In recent weeks there has been a bit of debate going on in academic circles about diagnosis of Specific Learning Disabilities in Reading, what most would know as dyslexia. It was put to me that diagnosis of dyslexia muddles the terrain a bit in that it implies something intrinsic in the child that needs remedying, as against implementing evidence based reading programs so that all children learn to read. In my humble mind both elements are true.
We do need to implement evidence based phonics programs so that all children learn to read. And we have the research that demonstrates if evidence based phonics programs are implemented then all children on the normal distribution curve shift to the right. Alison Clarke, Speech Therapist from Melbourne demonstrated this in her recent YouTube video, and it was also demonstrated through the Sounds Write Report to Schools in August 2009.
But what is also true in my experience, is that children with dyslexia do have something inherent in them that needs to be acknowledged and which also informs how evidence based phonics is brought to them. In the normal heterogeneity in human brain wiring for the processing of speech sounds, some brains, to greater and lesser degrees, don't do so well in this particular area. I am not a neuroscientist and acknowledge that my knowledge about such scientific matters is poor, however, I see the manifestation of unstable processing of speech sounds in the children I work with every day .
Although the hearing of these children is perfectly fine, the processing of those sound bytes can, and does, got a bit awry. The brain of some of these children will simply process different sounds as the same. In other children they can sound out the discrete sounds in a word but their brains jumble some of those sounds up so that the child experiences incredible difficulty in blending them all together. It can often take up to ten attempts to blend the sounds together, and not because they aren't trying or not thinking, they are just manifesting what their brains have processed and cobbled together (or not). And for many it will manifest in spelling. Unless a child says the sounds as they write (and sometimes even when they do), then what actually gets written on the page can be a bit of a lottery.
But all of these manifestations of the processing difficulty that underpins dyslexia can be remedied, through the best of what we have learned from linguistics and science. I also see this everyday. Reading remediation through evidence based phonics is therapy, and working with it is truly an art. But what is different for these kids in comparison to those in the normal curve who are not on the extremes of heterogeneity in phonological processing wiring, is the amount of overlearning required for the brain to build the neural pathways associated with correct processing of sounds; the amount of overlearning required to build correspondences between sounds and symbols (letters); and the amount of overlearning required for building correct images for whole words (via the previous two elements).
These kids need state of the art processes for learning. And they need much, much, much, more exposure and practice than kids who don't have brains not organised for accurate phonological processing. It takes more effort just to get the sound platforms right, and then it takes more effort to get the correct spellings associated with those sound platforms and then it takes more effort again to keep working with both enough for full images of words to be built. Which is why academics such as Dr Sally Shaywitz emphasise the importance of additional time for these kids. I also recommend that if they are required to learn class spelling lists then the lists need to be reduced. Otherwise we are asking kids with a disability to expend way more energy and time than anyone else. Do we ask that of any other disability group?
I think it is important that all students with dyslexia and their parents accept and understand the foundational issue in the child's brain in processing speech sounds. Whilst the lack of neural wiring can be remedied through evidence based teaching of phonics, a trace of the issue always remains. Reading will possibly remain slower than others throughout their lifetime; spelling will possibly always remain difficult and require ongoing use of strategies learned during phonics instruction; and the manifestations of dyslexia will absolutely surface during times of stress. Children, and parents, need to understand this, and somewhere along the way children need to develop self management skills to reduce the impact of the 'dyslexia' and to cultivate awareness and strategies that calm a troubled mind.
One bright young lady I work with commented on the difference she has observed between those kids who obtained their diagnosis early and those whose parents waited much longer before organising an assessment. In her mind she has had time to accept, understand, accommodate and advocate on behalf of her dyslexia, whereas later diagnosed kids don't seem to have integrated their disability into their lives, and suffer. I am not sure whether the timing of the diagnosis makes a difference to acceptance of a disability but it crossed my mind several weeks ago how difficult it must be for a child with dyslexia to accept that there is something intrinsically awry within. But, my observation is that when ones 'accepts', things become easier, whilst denial is so much harder to maintain. And so I hark back to my assessment in my introduction. Implementation of evidence based phonics is vital, as is acceptance of inner machinations that create difficulties in skill areas in school and life. Put them together and we get maturity on many levels.