My Red Letter – from Leanne James, mother and advocate This is my red letter to the Federal and State Ministers and Shadow Ministers for E...

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15:48:00 Dyslexia Australia 2 Comments

My Red Letter – from Leanne James, mother and advocate

This is my red letter to the Federal and State Ministers and Shadow Ministers for Education, the Chief Executive of DECD in South Australia, the Director of Teaching and Learning in DECD and my school principal – in the hope of change and because the right to read shouldn’t be this hard!

I am the mother of two boys.  My eldest son of 11 years was confident and eager to learn at preschool and in the early years of primary school.  How did I know he was doing well?  The teacher told me he had reached level 15 of Running Records by the end of year 1 and this is where he needed to be.  At the time I had no idea that Running Records was a form of literacy testing.

My youngest son, now 9 years old, didn’t appear to be hitting the same benchmarks as my oldest boy in the early primary years.  He couldn’t write his name when he left preschool, he struggled with basic readers in reception, but like most parents I thought - he just needs more time.  It wasn’t until the end of year 1 that I questioned the teacher.  I knew students were meant to achieve level 15 in Running Records by the end of this grade and my son was only at level 4.  He hadn’t moved off this level for over six months.  There was no mention in his report that something might be wrong, nor had the teacher requested a meeting with me to discuss any difficulties.  I asked the question “could something be wrong as my son is nowhere near level 15”.  I was shocked in receiving the negligible response, with a shrug of the teacher’s shoulders, of “I don’t know”.  The Running Records testing couldn’t give my son’s teacher any information about why he couldn’t read, nor could the teacher give any advice on learning difficulties and what parents could do for help.

Through the sheer motivation of a mother’s instinct, I spent the summer holidays researching every bit of information I could about why kids can’t read.  Again and again the word dyslexia appeared. I was shocked to learn that 1 in 5 children will experience dyslexic type learning difficulties!  My son started year 2 and I approached his new teacher about testing for dyslexia (this was going to cost $1000 through a private educational psychologist).  She told me, “if you can afford it get the test done as soon as possible”.  I did just that and my suspicion was confirmed – dyslexia.

This is where my journey began, however, the initial feeling of hope soon evaporated.  I was told there is no funding for assistance in school for children with dyslexia and I would need to get a tutor.  The Education Department do not even use the term dyslexia – they call it a specific learning disorder and lump it together with a contingent of other language and learning difficulties.  This makes the process of identification and remediation even more difficult for teachers and parents.  My son however, embraced his diagnosis.  He no longer felt like he was dumb and there was a reason and solution to his problems.  If only the remedial process was as easy as the naivety in a child’s mind.

I immediately organised a tutor.  Not having a teaching background, I assumed a qualified teacher would understand how to teach remedial literacy to a student with learning difficulties and I engaged this tutor for two years during years 2 and 3.  However, these years passed without any significant improvement.  I started researching more and more about dyslexia and teaching approaches.  I discovered that dyslexic children need to be taught with an emphasis on synthetic phonics in an explicit, systematic and multisensory way.  I decided to part ways with the tutor and teach myself to teach my son using the Orton-Gillingham approach of the Barton Reading and Spelling System from the USA.  This introduced me to a whole new world of the basics of reading, words like phonemes, graphemes and phonological awareness, which I knew nothing about, soon became my expertise.  My son grasped this method of teaching instantly and I finally started seeing small and steady improvement.

My journey into advocacy started at this point and I became involved with Dyslexia SA.  For two years I had wasted thousands of dollars on worthless tutoring, received no intervention programs from the school and most of all no feedback from the school about what direction a parent needs to take to assist a child with dyslexia.  I quickly realised that teachers didn’t actually know much about dyslexia.  They had very misconceived ideas that dyslexia involved words moving around on the page and there was nothing they could do as a teacher to stop that!  I was more amazed to discover teachers aren’t taught about learning difficulties or how to teach evidenced based literacy effectively in their undergraduate degree.  

By the end of year 3 my son was still reading at a year 1 level with no intervention offered by the school.  Another parent advised me that a well-regarded intervention program called Multi-lit was available for struggling students so I requested if my son could do this in year 4.  Intervention was finally granted after my request and my son is currently working through this at school.  Multi-lit consists of 12 levels and he has one on one assistance for two terms this year.  I have been told that if he reaches close to level 12 (say level 10 for instance) and if other children require the assistance next year then he will not be able to finish the program.  Is close enough good enough for a student three years behind?  

Sadly, my son has now experienced the psychological effects of dyslexia.  Panic attacks before school, faking of sickness to avoid school, evenings locked in his room curled up on this bed crying.  The fear of going to school because, “I don’t understand anything” was taking its toll.  I had lost my cheerful, funny little boy.  He had become withdrawn, anxious and depressed and his self-esteem shattered.  There were mornings where he would cower in the back seat of the car in tears outside the school gates in such distress that he would vomit.  We had to start psychological intervention which was another added expense.

This year, through my advocacy work, I met a Speech and Language Specialist and I commenced working with him and my son.  More testing was done and my son was still three years behind in reading with the biggest contributing factor being trouble with phonemic awareness.  No wonder I had not seen improvement.  Phonemic awareness is the sounds that letters or groups of letters make.  It is the foundation to literacy and gives the ability to decode.  A child cannot progress through the five stages of literacy (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) without a solid understanding of this.

I had to take a second job to be able to afford two sessions of specialist speech and language therapy a week, that’s $12,000 a year to teach my dyslexic son how to read because our education system could not!  It took only two months for my son and me to learn the basics of phonemic awareness – recognising the sounds of phonemes, the written grapheme and how to decode text.  The improvement was instant and amazing.  My son is now reading decodable novels and classic children’s books by Roald Dahl.  He can name and spell every grapheme – something that most teachers would struggle with – and the jumbled mess of symbols on the paper finally made sense.  He was taught to stop guessing words and to start decoding.  Such simple strategies gave an enormous impact.  I now have my bright and confident boy back with belief in himself and an eagerness to learn.  Going back to the basics of explicitly teaching and “over learning” phonemic awareness was the missing piece of the puzzle.

It has been a very expensive hit and miss process as a parent for the last three years trying to find the “right” help.  It begs the question, “what happens to children whose parents do not have the financial capacity for intervention”?  

Intervention in our public schools is administered too late and should occur in the early years. The current testing with Running Records is a poor first line diagnostic reading tool because it relies on the disproven three cueing system. This perpetuates the idea that decoding is less important than other cueing approaches when a child doesn’t recognise a word. This sends all the wrong messages to teachers about which strategies kids should use when reading and perpetuates “whole language” thinking which is out dated and non-evidenced based.  I had another parent from my same school approach me recently for advice through Dyslexia SA.  Her son is in year 6, barely able to read and has just been diagnosed with dyslexia.  I asked if any teachers throughout the years had indicated if something might be wrong – of course the answer was no.  Her son is suffering terrible mental health problems and has had no intervention throughout his schooling years.  It was a scary realisation to me – if I hadn’t of known, by pure chance from having an older son, that a child needed to reach level 15 of Running Records in year one I would be in exactly the same boat.  Running Records certainly doesn’t give information to parents if their child is at risk of learning difficulties.

We have a literacy crisis in Australia.  We are ranked 27th in the world.  52% of 15-19 year olds do not have an adequate standard of literacy to meet the demands of everyday life.  Only 52% of students in South Australia know all the 44 sounds of the English language.  Only 38% of Victorian reception teachers can correctly define phonemic awareness.  If you teach literacy the way you teach a dyslexic it works for everyone.  It’s not about intervention programs for a term here or there, it’s about a paradigm shift in pedagogy.  Literacy experts agree that a synthetic phonics approach to teaching literacy which is explicit and multi-sensory gives the best results.  Sadly, in Australia, we have an ad hoc system of a mixture of phonics and the non-evidenced based whole language method.  We have some schools using the Reading Recovery remedial program which is whole language based and sends dyslexic kids even further behind.  The ways literacy is taught is up to the school so results vary widely.  Whole language teaching and testing must cease!

The Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, has proposed a phonics screening test.  This test is used in the UK and the USA and has seen literacy standards rise by a third.  Testing for phonemic awareness will help all children and the test results will be forwarded to parents which is the vital information we need to know if our children are at risk of dyslexia.  Teachers will put more emphasis on phonemic awareness as it will be tested.  This will give every child a solid foundation in reading.

I am utterly bewildered that the phonics test is gaining so much opposition from the Labor party and the Australian Education Union because in their eyes, it is more testing on students.  It is the most important test that our children need.  If more testing is an issue then the ineffective Running Records need to be abolished and replaced with the phonics test.  

The teacher of the year in Victoria, Sarah Asome, uses phonics testing and explicit phonics instruction.  She achieved 100% of her students reaching literacy benchmarks in year 1, with these students going on to be 12 months ahead in literacy, all within budget constraints.  The recent Productivity Commission Report into education raised the same issue – we are not teaching evidenced based practices and the education system is resistant to change their ingrained orthodoxies.  In the recent Victorian Branch of the Australian Education Union Journal, there is an article about Sarah Asome and her teaching practices, even information on how to use the Motif Phonics Test – the same test that they oppose using in a statement from their Federal President on their website.

Gonski was never the answer.  Learning difficulties are not included in needs based funding nor are recognised as a disability, when they are under the Disability Discrimination Act.  More funding into learning difficulties will just deliver more of the same – poor one off intervention programs administered too late with no change in teaching practices.  We cannot intervene our way out of effective core instruction.  It is clearly evident why Australia has not improved its education standards despite all the extra funding it has received.  

Dyslexia advocates give a united voice to the government.  We are parents, educators, academics and allied health professionals who know the research.  Through our vision and collective voice we will continue to push for change.  If I could change anything by writing my red letter it would be:

  • Adequate teacher training for learning difficulties and evidenced based ways to teach literacy for undergraduate teachers.

  • Early, explicit and systematic phonics based literacy instruction and intervention.

  • Recognition and support for students with dyslexia, especially accommodations for exams in years 11 and 12.

  • Abolishing Running Records and introducing a phonics check now!


  1. What a wonderfully accurate, honest and heartfelt letter - well done! I'd be interested in seeing any response you may get??