Teaching Dyslexic Children
I have been following the correspondence generated by the publication of Elliott and Grigorenko’s book The Dyslexia Debate. The authors are concerned that the unitary term ‘dyslexia’ is too broadly defined, and that is what really matters is early intervention when children begin to fail, not diagnosis does not help determine how to intervene. It seems to me until neuroscience has advanced still further, we shall have to wait for a true understanding of dyslexia; but meanwhile, failing learners need help, and perhaps more attention should be paid to researching what is the best type of help.
My interest in the debate is as head teacher of small dyslexia specialist school for pupils of primary age. I was delighted to see a section in the book about intervention research. It seems the bulk of research is devoted to causality, rather than what is, or should be, actually done to improve the educational chances of dyslexic people, or poor decoders, or the learning disabled – call them what you will. To the dyslexia specific teachers in my school, they are simply pupils with a common difficulty in the acquisition of literacy and aspects of maths. Effectively, they have difficulty with any learning that involves phonological encoding or decoding in working memory. That’s all language-based learning! So perhaps the proposed deletion of the term ‘dyslexia’ from the DSM-5 and the replacement with Specific Learning Disorder is apt.
Poor working memory seems to define our pupils and their phonological difficulties can be subsumed within Baddley’s model of working memory. It defines them because even when you have taught them to read they still need more explicit teaching than others, and far move reinforcement. Contrary to the research quoted in the book, experience suggests they do benefit from the multisensory teaching. Surely appealing to all modalities – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic – to improve memory is not contentious, whatever Orton’s original motivation for it. We also observe, just as research has shown, that some pupils additionally are slow processors slow to retrieve words and have attention difficulties.
In 20 years of assessing, teaching and following cohorts of our pupils, it is clear to me that skilled teaching, in a dyslexia-friendly environment, is an absolute prerequisite for success in the face of these problems. The reading program used is also key – it must have inbuilt phonological awareness training, and it must take the idiosyncratic English code explicit. Dyslexics cannot work it out for themselves. Above all they must have multiple opportunities throughout the day to practice reading aloud (applying the code) until the goal of automaticity is reached.
Please, researchers come into specialist schools like ours and study our results and how we achieve them! Follow a cohort from Year 3 to Year 6 and beyond, and you will see that difficulty with reading is only a small part of being dyslexic and that is improbable that class teachers can successfully teach such children alongside their non-dyslexic peers.
Moon Hall School for Dyslexic Children.