Before my third child started at school I knew very little about dyslexia other than a scanty awareness that some people found it difficult to learn to read and write. I took for granted the ability to read fluently and spell accurately; as a child I always had my nose in a book, rarely mis-spelt a word and loved tests as they gave me a chance to excel. As a high academic achiever I assumed that my children would all take to reading and writing like the proverbial ducks to water. This seemed to be the case for the first two; although my first child was constantly being told that his handwriting left a lot to be desired, his reading was well above average, and my second child was reading and writing fluently in no time. When it came to my third though things didn’t go as smoothly. His grasp of phonics was an uncertain one, some days he was ok, others dreadful but I put this down to tiredness and the fact that he was one of the youngest in the year. But when he started to bring home a reading book it became obvious to me that something was wrong despite the fact that his reading record constantly said that he was reading well and making good progress. Given that this was my third child I obviously wasn’t new to the whole learning to read process and I realised that rather than reading the text on the page he was merely reciting verbatim the words he had heard someone else read. He had a good memory, excellent observation skills and so it was relatively simple for him to link the words he had previously heard to the picture he could see in front of him but take any of those words out of context, even the simplest one, and he would flounder. I raised the issue with his newly qualified teacher who wasn’t convinced but who listened and referred the matter to a more experienced teacher at the school. She confirmed my fears that he wasn’t actually reading; it was the start of a long journey to have his problems properly recognised and dealt with.
I found an enormous disparity in the way in which teachers viewed the problems that my son had. Some seemed to think that he was lazy and if only he tried harder then he would learn. Others implied that I didn’t spend time reading to him whereas in fact he had been bombarded by books and stories from the moment of his birth. Some told me that I couldn’t expect all my children to be bright to which I retorted that this one was very obviously bright, just not able to read. I dreaded the moment that we would have to take his reading book out of his bag in the evening. Some nights it would be fine and I would think that we were making progress, only to find the following night that he couldn’t read any of the words he’d managed the previous day. Some evenings I found myself getting cross with him, only to feel monumentally guilty because of course it wasn’t his fault. Our reading sessions often ended in us both being in tears which then had a knock on effect on the other children.It became worse when my fourth child started school and soon overtook his brother at reading. His teacher incredibly suggested holding him back so as not to upset number three. At this stage I decided that a change of school might be in order!
His new school took a far more individualised approach to learning and quickly recognised that my son was bright and motivated. The only issue I had was that the help they gave him wasn’t specifically geared to a dyslexic child. For instance their method of assessing reading levels meant that he was being given early readers even in Year 5 since he couldn’t consistently score an accuracy rate of 94% on a page. Similarly he wasn’t always allowed to move onto the next maths topic because he hadn’t demonstrated a high enough success rate on the current one.Because I was unfamiliar with dyslexia, I decided to take him for an assessment at one of Dyslexia Action’s centres(www.dyslexiaaction.org.uk). This was costly but I felt that after several years of feeling like the dunce of the class he needed reassurance that he had a specific learning problem. Some people told me that I wasting my money, that everyone who was assessed came out with a dyslexia diagnosis but my brother told me that was flawed logic: after all, most people who go to the opticians because they can’t see properly end up coming out with a prescription for glasses. The assessment confirmed my belief that he was dyslexic and also gave us valuable information as to which parts of learning were particularly difficult for him together with useful tips for dealing with these; the best thing though was seeing how inspired my child was when he learned about all the many talented and successful people who have done well despite their problems with literacy. It empowered me and made me a far more effective advocate for my child. The school agreed that he could take his own books in to read; we would read the bulk to him asking him questions to ensure comprehension and ask him to read odd paragraphs here and there; this way he didn’t become discouraged by his slower rate of reading. We bought lots of audiobooks so he had access to the same books that his peers were reading. I was lucky that his school listened to me and worked with me; they saw his case as a learning process for their policies and procedures and did everything they could to boost his confidence and prepare him for secondary school. Having said that, they were constrained heavily by the policies enforced by them by Ofsted which seem to place more importance on SATS results than on the individual educational needs of a particular child. Time which was spent in ensuring he reached the appropriate SATS level could have been better used in developing other skills, not the fault of the school but the fault of misguided government policies.
My son is now in his first year of sixth form. He still struggles with reading and writing although he has achieved so much. He tends to rely heavily on the spell check feature of the computer and so sometimes ends up with sentences that don’t make sense but his knowledge and understanding of his subjects is excellent. I never thought he would do as well as he did at GCSE level, never thought he would carry on into sixth form and this is both a reflection of his positive attitude, his perseverance and the support and encouragement of his teachers. We are lucky to live in an area with exceptionally high performing schools who excel at integrating children of all abilities, all backgrounds, all educational needs. My son has been given the help needed to progress without being made to feel stupid. He will always be dyslexic but he is not defined by his dyslexia and it is not a complete barrier to his success. On the negative side though, at every stage of the education process it seems we have to encounter initial scepticism by teachers that his dyslexia creates additional challenges for him. I need to remind teaching staff that he needs support and understanding and remind them that he may not ask for help, not because he doesn’t need it but because he doesn’t recognise that he needs it. He can’t see if he’s spelt something wrong, he can’t proofread, he can’t make effective notes from a board or as he listens to a lecture. What happens to all the dyslexic children who don’t have a parent who can fight for them?
For anyone out there whose child may be displaying signs of dyslexia I would urge you to do all the research that you can possibly do so as to understand the issues involved. Listen to your instincts as you know your child best.Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by teaching staff and don’t allow them to take a wait-and-see approach. There are lots of available assessment tests that schools can use without necessitating the need for a costly external assessment. Whatever you do, don’t allow reading to become a battleground. I was far more relaxed with my fifth child who also turned out to be dyslexic and far more confident in telling his teachers what I wanted them to do for him. As a result his reading skills are really very good and best of all he loves books and can happily immerse himself in the magical world that they open up. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that dyslexia isn’t real or is a middle class syndrome, they are totally wrong. The sad thing is though that thousands of people who could be diagnosed and helped are written off in early life as stupid or lazy. It is a very real condition that can needlessly cause an enormous amount of stress and unhappiness. It can’t be cured but by understanding that it exists we can go a long way in helping those who live with it and in convincing our educational policy makers that teachers need to be properly trained in recognising and dealing with it.