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How can school leaders and teachers be the change we want to see?

In 2007, some 13 years ago, the New Zealand Ministry of Education officially recognised Dyslexia as a learning disability.

Many who operate in this space as consultants and experts now prefer to use the term learning difference. Recognition at that time was a breakthrough for those who had worked tirelessly in the field. James Chapman, a researcher at Massey University, shared the following statement at the time of the announcement:

“To have dyslexia finally recognised at this level as a legitimate area of learning difficulty and reading problems, should pave the way for further research and development of initiatives which support students, and better prepare teachers for dealing with it.”

While accessibility to knowledge, awareness, evidence-based support and school resources remains frustrating for teachers and parents, we are certainly on the cusp of revolution heading into 2020. A bit like that well-known Pantene advertisement: “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”

We have been waiting for revolutionary change in our schooling system. The reality is that evolutionary change is more likely to be what leads to the evidence-based transformational, sustained change we crave. It does not serve us well to dwell on what might have been. Nor dwell on who is or isn’t doing enough to expand dyslexia awareness and understanding. It does not serve us to spend time listing the ways in which our peers demonstrate a lack of compassion or empathy.

Ultimately, the concern and challenge for a classroom teacher is not knowing or having access to necessary knowledge, assessments and resources that would empower them to best teach students with diagnosed or undiagnosed dyslexia.

What changes and/or actions can school leaders and teachers implement to make a measurable difference in the educational outcomes of dyslexic students?

How can school leaders and teachers be the change we all want to see?

I would like to offer some steps for dedicated professionals to consider. Keep in mind that we hope to build a consistent approach to evidence-based knowledge and support across school communities nationwide. This means we need to work alongside others and build a team of knowledgeable experts.

There is nothing more frustrating for a dyslexic student (and parent, for that matter) than having a wonderful school year with one teacher, then having to start from scratch the following year with someone new to the subject. It isn’t enough for one teacher alone to carry the can and be the so-called ‘dyslexia expert’. Dyslexic students make-up (on average) 10 to 15 percent of every classroom. It is important that we all understand this learning difference, with all its strengths and challenges.

I hope it goes without saying that when we teach dyslexic student better, non-dyslexic students also benefit.

I have observed developing professional practice in various flagship schools and here are some discoveries I would like to share:

  1. Knowledge is power.

There are many ways mainstream professionals can access support to build shared understandings across communities. I encourage you to access International Dyslexia Association factsheets online; the Learning Matters NZ Factsheet also online; Dr Lousia Moats’ text, Basic Facts About Dyslexia and Other Reading Problems; and the TKI website, which was recently updated to reflect more current research and evidence.

  1. Appropriate assessment tools are key.

Mainstream teachers and intervention teachers (RTLB, RTLit, LSCs) aren’t usually qualified to diagnose, nor do they have the time. However, over the past two years, I have witnessed first-hand the growing body of schools recognising the importance of using their newfound knowledge to review (literacy) classroom and intervention assessment tools.

Fundamentally, they are attuned to which tools will give them the best insights, whether that is a potential diagnosis of dyslexia or a different explanation for why students might be progressing differently along their learning pathway. Tools should assess:

  • Phonological awareness.
  • Alphabetic principle – phonology and orthography.
  • Reading fluency rates.
  • Working memory and processing speed.
  • Rapid automatic naming.

We observe that the consistent use of evidence-based assessment tools between mainstream classes and intervention settings leads to increased understanding and appropriate actions being taken.

  1. Evidence-based approaches and resources.

Funding is a challenge for school leaders. This is an area that really does require review and a funding injection. So often, I hear “we can’t afford that” or “our budget doesn’t stretch to that”. As a former school principal, I completely understand that what you focus on expands, and what you value determines your actions. Ultimately, we all choose where we spend our dollar. If your school wants to see children with dyslexia make progress, it needs to invest in at least some of the following:

  • Professional learning opportunities for all teachers and teacher assistants.
  • A structured literacy approach (teaching phonics in isolation won’t move these students).
  • Decodable texts that bridge to the spelling concepts being explicitly taught and are designed to develop reading fluency.

I watch teachers and intervention specialists increase their knowledge, establish appropriate assessments tools, access resources and decodable texts, and ultimately become the best possible teachers to their students. No commercial programmes are necessary. The gold sits with the teacher teaching the student.

Focus on what you can change in 2020.

Take time to formulate a strategic action plan: Rome wasn’t built in a day, but small changes make a big difference. Remember, we are all on this journey together and it really does take a village of dedicated professionals to stand up, be vulnerable, admit we don’t know enough and ask for help.

Let’s be the change we need and want to see in 2020.

Carla McNeil

Speaker and education consultant Carla McNeil is the Director of Learning Matters, providing support services for schools and students aged 4+.
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