Schools need to learn lessons on helping dyslexic pupils

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One in ten children is thought to be dyslexic but parents say response to their needs can be slow. Sheena Hastings reports.

SARAH Jones is 11. Last month she took her year six Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) at primary school in North Yorkshire. She was allowed an adult reader to sit with her, ensuring that she understood the questions properly. She gets this sort of help because she has dyslexia, a condition she was diagnosed with when she was seven. Dyslexia is a common type of specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the skills involved in the reading and spelling of words.

“It was clear early on that Sarah didn’t feel comfortable at school,” says her mother Diane. “As time went on we could see that although she is generally bright and enthusiastic she wasn’t making the same progress at reading as her peers. To anyone else her reading might have looked normal, but we could tell that she was covering up difficulties by memorising words. If you picked out one word she didn’t recognise it.”

As books became more difficult this memory method no longer worked. Sarah was sent back to simpler books with only one word on each page. By year two (ages six to seven), loud alarm bells were ringing in Diane’s head, and she could see how frustrated her daughter was becoming. Diane (a teacher who’s married to a teacher) took her concerns to Sarah’s school and the little girl was tested by an educational psychologist who diagnosed dyslexia.

Sarah’s school gets no special funding to help children with dyslexia and there was no specialist teacher in the school, however Diane found help at the York centre run by the charity Dyslexia Action, and was allowed to take her daughter to sessions there to help her learn reading strategies. Diane has in the last year taken a postgraduate qualification as a specialist teacher, enabling her to help Sarah and other children with dyslexia.

Almost two-thirds of parents of dyslexic children say their child had to wait a year for help after diagnosis, according to a survey carried out for Dyslexia Action. Of 450 parents interviewed 90 per cent said teachers lacked awareness of the condition, although the government says early support for dyslexic pupils is vital.

The charity says there’s no requirement for teachers to have any training in the identification of the condition or how to support a child who has it – despite the fact that one in ten children is dyslexic. Parents want more specialist teachers and specialist support for parents, teachers and children. Often it’s parents who pick up on the problem first.

Dyslexia Action’s report Dyslexia Still Matters concedes that effective provision does exist in many schools, but Dr John Rack, head of research, development and policy at the charity believes the government’s planned reform of the special needs system is a great opportunity to make best practice in dyslexia support universal. While it’s right that reforms focus on children with the most complex and severe special needs, equally effective support is needed for those with high-incidence but lower severity needs.

“In 2009 there was a plan to have one specialist teacher between five primary schools... which would have meant 4,000 teachers. Around 3,500 were trained, but many of them are now struggling to keep their jobs. There is some way to go before dyslexia is understood in every school and children reach adequate literacy levels.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Sharing good practice in dyslexia support across schools is clearly sensible and important. All schools need a lead person who is alert to the indicators of dyslexia. There is already a lead person in schools to co-ordinate support for pupils with special educational needs, and this is the special needs co-ordinator (SENCO).

“The real question is how to ensure SENCOs have the time, support and training appropriate for the size of school to ensure all pupil needs are identified and met. If the current SEN reforms undermine the role of SENCO, this could negatively impact on many children with dyslexia.”

“Sarah’s reading ability now is good considering her dyslexia,” says Diane.

“The school have been very supportive in lots of ways, but even if every class teacher had specialist training in spotting and dealing with children who have dyslexia, they wouldn’t really be able to use it in the classroom because they are teaching children of all abilities and different needs.”