Spelling out the needs of students with dyslexia
One in 10 people is affected by the condition, and although general teacher training doesn’t include enough about how to teach children who have it, knowledge and support have improved
Frankie Hollands supporting the learning activities at the Rush, Lusk and Skerries dyslexia workshop. Photograph: John Mc Elroy
There was a time in Ireland when dyslexia was the disorder that dare not speak its name. The Dyslexia Association of Ireland (DAI), established 40 years ago this year, had to change its name in the 1980s to the Association of Children and Adults with Learning Difficulties, so it would be taken seriously.
“Back then, when someone from the association met a government official, the conversation was wasted defending the existence of dyslexia in the first place,” says Rosie Bissett, chief executive of the DAI. “The change of name was to save time and allow meaningful discussion about supports for people with literacy difficulties.”
It was not until 2000 that the original name was restored, as Irish officialdom finally caught up with international research and recognised dyslexia as a distinct disorder requiring specific supports and interventions. Now dyslexia is commonly diagnosed through the State assessment service, the National Education Psychology Service (NEPS).
The link between dyslexia and intelligence is long broken. It is widely recognised within education that people of all intellectual abilities can display dyslexic characteristics. This is vital because support requires a nuanced approach that distinguishes the disorder from the general ability levels of the student. However, we have no solid prevalence figures.
“We don’t know how many people in Ireland have dyslexia because there has never been a thorough incident survey here,” says Bissett. “If other English-speaking nations are anything to go by, the prevalence is around one in 10.”
We measure ourselves against other English-speaking nations because the language throws up unique obstacles, says Bissett. “The English language is one of the most difficult to learn and poses the greatest challenge for those with difficulties processing sounds and symbols,” Bisset explains. “There are so many irregularities of grammar and phonics that it makes it hard for a person with processing difficulties to learn the rules.” Dyslexia presents within every language, but the impact for English speakers can be more acute and present earlier.
The DAI service includes everything from national advocacy to one-on-one tuition and everything in between. It’s not as simple as reading lessons either, as Bissett says.
“Often the first step after a diagnosis of dyslexia is to build up the person’s self-esteem, especially when that person may have been living with an undiagnosed disorder for years,” she says. “They may have had negative interactions with teachers and other adults and their confidence may need to be rebuilt. People with dyslexia develop great strategies for avoiding reading and writing. They often have a real fear of putting pen to paper. Imagine how dispiriting it must be if a student has laboured for hours over a piece of writing, only to get it back covered in red pen.”
The association commits significant time and resources to working with teachers so they can respond in productive ways to students with dyslexia.
“A simple thing like focusing on two or three key errors in a piece of script, rather than pulling a student up on every last error, can make big difference. Focusing on the positive in a student’s work can really help.”
Bissett says it’s not surprising teachers don’t always know how to handle dyslexia constructively. “The small amount of training on dyslexia during initial teacher training is a big issue for us. They might only get an hour’s lecture on it over their entire training. It is a goal of ours to address this in initial teacher education and continuing professional development.”
In the meantime, the main focus is to support the association’s 2,500 member families through information, assessment and tuition, and to reach out to the many more Irish families dealing with dyslexia.
“We have witnessed huge increases in learning support in schools during the past 40 years, which is welcome. We’ve seen the introduction of accommodations for exams, exemptions from Irish, and new entry routes into third level. ”
However, there is still a great deal to fight for. “The special-education resource infrastructure is being eroded. Accommodations for exams and exemptions from Irish can be laborious to access. We still hear parents frequently talking about ‘fighting the system’ to get what their children need.
“There’s a real issue for families without means,” Bissett says. “Often a diagnosis of dyslexia is based on a family’s ability to pay for assessment. The State assessment capacity could be trebled and it still wouldn’t be enough to meet the need. We would love to see a leaner, less medicalised system with equality and fairness at its heart.”
In her years dealings with adults and children with dyslexia, Bissett has noticed a common characteristic that goes beyond reading and writing. “Children and adults with dyslexia often have a highly developed sense of social justice. There’s an empathy for those who have to struggle with the system. I suppose it probably stems from their own struggle with things everybody else takes for granted.”