Dyslexia and its Manifestations in the Secondary School

Extracted from Peer,L and Reid,G.(Eds.) (2001)
Dyslexia - Successful inclusion in the Secondary School.
David Fulton Publishers.
Reproduced with permission.

Introduction:

'The teaching profession is a hard working and caring one, but teachers have to work continually under constraints of time and resources...however we all know that success motivates. A student with unacknowledged learning difficulties will not be successful, so he is unlikely to be motivated to learn. The sooner his difficulties are pinpointed and addressed, the sooner he will be successful and motivated to progress. Instead of diminished self-esteem, with its associated behavioural difficulties, his self-esteem will grow with his achievements. Therefore time spent initially solving those difficulties will lead to less disruptive behaviour, fewer long-term problems for the student and a significant saving in time for the teacher: and time is at a premium for the secondary school teacher.'
(Peer, 2000)

My opinion relating to the position of teachers has not changed since writing the first edition of 'Winning with Dyslexia' some years ago. Having spent many years in secondary schools as a mainstream English and Drama teacher and Head of Department before going into the area of special needs, I am fully aware of the pressures under which mainstream teachers find themselves. The stress of having yet more responsibilities and paper work placed upon them with every new educational initiative can be frustrating to say the least. Currently we are in a phase of 'Inclusion', which means that today more demands than ever are being placed upon teachers. They find themselves in the position of having to possess expertise in a range of areas that previously were not in their remit - and for which in many cases they have no training.

Schools find themselves under the microscope of the media as well as the usual channels of inspection. It is not unusual to hear parents discussing 'failing schools'; asking whether their children are reaching the 'expected targets'; discussing 'league tables'. This is a new world - one in which parents demand to know far more about systems and outcomes than ever before. Many parents are empowered and become involved with the running of the schools.

The special needs debate is on-going. The Human Rights Bill and the Disability Commission are highly significant in a world where Equal Opportunities are valued. 'Inclusion' of those with special needs in any system, as a principle can only work when issues have been recognised, systems put in place and each is given according to their need. Giving the same to all is not appropriate when we look at the broad range of special needs. We need to ensure that what is done differently for individuals means that each is provided with a way forward - allowing them to be on a level playing field with peers.

Contentious issues are being raised. Possibly due to funding limitations, Statements of Educational Need are being removed: This was seen as a protection for many children with special needs. In principle I would be happy to support this change of direction, provided that resources were put in place and teachers trained so that the individual children concerned still had their needs met. Parents are most anxious that their children will be placed within an inclusive situation without the relevant support. As such, it might be said that in such circumstances, inclusion by definition would mean exclusion. Parents are not willing to accept the excuse that there is insufficient funding which is unfortunately what is happening in some places.

There is debate as to whether or not specific children should be placed in mainstream or special schools.

There is discussion as to whether or not groups of adolescents should be disapplied from specific studies.

National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies are being introduced into secondary schools. This then begs the question as to who will be responsible for the success of the SEN children across the curriculum? The issues with which any education system needs to deal are endless.

It is perfectly clear to everyone involved with the education system that there are currently massive changes in the air at every level. However the mainstream teacher working within this current of change has to override the pressures and continue the daily toil, working hard to ensure success for all members of their class every day of the week. This includes those who are dyslexic and those who experience a range of literacy and/or numeracy difficulties.

What we have not mentioned are the young people themselves - the people for whom these changes have been designed to support. Who are the dyslexic learners? How do we recognise them? What are the implications for teaching them?

The types of problems experienced in reading might be:

  • Hesitant and laboured reading, especially out loud
  • Omitting or adding extra words
  • Reading at a reasonable rate, but with a low level of comprehension
  • Failure to recognise familiar words
  • Missing a line or reading the same line twice
  • Losing the place or using a finger or marker to keep the place
  • Difficulty in pin-pointing the main idea in a passage
  • Finding difficulty in the use of dictionaries, directories, encyclopaedias

The types of problems in written work might be:

  • Poor standard of written work compared to oral ability
  • Poor handwriting with badly formed letters
  • Good handwriting but production of work extremely slow
  • Badly set out work with spellings crossed out several times
  • Spells the same word differently in one piece of work
  • Has difficulty with punctuation and grammar
  • Confuses upper and lower case letters
  • Writes a great deal but 'loses the thread'
  • Writes very little but to the point
  • Has difficulty taking notes in lessons
  • Finds organisation of work and personal timetable difficult
  • Clearly knows more than he can commit to paper

The types of problems found in mathematics have actually very little to do with mathematics! They are to do with the same problems that appear in other subjects across the curriculum:

  • Difficulty remembering tables and formulae
  • Finds sequencing difficult
  • Confuses signs such as + and x
  • Can think at a high level in mathematics, but needs a calculator to remember basic facts
  • Misreads questions that include words
  • Confuses directions - left and right
  • Finds mental arithmetic at speed very difficult

As a result of the sheer frustration, perceived misunderstanding on the part of teaching staff and sometimes parents, and often exhaustion from the concentration expended in order to perform in each class, there are sometimes behavioural problems too. It is clearly imperative to find ways of working efficiently with these children in order for all to benefit.

There is a further problem too; that is of dyslexic learners who have a bi- or multilingual background.

'Teachers and psychologists have tended to misdiagnose or ignore dyslexia experienced by multilingual students because of the multiplicity of factors that seem to be causes for failure. Reasons cited include home background, different or impoverished language skills, inefficient memory competencies, unusual learning profile, emotional stress, imbalanced speech development, restricted vocabulary in one or all languages, leading to reading, spelling and writing weaknesses; sometimes numeracy is affected. However, educators are often aware that these students are very different from others who experience difficulty, as they are often bright and able orally or visually. The difference between their abilities and the low level of written work is very obvious. There are similar concerns regarding pupils who have specific difficulties while attempting to acquire a modern foreign language.' (Peer and Reid, 2000)

There are schools that have vast numbers of these children in them - of that group a proportion will be dyslexic. Dyslexia is not limited to those who speak only one language! I was recently talking to the head of a large comprehensive that had over 70 languages spoken in her school. They had never considered dyslexia as an issue for anyone. It is highly significant that there are very few of these learners nationally who have been identified. It may be because educators and psychologists have little experience with this sub-group of learners or it may be because it has never been considered. In our recent book, Multilingualism, Literacy and Dyslexia: A Challenge for Educators (Peer and Reid, 2000), we have dealt with these very issues which so keenly manifest themselves in the secondary school sector where success in public examinations is so critical.

One of the main problems in a large secondary school is just that...the size. There is an unrealistic expectation that the SENCo and the English teacher are the ones responsible for supporting all dyslexic children and others with literacy difficulties! The truth is that even if qualified, there are simply too many students, their teachers and their parents with whom to deal and nowhere near sufficient resources to answer that demand. It is therefore absolutely vital that all teachers should see themselves responsible for supporting and helping develop the dyslexic children in their classes and within their subject frameworks. They need to understand the weaknesses as well as recognise the strengths to see where the problems are likely to lie in their particular part of the curriculum and how best to deal with them. They should then begin to consider ways of adapting that which they are doing, to give access to the dyslexic learner - in an inclusive way. Whether it is the geography teacher who works on sense of direction or the PE teacher who helps develop hand skills and balance. Whether it is the maths teacher reinforcing techniques to replace rote learning of facts or the history teacher finding ways to work with sequencing of time lines and so on. All the skills and strategies automatically will transfer from one class to another allowing for greater access to the curriculum. As with a recognition of the value of Learning Styles and Study Skills, the good news is that we know that what is good for the dyslexic learner is good for all learners - encouraging everyone to achieve at a level higher than would normally be expected. The only note of caution is that whilst other learners can cope without this support, the dyslexic ones cannot.

Motor skills weaknesses and dyslexia:

There are groups of dyslexic children who also experience weaknesses in areas of fine and/or gross motor skills. Experience from working in this field for many years has highlighted the fact that if dyslexic children are going to be bullied, there is a strong tendency for it to be those who have weaknesses in the area of motor skill control. In the past we might have described these children as being 'clumsy'. These children are the ones who fall over things, are not wanted in the sports teams, who will turn right when the instruction was left and so on. There is a great need to keep an eye out for these children as they are more vulnerable than many others. The PE teacher is an ideal person to be working with young people like this, encouraging control over muscles of their bodies and some training in body language and self-esteem. All staff need to be made aware of the areas in which the child particularly needs to be made to feel confident. There are many exercises that should be done with children in the PE class that will reinforce what is happening in other classes. For example, no one can hold a pen effectively and make the fine motor movement so necessary for the writing process if they do not have control over the gross motor skills. A useful book is Take Time, which is full of exercises that can be carried out at home and at school to improve control of the body.

Stress, giftedness and dyslexia:

We also need to recognise that stress can have a significant impact on all dyslexic learners. As Susan Hampshire states in Miles and Varma, (1995):

'One of the worst aspects of being dyslexic is the viscous circle caused by stress. As soon as I make a mistake I panic, and because I panic I make more mistakes.'

Gifted dyslexic people have their share of anxiety and tensions too:

'I believe that the vast majority of gifted dyslexic children are still unidentified in schools today and those few who have been identified are in the main not receiving appropriate provision. There is a great need to highlight the existence of this group and make provision for them at local and national level. The worst thing for them is to place them in classes with under achievers as this is bound to cause severe stress in an already difficult situation.'Peer (2000).

One interview that remains in my mind is that that took place with a PhD university lecturer in mathematics...who takes his calculator to the supermarket, as he cannot work out his bill in his head! His short-term memory is particularly weak, but his IQ is particularly high. His description of the way he was treated at school and the impact that has had on his life defy belief. So traumatised was he that he wishes never to have children so that they will not have to undergo the same stressful times that he did.

There is a real issue about the non-recognition of varying groups of dyslexic learner, causing much difficulty for all concerned. Thus becoming a 'dyslexia friendly teacher' will benefit all. The ability to identify, then ask for a diagnostic assessment that will give guidance and direction for appropriate support may well be the answer in many cases. A classroom geared up to the needs of children with mild-moderate dyslexia will also alleviate many of the stresses and support other children with a range of difficulties concurrently. The situation will truly become win-win for teachers, pupils and parents alike.

How to become 'Dyslexia Friendly'

In the Foreword to the Dyslexia Friendly Schools Resource Pack, the Rt. Hon David Blunkett stated:

'As I know from first hand experience, dyslexia is not something a child grows out of and when it goes unrecognised, it can be the source of much misery, frustration and under achievement.'

'It is equally important that we recognise that the effects of dyslexia can be alleviated by using appropriate teaching strategies and committed learning. Teachers need to know how to identify children who have special educational needs and how to provide for such children effectively once they have been identified.'

Of the Dyslexia Friendly Schools Resource Pack, he goes on to say:

'I hope it is spread as widely as possible and catches the imagination of all those in a position to help dyslexic pupils.'

It certainly has! The challenge for local education authorities is to provide the leadership and to focus the resources necessary to ensure the development of dyslexia friendly schools. The model of good practice that I am giving is that of Swansea LEA, Wales. Having made the decision to alter direction in an attempt to raise standards and reduce the number of Statements of Educational Need, they went through a process of change as outlined in the Dyslexia Friendly Schools Resource Pack. They met with parents, head teachers and psychologists. They are currently in the process of training one specialist dyslexia teacher to be placed in every school so that expertise can be spread in-house. There has been a dramatic improvement. Schools have looked for ways for their managers, heads of department, teachers and classroom assistants to become dyslexia friendly. They now have very few complaints and standards are rising.

So effective was this seen that other education authorities are in contact with Swansea and with the British Dyslexia Association looking to change their systems too.

'Where schools have implemented the dyslexia friendly schools charter on a planned basis it has quickly become clear that there are wider benefits, including improvements in literacy across the curriculum, better teaching of literacy for all pupils, greater awareness of individual learning needs and the use of more varied teaching strategies.' (Warwick, 2000 in DFS Pack)

Being an effective school and being dyslexia friendly are two sides of the same coin. Effective schools enjoy strong leadership, value staff development and pay close attention to the quality of instruction and learning. These are schools in which all children are important regardless of ability or difficulty. Dyslexia in schools like this needs to be seen to have status within the school. This can be achieved by ensuring that the governors and senior managers are firmly committed to supporting dyslexic children across the curriculum. The most effective way would be through the School Development Plan, the document used by OSTED to evaluate the management of any school. The next step would be to translate policies in to practice by:

  • Offering comprehensive training
  • Formulating a common approach
  • Setting targets based on National Curriculum descriptors
  • Putting in place monitoring and evaluation systems

Head teachers need to take the responsibility of ensuring that the ethos of the school is Dyslexia Friendly. This might relate to attitudes and actions held by teachers, support staff and even the dinner ladies. All staff need to be aware that although children might have weaknesses with specific parts of curriculum access, they are likely to be at least of average ability if not a great deal higher. Parents need to be brought into the changing set up, their concerns heard and their co-operation sought where possible.

Whole school approaches to issues such as marking should be put in place - where children can receive a high mark for content and knowledge rather than always being marked down due to poor presentation skills, spelling, punctuation and grammar. The child should be getting help in these areas of weakness and should be motivated to keep trying by having his thoughts, ideas and knowledge valued. If we cannot do this, one might ask that we discuss the philosophical question as to what is education?

We are now left with a consideration of the issues of Teacher Training on a national basis. I strongly believe that Dyslexia should be mentioned in the course of Initial Teacher Training through work on the national Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. Dyslexia should be placed on both Mainstream and Special Education curricula. I cannot accept the excuse from some institutions that there is no time to deal with SEN or with dyslexia specifically; there are always ways of finding a small space to at least raise some awareness of the condition. For every year that a teacher is untrained in recognising and adapting to suit the learning styles of the dyslexic children in their classroom, so it is another year of those children's lives that are wasted - or worse.

Within schools there is the necessity for a range of training needs to be carried out with relevant staff. Whereas it would be ideal to have a dyslexia-trained specialist in every school, so too do we need mainstream teachers and Learning Support Assistants knowledgeable in the classroom to help the child on a regular basis. In addition it would be highly useful for head teachers and governors to attend awareness raising sessions on the needs of the dyslexic child and benefits to the school of dyslexia provision. As Reid (1996) says of teacher training:

'...it is important that classroom teachers receive some training in dyslexia offering both theoretical insights and practical experience.'

Pumfrey (1996) acknowledges that 'establishing a resource allocation decision-making model that is "explicit, open, fair and thoroughly defensible, requires considerable professional knowledge." Whatever the theoretical debates, what matters is that children in secondary schools are at a critical place in their lives. It is large, confusing, and yet absolutely important that they get on well if they to have any sort of future. We have seen in Swansea that the training model can work and that Dyslexia Friendly Schooling can work.

When given the right support across the curriculum, dyslexic learners do well. I believe that it costs very little indeed to make a school 'dyslexia friendly' and to provide extra support for those who have a significantly greater need than would be expected. The cost to society and to teachers' nerves(!) is not worth the price of not doing it. It is in everyone's interest to make it work.

References:

Peer, L. (2000)
Winning with Dyslexia: A Guide for Secondary Schools (Third Edition)
Pub: Reading, BDA, p 5

Peer, L. (2000)
'What is Dyslexia?'
In: Smythe I (Ed) The Dyslexia Handbook 2000
Pub: Reading, British Dyslexia Association, p 67

Peer, L. (2001)
'Handy Hints Poster for Secondary School Teachers'
Pub: Reading, British Dyslexia Association
British Dyslexia Association website
www.bda-dyslexia.org.uk

Peer, L. and Reid, G. (2000)
'Multilingualism, Literacy and Dyslexia: A Challenge for Educators'.
In: Peer, L. and Reid, G. (Eds) Multilingualism, Literacy and Dyslexia: A Challenge for Educators. London, David Fulton Publishers, p 2

'Dyslexia Friendly Resource Pack' (2000)
Reading, British Dyslexia Association

Hampshire, S. (1995)
'Foreword'
In: Miles, T.R. and Varma, V. (Eds.) Dyslexia and Stress. London, Whurr, Publishers Ltd pv

Peer, L. (2000)
'Gifted and Talented Children with Dyslexia.'
In: Stopper M.J. (Ed) Meeting the Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted and Talented Children, David Fulton Publishers p77

Nash-Wortham, M and Hunt, J (1990)
Take Time: Movement exercises for parents, teachers and therapists of children with difficulties in speaking, reading, writing and spelling.
The Robinswood Press

Reid, G. (1997)
'Practical Issues'
In: Dyslexia: A Practitioner's Handbook (Second edition)
Wiley p5

Pumfrey P (1997)
'Practical Issues'
In: Reid, G. Dyslexia: A Practitioner's Handbook (Second Edition)
Wiley pp5-6