To the Australian Primary Principals Association and the Honourable Simon Birmingham: As much as I would love this Red Letter to be coming...

Elise's Red Letter

10:06:00 Dyslexia Australia 0 Comments

To the Australian Primary Principals Association and the Honourable Simon Birmingham:

As much as I would love this Red Letter to be coming from my 10 year old son, he won’t do it. He says he can’t do it, and doesn’t want to talk about Dyslexia anyway. Dyslexia, for him, is shameful. School has made it shameful for him because every day at school is difficult. He is exhausted trying to keep up; trying to drag himself through the school day without showing anyone that it’s so hard. It impacts all parts of his learning and impacts his self-esteem. 

Years of struggling in the classroom and getting little to no help have taken their toll. Psychologist assistance is now needed. In his mind, he is dumb and that’s never going to change. No amount of positive reinforcement at home changes what he feels about himself at school. He is good at many things, and he knows that, but that doesn’t help him in the place where he spends most of his time. 

Sadly it has taken us years of trying to navigate this on our own (choosing “therapies” that cost us time, his confidence  and lots of money) to get to the point we are today, where we at least know what is needed to help him. Now we know the WHAT and have to address the HOW….how do we bridge the 2 year gap between his skills and those of his peers? The school simply can’t do it. They waited for him to fail and now he’s so far behind that they can’t help. We have to somehow find the money, and my son has to find the energy and drive to put even more time into school work when he gets home. It should never have been able to get to this point. Our bright little boy should hate school and himself. 

Our story is so common, it happens over and over to thousands of families. We didn’t suddenly wake up and find our kids weren’t reading and blame it on the school. We have been battling for help from schools for years, all the while doing everything we can at home.

We tried to get help for my son from prep when he wasn’t meeting the expected level, and the school did NOTHING to assist him during those first 2 critical years of school. It’s a gap that we may never bridge now. He “wasn’t the worst”, and “he’ll catch on eventually”, and “there’s no funding so we can only help 4 children” were what we heard. Schools don’t know how to recognise Dyslexia. They don’t know where to direct parents even when they do finally acknowledge an issue. Behavioural optometry and coloured lenses are suggested by schools, leading parents down a path of remediation that is expensive and not supported by research. But the parents do it (wasting valuable resources) because we will do ANYTHING to help our kids. We follow their advice because we start off thinking the teachers know best, this is about literacy after all, so who would know more than teachers?? Unfortunately the teachers don’t know. 

One of the most frustrating things is that the best way for dyslexic kids to learn to read and spell is the best way for ALL kids to learn. WHY isn’t this happening?? Our dyslexic kids will probably still need some extra assistance, but they would never reach the stage of being years behind their peers if ALL kids were taught to read and spell with an evidenced based synthetic phonics approach. The National Inquiry into The Teaching of Literacy in 2005 made this recommendation over 10 years ago and the majority of schools are still not using best practice. They are using a whole language or “blended” approach (whole language which includes a smattering of phonics, deluding schools into thinking they are “doing phonics”). When I asked our school principal to read about synthetic phonics and consider the current school curriculum, he got back to me and said “I stuck my head into a prep class and I’m pretty sure we are doing a phonics based approach to learning”. I guess all the knowledge he needed was to see the alphabet was stuck up around the room. And we wonder why the country’s literacy results continue to drop. 

So, school principals – I know you have a very busy job with lots of pressures. You are looking after many things that parents don’t even know about, but what is more important than all of your students learning to read and write? Not just 80-90%. That’s not good enough. These kids, and their parents, are put through the wringer. YOU can make all the difference - lead your teachers by doing your own learning about dyslexia. Not just a 2 hour PD (although that’s a good start), do some reading about it. There are many great resources with the most current research findings– Australian Dyslexia Association, Speld, Learning Difficulties Australia, and the Centre for Independent Studies ( 

Here are a few quick recommendations based on my (and thousands of other families) experience so you can lead the change we need:
1. Talk to the parents about what they are experiencing. You might just find that parents know something of value and have insight into areas you can improve for the better of everyone. 
2. Make sure your teachers all have some PD on Dyslexia, because trust me, they need it. Don’t assume your teachers know about Dyslexia because they’ve been teaching for a long time. Make it mandatory. Watch “Outside the Square” as a starting point. 
3. Review your foundation years – explicit, direct teaching of synthetic phonics is a must and the research supports it for ALL kids. If you want better literacy skills for all kids, look to the research and the science of the reading brain, not teacher’s anecdotal experiences. Many teachers are too stuck in their current ways to consider that there may actually be a better way. Whole language approaches do not work for these kids who are struggling; they will not learn just by seeing the word a few times. If that was the case, we wouldn’t be where we are now.
           a.  As an aside, on my 13 year old daughter (not dyslexic) went through her primary years with the whole language approach. She would be considered a success - one of the 80% who learn just fine with the whole language approach. She’s in high school now and she gets good results, but her spelling is poor. Even though she was always in the “top spelling group”, her early teaching was all about relying on her short term memory. That doesn’t help her now with more complex words. She has no idea of the rules of language to assist her. This approach in the early years comes back to negatively affect your average students too.
4. Review your interventions for those that struggle. Read the extensive research –reading recovery is not the answer. Do more of what works (synthetic phonics), not more of what is clearly not working. Check with Speld, ADA or LDA for advice on the best interventions that have quality research to back them.
5. Getting decodable readers into the early years classrooms goes hand in hand with successful teaching of explicit synthetic phonics. Kids need books that introduce a few sounds at a time to reinforce the classroom learning of “the code”. Before long they are flying with their decoding skills and can move on to more challenging books. Fluency and comprehension will come, but they need to decode first, not guess. 
6. Do not direct parents to behavioural optometry therapy, or to get coloured lenses or expensive “brain training” therapies – these don’t assist dyslexia. There is no research to support any of these so called cures. Dyslexia is not visual. It is not about the letters moving on the page. Direct parents to Speld or ADA as a starting point. If they want to try non-evidenced based approaches, that’s their choice, but schools should ONLY be recommending parents contact official organisations who provide evidenced based information.
7. Let these kids do an extra literacy session instead of a second language. It’s at your discretion. Some schools allow it, other parents have to battle (often unsuccessfully) for that option. Please don’t add extra barriers and more failure for these kids. Unless they show an interest and aptitude for other languages, this time can be better spent. I don’t care if my son can tell me the colours in German. I want him to be able to read and write English.
8. If your school can’t provide the specialist learning that is needed to “catch up”, at least let parents employ specialist tutors to work with the kids doing school hours, on school grounds. Our kids are exhausted at the end of the day from working so hard, we shouldn’t have to make them spend extra time at home with tutors. They should be allowed to play and do the things they are good at to build UP their self-esteem.
9. Be aware that learning difficulties and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Anxiety can show in many ways - anger, hyperactivity, withdrawal. Look further than just the behaviour and consider WHY a child is acting out or avoiding work. Likely they are just not coping with the level of work expected. 
10. Follow through on adjustments that are recommended in reports. We spend thousands of dollars with the belief it will lead to help for our kids. Instead this valuable information sits in someone’s drawer. Even school based assessments completed with education department psychologists end up having their recommendations shelved.
11. Have regular meetings with the parents that want to be part of their kids learning. Parents will do a lot of research on topics that affect their kids. If you are unsure about suggestions from parents, fact check with the official associations in case parents have been caught up in clever, misleading advertising (for example Arrowsmith).
12. Make adjustments for ALL kids that need it, even if there is no specialist report or “diagnosis”. If they need adjustments, make them. Many parents can’t afford to get specialists involved. Some families have generational dyslexia and are unaware and unlikely to seek assistance. Why do schools insist on parents having a fancy report before even simple adjustments are made?  Talk about simple adjustments with your staff.
13. Set up a communication system so support staff (CRT’s) are made aware of kids with extra needs in their class. Nothing sets a child’s confidence back faster than a CRT who keeps them in at lunch because they didn’t get their work finished, or one who tells them they need to try harder and write neater.

Schools and teachers do so many things well - encouraging critical thinking, reading for meaning and so much more. BUT the majority do not teach the necessary foundation skills well. And they do not look after their struggling kids well. There are huge, lifelong implications that can be devastating, and that is currently being ignored. Government change can be slow and our kids can’t wait, we need change at the schools now. 

Let’s stop plugging holes with ineffective intervention programs and actually address HOW teachers are delivering the early year’s curriculum. There would be a lot less need for intervention programs and allied health staff if you followed best practice with teaching reading and spelling. It can be done. Some schools are making these changes because the PRINCIPAL is leading the change. They are principals that have taken it upon themselves to KNOW the curriculum and how it’s delivered, they KNOW the research, and they have worked to bridge that gap. They are not talking about lack of funds; they are just getting on with changing their teaching approach. Do this, and all of our dyslexic kids will be less disadvantaged. The flow on effect will be huge – all kids doing better, dyslexic kids doing better and less mental health issues. Our kids who “learn differently” can be more than the school drop outs; we need them making it through school and go on to university or the workplace where they can contribute their wonderful talents. 

Thank you for taking the time to read my Red Letter, I know it’s a long one.  If I had been able to get my son to write his Red Letter it would have been 4 lines and we would have considered that an achievement. He’s 10, and he’s smart, so that’s just not right.