I have been thinking for a long time about writing about my perspective and experience to people in positions of influence but I have been w...

Kate's Red Letter

23:25:00 Dyslexia Australia 1 Comments

I have been thinking for a long time about writing about my perspective and experience to people in positions of influence but I have been wondering how I, as an individual, can effect change in an entrenched system. Thankfully, there are many dedicated and passionate parents and professionals working in the field of education who also desperately want to see change. 

This is my story.

My experience with dyslexia is both personal and professional.

I started my career as a speech language pathologist 28 years ago. With no training in written language at university, my career path took me to places where I was privileged to work with some visionary leaders in the field of speech language pathology, such as Suze Leitao and Leanne Allen.

The joys of parenthood soon arrived, followed 5 years later by the start of my daughter’s school journey. My first taste of the public school system with my daughter was not a positive one. By the end of her first year at school, my once confident and vivacious child was losing confidence and complaining of feeling sick every day. She struggled to learn to ‘read’, aka learn the dreaded sight words (in reality a list of English words with quite often seemingly no logic or sense to her).

At this time, I knew very little about the science of reading and how to help her. So relied on the school system to support her and me.

In desperation, we moved her to a Rudolf Steiner School in Year 2 where she eventually regained her confidence, learnt to read and developed her talents in the creative arts. She has flourished since leaving school and, in fact, just received her Bachelor of Music in a ceremony yesterday.

She is not, despite her struggles with reading and spelling, dyslexic.

My second child had no difficulties with learning to read or spell. He also attended the Steiner School which follows a European time frame of early education. The first year of school, Kindergarten in NSW, was about play, oral language, creativity and imagination. Formal teaching of the alphabet does not occur until the child is at least 6 years of age. Readers are not introduced until term 2 of Year 2 when children are 7 turning 8. He never laid his eyes on a ‘sight word’ sheet. Despite this, he picked up the first ‘Lord of the Rings’ book at the end of Year 1 when he had just turned 7 and commenced to read it perfectly. Needless to say, I took it away from him due to the subject matter.

Throughout this time, in my work with young children with speech and language delays starting their school journey, I began to see their struggles with learning to read. 

My self-education began in earnest….I attended courses, researched online and read and read and read.

But it wasn’t until my youngest child, Darcy, came along that I really experienced first-hand the pain of having a child with a significant learning disability. My gorgeous baby boy developed epilepsy at the age of 3. His development suffered and language in particular. Prior to starting school, a language assessment revealed his language to be so delayed that he was eligible for a place in a Language Support class that now no longer exist in NSW schools. We did not take this position (following an observation session in the class, my son stated loudly in front of everyone ‘This is boring, Mum’).

Fortunately, he has grown out of the epilepsy but it has left its mark.

We also have dyslexia in the family. My husband always had trouble with writing and spelling. I had to edit all his assignments throughout university. I have informally diagnosed him with dyslexia and dysgraphia as an adult. The ‘help’ that he received for his learning difficulties in primary school was to be sent to 7 different schools.

From the time that Darcy was diagnosed with epilepsy, I worked hard with him building his oral language skills, in particular vocabulary and phonemic awareness. This moved on to include literacy from Year 2. Luckily we were on the Steiner path with education as it would have been an utter disaster if Darcy had attended a regular public school and been expected to learn through a whole language approach to reading at the age of 5. 

I once calculated that throughout year 2 and 3, we worked together 3-4 hours a week outside school hours to build his literacy skills. My self-education journey had very clearly pointed the way to a systematic, explicit phonics approach.

Although the Steiner teachers have been brilliant in many ways, I am in no doubt that he would not be able to read and write to the level that he can now without my experience and knowledge gained over many years and the time that I had to dedicate to him over all these years. 

Darcy has had 2 assessments by educational psychologist over the past few years. Both showed him to have significant difficulties with verbal comprehension, working memory (severe) and processing speed (severe) and average to above average perceptual skills. 

Darcy is now in Year 5. He did Naplan this year and his reading is right at the national average and his numeracy is slightly below. This is quite remarkable given his significant underlying cognitive difficulties and shows what is possible with the right intervention and intensity of intervention.

However, from a professional point of view, this makes me very concerned. Much of my time with the clients I see is spent in teaching their parents how to teach their own child to learn to read and spell. Without this what is the outcome. I imagine that can be seen in areas, unlike the area that I am in, where parents cannot afford to pay for private intervention. Areas with intergenerational unemployment and poverty.

The impact on children of struggling to learn to read and not achieving success at school can be devastating….poor self-esteem, disengagement, bullying, anxiety, depression…the list goes on. Research from a recent workshop showed that 30% of the prison population have language and literacy difficulties. Conversely, 30% of entrepreneurs in the US identify as dyslexic. Obviously, there are many factors that contribute to the path an individual takes in life but early lack of success at school is significant.

I often wonder about the wisdom of expecting 4, 5 and 6 year olds to master the incredibly difficult task of learning to read in 2 to 3 years and being despairing at their inability to learn it by 8 or 9 or worse, being written off by some teachers from as young as 6 or 7.

The alphabet is one of the most brilliant inventions of the human mind. It is truly staggering that just 26 symbols, consisting of various combinations of straight and curved lines and circles, can be used to encode over 1 million words. This system took many of the most brilliant minds of their eras over 2000 years to perfect. And yet we expect our children to master it in 2-3 years.

Whilst there are children who are dyslexic, there are many more, like my daughter, who are not but who struggle nonetheless. I, and many others, put this down to the method that is being taught in schools. An abundance of research has shown that ALL children benefit from systematic, explicit phonics instruction. This includes research using the miracle of modern technology in the form of fMRI which allows us to actually see what effect our instruction has had on the brain.

Well, what can be done…..

Universities must change the way they are educating teachers and existing teachers must be retrained. Withdrawing funding from Reading Recovery, as the NSW Government has recently done, is an essential and long overdue step in this process. The next is to ban it. 

Some other aspects of instruction that need to be eliminated are:
1. ‘look-cover-write-check’ – the single most useless strategy to teach children to spell ever thought of
2. Non phonics based early readers
3. Golden words at the start of kindy when many children don’t even know letter-sounds – how can you hope to read ’you’ when you don’t even know what sound ‘y’ makes.
4. Stop referring to words with unusual or irregular spelling as ‘’sight’’ words – every word needs to become a sight word, whether it is ‘’cat’’ or ‘’yacht’’.
5. Educate teachers about non-evidenced based assessment and intervention, eg behavioural optometry, Brain Gym

To the instigators of the Red Letter campaign and Light It Red for Dyslexia, my heartfelt thanks for your contribution. I can see a groundswell starting to take shape. With persistence and the support of politicians, such as Adrian Piccoli, we can make a change. We must …for the sake of our children.


1 comment:

  1. Nice to hear something about the experience of this person especially that it may inspire someone in making their work more effective and could lead them into success.