A novel way of teaching literacy

Tue, Feb 21, 2012, 00:00

WHEN RITA Treacy arrived for her niece’s christening in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, some years ago, she was asked, as godmother, to do a reading.

As somebody who has dyslexia, “I never read out loud unless I’ve done a lot of preparation,” she says. “I was handed the Bible and it was out of the Book of Ecclesiastes” – she had no idea how to pronounce “Ecclesiastes”.

Feeling she could not ask the people sitting on either side of her, she drew on the teachings of her own literacy programme developed over 18 years working as a speech and language therapist. She worked out a pattern in the word’s vowels and consonants, how they break up into sounds, and was then able to tackle the word fluently.

The WordsWorth literacy programme evolved from Treacy’s training and her work with children and adults with literacy disorders, as well as from her own experiences. She analysed thousands of words, looking for patterns and “retro fitting rules” for the programme that is, since the end of last year, available online.

“I use a phoneme approach rather than phonics,” she explains. For instance, “car”, in phonic terms is three sounds “c” “a” “r” but, personally, she doesn’t know how you get “car” out of that. She uses phonemes, which are speech sounds and there are only two of those in “car” – “c” and “ar”.

Other remedial literacy programmes are written by people who don’t have a difficulty for people who do, she says, whereas she came at it from the perspective of somebody with a problem.

Treacy’s dyslexia was not picked up until she was in first year at Trinity College Dublin, studying remedial linguistics. She had been to a regular primary school but then attended an all-Irish secondary school, in the footsteps of two older sisters, even though she was “desperate at Irish”.

She got through secondary school because she was very good at cramming and used visualisation techniques. “But it was always a struggle.”

At college, her dyslexia became apparent because she was doing well in orals and practicals but failing her written work.

“I was a classic dyslexic,” she says in hindsight but, now aged 48, there was no help for students like her within the education system at that time. “It was known I had a difficulty and they were very kind to me. I didn’t really understand it myself.”

It was only after she graduated and went to work in Australia, where knowledge of literacy disorders was more advanced, that she got a better insight into dyslexia. After her return to Ireland, she was head speech and language therapist with the Lucena Clinic’s child and adolescent mental health service for 12 years.

A lot of children who were coming in with emotional behaviour problems had underlying language and literacy problems that had not been picked up, she says.

“We live in a literate world and to be excluded from that can lead to dissatisfaction and adverse reactions, both personally and socially.”

However, loose diagnoses of “dyslexia” to cover many children who have problems with reading or spelling are something she feels strongly about. “Once the label is put on the child they become the label and I have a real difficulty with that.”

To be characterised as dyslexic, there is very strict criteria, she says. You have to be of (at least) average intelligence and have a genetic or biological disorder.

In the case of reading and spelling disorders, while the testing comes out with the same results, the outcomes of interventions are totally different.

“With reading and spelling disorders the cause could be something like a middle-ear infection – they were taught something like Letterland when they were half deaf,” she says.

Or maybe a child missed a lot of school or was taught a method that didn’t suit or which he/she wasn’t ready to learn at the time it was taught.

These are “external causes” of a reading and spelling disorder, she explains, whereas dyslexia is a life-long, neurological condition.

“You can compensate for it and find ways around it, but you are aware you are compensating for it. With a reading and writing disorder, once you have treated it, it’s gone.”

She has worked with thousands of children and says she has seen only about 40 “classically dyslexic” ones.

The difference with a child who has a reading and spelling disorder “is that once you start working with them they ‘get it’; with a child who is classically dyslexic, they have it and lose it, they have it and lose it, and you will see their good days and bad days”.

Carol Fitzpatrick started bringing her daughter Camille to Treacy’s private practice in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, after she was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of seven a year ago. A pupil at Alexandra College Junior School in Milltown, she is a bright and bubbly girl but her mother knew something wasn’t right.

Camille was aware she was falling behind in class, says Fitzpatrick. “She was devastated. She had eczema all over her body and I was devastated for her.”

Although some people advised Fitzpatrick to hold off sending Camille for a psycho-educational assessment, she did not want to waste time in her daughter’s formative years.

“I didn’t want to bury my head in the sand. I wanted to face it, get the diagnosis and move forward.”

Treacy, who had been recommended to her, was her first port of call after the diagnosis. “I was in a bit of a state,” says Fitzpatrick. “I didn’t really understand dyslexia and what could be done about it.

“One year later, the difference in my daughter is just incredible – her self-esteem, her reading has become very fluid. The online programme I think is amazing.”

Camille is a happy child again going into school, where her resource teacher can log into her WordsWorth programme.

Maybe children are being “over diagnosed”, Fitzpatrick says, but she is glad problems are being identified and can be rectified. To any parent who has concerns, go with your instinct is her advice.

Private one-on-one sessions are costly, which is one of the reasons Treacy has put the programme online, to make it more available and affordable. A single user licence, valid for a year, costs €99.

It is not just a programme for children with difficulties as it can also accelerate literacy, she says. So if a bright child wants to progress faster than in a school situation, he or she can do the programme (aimed at age six upwards) at home with the support of a parent.

A pilot of the WordsWorth programme is currently being conducted over 14 weeks with children of all abilities in fifth class of an Educate Together primary school in Kilkenny.

Their teacher, Nicola Malone, does 10 to 15 minutes of it on an interactive whiteboard in class each day and all parents have free online access to the programme to reinforce the learning at home.

“In general, the parents have been very enthusiastic about it. I would know there is not 100 per cent participation on the home side, but they are definitely interested,” says Malone.

Standardised literacy tests were conducted on the whole class of 30 before they started the WordsWorth programme and these will be repeated when it is concluded to see what difference it made.

“I am looking forward to seeing the results,” says Malone, who anticipates improvements in the weaker students.

“It is a really novel way of teaching language and literacy. From my own perspective as an adult, I would have found it quite different and quite hard to understand the concepts. You never think about all the rules that go with the words.

“Whereas for the children, if they are not getting something phonetically, it is another way for them to try to grasp the idea of words and of reading and of spelling words.

“It is definitely a really good option for children who are finding reading and spelling difficult.”

WordsWorth, which starts with pre-reading basics, brings students through seven progressive levels, right up to reading sentences containing words with seven syllables, and can be completed in 14 weeks.

Children who had the most difficulty at the start of the programme are doing much better in ongoing tests within the programme, Malone reports, in comparison with the children who had performed well initially.

This does not surprise Treacy, who has been going to Kilkenny once a week to work with the class. Anybody who has a literacy difficulty is looking for some solution or formula, she explains.

“They totally tuned into the formula, whereas kids or adults who don’t have a difficulty say, ‘What are you doing?’”

Children who are good at maths and good visually really take to it. “It is a multi-sensory programme, so whatever your area of strength is,” she adds, “you can draw on that.”

For more information, see wordsworthlearning.com


The Dyslexia Association of Ireland does not recommend any one literacy programme. Apart from not wanting to endorse a particular product, there is never one programme that is going to work for everybody, says its director Rosie Bissett.

As dyslexia is so incredibly diverse and covers such a wide spectrum, she explains, the association recommends individualised teaching. A qualified teacher, who knows a range of programmes, can select relevant components and tailor a programme to a child’s individual needs.

If a child, for instance, has very good visual skills, more diagrams and visual methods can be incorporated.

The association has a list of specialist teachers who can give private one-to-one tuition to people with dyslexia. It also runs small group workshop classes through its 34 branches around the country, costing approximately €30 for a two-hour session.

For more information, see dyslexia.ie  or tel 01-6790276.


Expectant parents attending ante-natal classes are usually preoccupied with how to cope with the physical side of the baby business. If they can think beyond the labour ward, it is feeding, bathing, changing and putting baby to sleep that are most likely to concern them.

But a new project in maternity hospitals aims to raise awareness of the importance of nourishing babies’ minds from day one, as well as seeing to their physical comforts.

Start Now is a 10-minute presentation to people during one ante-natal class, outlining their vital role in fostering early language and literacy development in their babies.

Five hospitals, out of a total of 22 maternity units in the Republic, have so far signed up for the scheme, which was launched at the Mid-Western Regional Maternity Hospital in Limerick earlier this month.

It is the brainchild of Anne McNeill, a retired librarian and grandmother living in Co Kildare, who believes not enough is being done in literacy initiatives for very young children.

“I feel passionately that every child should have the opportunity to reach their full potential,” she says. Parents need to know what they can do as their child’s primary educators.

It is not about teaching the mechanics of reading, she explains, but developing both literacy and language

through exposing a young child to as much as possible: conversation, stories and songs, listening to everyday sounds. Not that she advocates “bombarding” the child either, “you want to get a balance”.

The presentations will be delivered by a suitable, local professional, such as a librarian, teacher or nurse, who would be doing it as part of their job, says McNeill, who has established the programme on a voluntary basis with teacher Joan Boland.

They decided to target ante-natal classes because they believe people who are about to have a baby are very enthusiastic and open to learning about what’s best for their child. If you wait until, say, post-natal check-ups at health centres, the group is much more scattered, she points out.

Funding the start-up herself, McNeill has put the question of future funding to one side while she seeks to establish the programme over the next year. One of a number of different Government agencies could take it on board, she suggests.

There have been State-sponsored “babies and books” schemes in the past, such as the National Reading Initiative project in 2000, under which five books were distributed to every baby born here for a number of years.

For more information on Start Now, email annemcneill@yahoo.com

A helpful booklet for parents, At Home with Family Learning, is available from the National Adult Literacy Agency. It can be downloaded free from nala.ie.