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Change is afoot with dyslexia

Dyslexia is really common; according to Yale University research, it affects up to one in five people and represents 80–90 percent of all learning disabilities.

Surprisingly though, teacher training in New Zealand provides scant instruction on how to best support dyslexic students, leaving teachers feeling bewildered about everything from screening to diagnosis to effectively accommodating the learning difficulty.

Nevertheless, there is much you can do in your own school or classroom to ensure that dyslexic students get the help they need to learn in the best way for them. Remember: you have the power to inspire learning, despite how the curriculum is presented.
Some of the best feedback to the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand’s (DFNZ) nationwide workshops for school SENCOs and teachers were about simple and pragmatic changes, which can be carried out in tomorrow’s class.

First of all are two teacher-led questions to students (once they have worked together for a long enough period to know one another). Question 1: “What do I do that makes learning easy for you?”, and Question 2: “What do I do that makes learning difficult for you?”

DFNZ had an overwhelming response from hundreds of teachers who decided to ask their students these simple questions. Some teachers who had taught for decades said that they had learnt more about themselves by asking every child in their class to answer these questions than they had by following a labyrinth of different approaches suggested by different schools, leaders and institutions.

From many years working with DFNZ, my own greatest insight is that children shouldn’t be kept waiting – we make them wait to get to know the next teacher every year at primary school, we make them wait for the next assessment (in case of improvement), we make them wait to qualify (or be bad enough) for remediation, and so on and so on. In all this waiting time, their self-esteem is plummeting, and they are unable to access the day-to-day curriculum because they are held back by their lack of basic skills.

At DFNZ, however, we advocate for accommodating difficulties from the get-go. It’s not enough to observe the discrepancies between obvious intellect and poor basic skills and just flag it to wait till a diagnosis may prove it’s true.

So why accommodate from the get-go and what does this look like?

Accommodations in the classroom: provide audio version of content or reading
offer extra time to complete written or reading tasks provide the syllabus in advance
recommend reading on digital format to increase the font and have fewer words per page.
suggest the use of assistive technology (there are many on the market), so that text-to-speech and speech-to-text is understood and used encourage self-advocacy and educate everyone in the class to understand different learners – once you understand as a teacher what makes learning easy or hard, this becomes a great teaching and learning exercise for the dynamics of the whole class and will massively increase productivity, trust, collaboration and output

When accommodations are provided, all students engage with the curriculum. However, when students are not allowed accommodations, they are very often absent (in mind or physically separate in remediation classes) from the content of the curriculum. Essentially, with the provision of accommodations, students realize how they learn best and will also discover how to learn independently.

At NCEA level, Special Assessment Conditions (SACs) are provided to any student who has school-based evidence of discrepancies in their intellectual capability versus their written/basic skills. Contrary to popular belief, schools can apply for SACs without a diagnosis if there is sufficient school-based evidence to back up the application.

When it comes to diagnosing dyslexia, there is a network of C-level assessors and educational psychologists across the country qualified to do the diagnosis (this still sits in the private sector). It’s wonderful when the school itself looks at screening students and acting on that information immediately by providing both accommodations and learning support.

For more information on assessment & diagnosis: http://www.dyslexiafoundation.org.nz/members.html, dyslexia advocacy: http://www.dyslexiafoundation.org.nz/dyslexia_advocacy/,
accommodating learners: http://www.4d.org.nz/school/download.html,
school screening: https://www.sess.ie/dyslexia-section/lists-tests

Choosing to flag difficulties through screening puts the control back into the hands of the school. Using this strategy is immediately helpful to the student, rather than waiting, where we often deter learning and inhibit individual progress for far longer periods than are healthy. It is important to stress that, while a full diagnosis is highly beneficial and should be part of the journey, it’s not the destination. Acceptance and accommodation are the destination; aspiration and flexibility are the journey.

Get it right for dyslexia; get it right for all.

Esther Whitehead

Esther Whitehead is Managing Trustee of the DFNZ

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