Dyslexia: do our schools have the tools to help?

Ahead of a major conference on dyslexia this week, we look at how our education system treats young people with this common learning disability

Gerard Gallagher, at DIT on Mountjoy Square, talks about dyslexia: ‘I’ve learned that the role of parents is hugely important: mine really wanted me to do well.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

Gerard Gallagher, at DIT on Mountjoy Square, talks about dyslexia: ‘I’ve learned that the role of parents is hugely important: mine really wanted me to do well.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

 

College is a good place to have dyslexia. Secondary schools, in general, are less so. Children with dyslexia are in luck if their parents have money, but if they don’t, the learning disability is less likely to be picked up and they will be at risk of falling behind.

“The Irish school system is not adequately resourced to identify dyslexia,” says Rosie Bissett, chief executive of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. “We have known for a long time that early identification is hugely important, but resources have been scaled back so it’s not happening enough. In the good years, parents were in a better position to get extra help outside school for their child. Now, they’re wholly reliant on the school.”

Those working in the area say the third-level education system is relatively well-resourced and designed to help and accommodate students with dyslexia, but the primary and secondary school systems are such that students may have trouble getting to college in the first place. This is among the topics for a conference on dyslexia in UCD on Saturday, April 25th.

“The system is often based on rote learning, with spelling tests during the week in primary school, and then two years of intense Leaving Certificate exams at second level,” says Bissett. “The dyslexic brain is wired differently, and it takes people a lot longer to process, access and retrieve information. The current assessment system is very unhelpful, and many with dyslexia would prefer project-based work and continuous assessment. We’re losing a lot by teaching and assessing in a narrow way, whereas a universally designed system [the Universal Design for Learning is flexible learning that can accommodate learning differences] would be better for everyone.”

About 10 per cent of the population may have a form of dyslexia, on a continuum from very severe to mild, although mild dyslexia is more common. The frequency of dyslexia varies from language to language: it’s more common in English and French than in Finnish, Czech and Italian.

James Northridge, the 31-year-old founder of UrAbility, a company that provides assistive-technology products and training to schools, students and parents, struggled with reading and spelling through primary school. He didn’t get a diagnosis of dyslexia until shortly after his Leaving Cert.

He says primary teachers are now working hard to keep up with developments in dyslexia research, and they’re doing a good job, but students still fall through the cracks. In secondary school, support is good but only if students can get an educational psychologist’s diagnosis. At third level, despite recent cutbacks, there is “more awareness, more resources, disability and assistive technology offices . . . They are much more practised.”

Last year, the Association for Higher Education in Disability (Ahead) saw an “unprecedented” number of complaints from parents whose children, especially those with dyslexia, were denied exam supports (“reasonable accommodation”) in the Leaving Cert by the State Examinations Commission. The Ombudsman for Children met the commission to express its concern, and the commission said it had followed procedures and its decision was not budgetary.

One of the big problems, say experts and people with dyslexia, is it isn’t always identified in early childhood – a harbinger of trouble down the line. A new test by educational psychologist and dyslexia researcher Dr Pauline Cogan, which will help identify young people who are showing early signs of reading difficulties, will be launched in the coming months. It will be particularly targeted at junior and senior infant classes, and the Department of Education is fully on board, says Cogan.

“Many people with dyslexia are only getting support and the psychological assessment they need if their difficulty is bad enough,” says Cogan. “People with dyslexia are all different but the general-allocation model, into which they have been lumped, is only changing now.”

Cogan’s test is designed for children in Irish schools, based on Irish statistics, standards and norms, but could be used for children with reading difficulties across the English-speaking world. It includes phonological awareness and memory tasks, which are not in other tests, and it works as an early screener for children whom teachers feel might be at risk. It tests for all the problems known to cause literacy difficulties, including brain structure and memory difficulties, and has worked in six-year longitudinal and controlled studies.

Cogan’s test will predict which children may have problems before they even pick up a book. Initial research involving more than 1,000 primary school students in 169 schools indicates it is reliable, and it has been piloted in about 20 schools in the Dublin area. Cogan is training teachers to administer the test.

“There are still too many barriers in dealing with dyslexia in Ireland, ” says Cogan. “There needs to be more proactive support; instead of officials acting as gatekeepers [deciding who may and may not receive support and assistance], we should be there spotting the children who need help, and putting that help in place. Without that help, they’re denied information and access to the curriculum.”

Neurological research shows the brains of people with dyslexia are wired differently. Although dyslexia occurs in people of high, medium and low intelligence, many dyslexic people are particularly strong at understanding contexts, spatial reasoning and causal relationships, and the challenges they face give them impressive problem-solving abilities. Cogan says it is our loss if they are not properly included and supported in education and society.

Prof Carsten Elbro, of the scientific advisory board of the International Dyslexia Association, will speak on new approaches to diagnosis at the DAI’s 7th European Conference. Other topics include language and reading comprehension, and the reliability of phonics in teaching literacy. Saturday, April 25th, 9.30am to 5pm, in Theatre L of the Newman Building, UCD Belfield. Parents, teachers, educational professionals, speech and language therapists and interested others are invited (€80 association; €125 non-members). dyslexia.ie, urability.com

 

SPELLING IT OUT: NEW DEVELOPMENTS

Technology: scribe pens, text to speech software, computers and apps are enabling people with dyslexia and reading difficulties to fully participate in education. The Department of Education gives some of these to children with severe difficulties but schools and parents sometimes have to provide their own technology in the classroom; the department encourages this but schools and teachers are sometimes reluctant to accept homework via computer or to have computer cables in the classroom.

Dyslexia as an advantage: Dr Fernette Eide and Dr Brock Eide are among researchers focusing on unlocking the potential of dyslexic brains in terms of understanding larger contexts, visualising how processes and situations may play out over time, spatial reasoning and seeing connections.

Formal diagnosis: Dyslexia is constantly under review in the Irish education system. In future the National Council for Special Education may move towards a needs system, providing children with literacy and reading difficulties with the resources they require based on the school and teacher assessment, rather than requiring a medical diagnosis.

Phonics debate: Dr Jonathan Solity of the University of Warwick will speak at the Dyslexia Association conference in Dublin (see main story) on ensuring a balance between teaching phonics to children and ensuring it isn’t so mechanical that they don’t experience the joy of reading. Children with dyslexia need extra help understanding phonics.

 

CASE STUDY 1: ‘HOMEWORK WAS ALWAYS A STRUGGLE. I’D BE AT IT FOR SEVERAL HOURS A NIGHT’

Gerard Gallagher (24) is a learning support officer with the Dublin Institute of Technology’s disability support service

I was diagnosed with dyslexia quite early in my education. I use a mobility scooter because I have cerebral palsy, so it’s quite possible they were looking out for additional challenges.

I’ve learned from my personal and professional experience that the role of parents is hugely important: mine really wanted me to do well. They were open to acquiring additional help for me and paying for educational psychology reports. I’ve seen students coming into college without a diagnosis, or being diagnosed very late, because there wasn’t the necessary financial support out there.

My teachers in primary school were really supportive as well. I had a lot of resource hours, and my teachers were in my corner, driving me to succeed. Research shows that if parents or teachers have lower expectations, it leads to lower expectations from the student. A teacher might unintentionally discourage a student with dyslexia from pursuing a particular course at third-level if they feel they might struggle.

Homework was always a struggle. I’d be at it for several hours a night. I really struggled in first year of secondary school, particularly with French, but again, I was lucky: I had a teacher who was familiar with learning difficulties in general and dyslexia in particular.

Some students are coming to college without a dyslexia diagnosis. Once they get here, there is a lot of support available at third-level, although students usually need to develop a “disclosure story”, which will allow them, for example, to talk to their lecturers about their dyslexia and ask for notes in advance.

More lecturers are learning about universal design – courses that are suitable for all their students – and the evidence shows these are more engaging courses for everyone. The second-level system is different: there’s a heavy focus on exams and points and getting the course; this leaves less flexibility for teachers.

Having a learning difficulty builds a certain resilience for people with dyslexia. How will I achieve this? How can I get around this situation?

It is a challenge to have dyslexia, but so much assistive technology has been developed in the past five years, including text-to- speech software and scanning tools. I’m lucky to have dyslexia in 2015 and not 1970 or even 1995.

 

CASE STUDY 2: ‘I’M MORE CONFIDENT ABOUT GOING INTO THE WORKPLACE’

Susan McGinnell (21) is studying ancient and medieval history and culture at Trinity College

My dyslexia diagnosis came quite late. I was in sixth year, and my English teacher took me aside and said he had noticed my spelling and punctuation weren’t where they should be. Looking back, the signs were there in primary school, but it wasn’t easy to identify dyslexia then. I worked hard in school, and I found ways to adapt and deal with my reading and spelling problems. I used to spend a few extra hours on homework. I would write out spellings hundreds of times and learn them off. I enjoyed school and had supportive teachers, even if they didn’t always notice my difficulties.

I knew I wanted to go to college; Trinity was always an ambition. But by the time I came to higher-level Leaving Cert subjects, my difficulties became more apparent. My parents had to bring me for private testing. I was diagnosed with a relatively mild dyslexia. I was lucky they had the resources to do that, but for the children of parents who can’t afford it, there are scant resources available.

My diagnosis was a relief. I finally understood why, despite putting in so much work, I wasn’t at the standard I wanted to be. I was given “reasonable accommodations” for my exams: a separate room, extra time and a spelling and grammar waiver.

My college experience has been great. I can’t rate Trinity’s disability support service highly enough. They always come back to me if I have a problem, and the lecturers are very supportive too. I don’t think schools are as well-resourced.

As I learn more about myself and my dyslexia, I’m feeling more confident about going into the workplace.

In secondary school, dyslexia is a problem, and they’re focused on getting you through the exams. Now I know that the way I can approach things is slightly different to other people, and I feel, with the way my brain is wired, I can add something new.

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