn the child’s self-image into a positive. (Erikson in Ryan, 2016)
Upon leaving school young people with dyslexia are faced with finding jobs or going into further education. A lack of diagnosis and its potential impacts upon academic results can limits these opportunities. Applying for jobs, college places or apprenticeships can be a gruelling task at the best of times, for people with dyslexia it can feel impossible. In some cases, individuals feel disengaged and excluded from society.
As we can see the personal impact Dyslexia can have on Mental Health and Life opportunities are significant and have a knock-on effect on society as a whole.
Early intervention with the right kind of teaching can make a big difference to a child’s educational development and their experience of schooling. So, understanding dyslexia in a meaningful way is key. This goes beyond understanding the cognitive problems caused, but also understanding how it feels to have dyslexia, to be able to empathise, support and strategise to help students find success and enjoyment in learning.
There are many steps that can be taken by schools and individual teachers to improve the experience for a student with dyslexia. The most important being to recognise the impact of the education environment on self-esteem and to taking steps to elevate this by teaching resilience and confidence. It is also worth noting that what works for learners with dyslexia generally works well with all learners, thus benefitting everyone.
- Make sure you understand the condition and how it affects the individual student, avoid making assumptions, if you need to understand further speak to the child and their families.
- Believe in the student and their ability to succeed, make sure they know this. Help them set goals for themselves, which are equally realistic and challenging. acknowledge and celebrate the range of skills that the student can excel in, regularly praising efforts rather than achievements. This book explains the condition in a clear and positive way ‘The Illustrated Guide to Dyslexia and its Amazing People’, by Kate Power and Kathy Iwanczak Forsyth.
- Protect students from humiliation when working in areas they find challenging; advocate the benefits of failure rather than a fear of it, developing a healthy relationship with risk and exploring the opportunities for ‘safe risks.
- Offer the chance to work in less traditional classroom situations, allowing students to move around and learn through exploration. Hands on learning such as art, science and cooking, are great for this, but more traditional learning through reading and writing can also be adapted to be more hands on.
- Consider the use of Forest School within your setting, this allows students to explore and learn in a more hands on way and on their own terms, building confidence which is then taken back into the classroom.
- Help students to build their self-worth and to be seen in a positive light by encouraging them to take on additional responsibilities. School council, buddy schemes and even peer mentoring other younger students with dyslexia can work well.
- Recognise the emotional toll the condition can have and provide support, including counselling where necessary to help students understand and express their feelings.
- Seek out professional development in this area, by gaining experience within specialist dyslexia schools or units.
- Where possible provide support through assistive technology, this can make a big difference to processing, speed and accuracy.
- Find out what support is available and how it can be accessed, signpost parents and support them where possible.
‘Educators must take their responsibility to learn about dyslexia seriously; when training is not readily available, they must seek it out. As educators develop a deeper understanding about dyslexia, they will be better equipped to help all students. Consequently, more individuals will be able to attain their true potential in school and life, and all of society will benefit.’ (Wadlington and Wadlington, 2005)
- British Dyslexia Association, Types of Specific Learning Disability: Dyslexia, accessed 26 September 2018 https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/educator/what-are-specific-learning-difficulties#Dyslexia