The Importance of Identifying and Understanding Dyslexic Students

The Importance of Identifying and Understanding Dyslexic Students

October is the Dyslexia Awareness Month. And this year the focus is on INVISIBLE DYSLEXIA.

Because dyslexia itself isn’t visible, individuals with dyslexia often feel unsupported, unseen and invisible. It is very important to have knowledge of what dyslexia is. My own personal experience has taught me how lack of awareness can affect the one with dyslexia and the family too.

I began my teaching career in 1995 and never thought that it will be such an enriching journey that will define my life. During my teaching days at a reputed ICSE school in Goa, I encountered a lot of students who were very bright but had some kind of a learning difficulty, which was a mystery to me. I noticed that some of my pupils were frustrated because they knew that they are bright but were unable to acquire skills in the 3 Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic. Some had awful spelling work. They found everything so difficult to understand. And I found it more difficult to understand them because I was not aware of dyslexia.

I noticed that because of their learning difficulties, behavioural problems like temper tantrums arose. They began to react to their failure negatively by constantly complaining of headache, stomach upset or not wanting to come to class due to fear of more failure. Parents were upset as to what was wrong with their otherwise normal child. They took them to many doctors but couldn’t find any cause for the headache or the upset tummies. I was more puzzled by the increasing aggressive behaviour of the children towards the classmates. The inability to cope with the demand and academic pressure led to low self-esteem and more poor behaviour. I needed strategies to cope with this in class and be more effective.

So I got myself registered for a workshop on handling pupils with learning difficulties. At the workshop I received very specific and specialized training to handle pupils with dyslexia. I began to look back at my brother’s childhood and his dyslexic characteristics appeared so clearly to me. I felt sorry that he had to suffer because of undiagnosed dyslexia. I realized that my brother had experienced so many of the symptoms but had never received any kind of learning support and by the time we realized what the root cause of his behaviour was, it was too late.

I remembered my mother telling me that as a toddler he had delayed speech but was very confident and social. But all that changed when he started school. He hated school and was left behind by his peers in the classroom. He had illegible handwriting, was slow at reading and battled with spelling. These hindrances led to the deterioration of his social skills and he lost that confidence he had so enjoyed as a child.

Things got worse when my younger sister started school and was top of her class. He couldn't understand why his sisters were doing so well and he wasn't. His self-esteem took a knock and he sunk into depression. He took the wrong path in life, chose friends and a life with people who made him feel wanted and ultimately died very young.

After attending this workshop I became determined to do something for children who were dyslexic and save them from a similar fate to my brother's. So I enrolled at the University of Southampton in the UK to pursue a Master’s degree in specific learning difficulties. The degree gave a new dimension and meaning to my teaching. I witnessed my struggling students becoming more motivated to use different learning strategies to overcome their learning difficulties. It gave me a great sense of fulfillment.

One evening at a get-together of friends I mentioned to our family friends that my brother had undiagnosed dyslexia. I was surprised to see a totally confused look on their face. They thought of dyslexia as a form of mental retardation. That moment I decided to write a book about dyslexia that will help parents and teachers and our society to understand dyslexia.

Understanding dyslexia is important because the more aware the parent or the teacher is, then the right kind of learning support can be provided to the child. At my workplace I have had many parent teacher meetings, where parents keep asking why their bright child is doing poorly at school. They think the child is dull, lazy, clumsy, and are tired of the teachers’ complaints that the child is too difficult for them to manage.

It’s not just the parents who are confused but teachers too wonder what is going wrong. They fail to understand why a smart child cannot grasp things easily like other pupils in the class. Due to lack of understanding of the child’s learning difficulty they are unable to help and end up blaming the child or the parents and the parents’ blaming the teacher and the school. Some parents keep changing schools thinking it will work for their child. They fail to understand that the child might be having dyslexia. This lack of understanding increases the already existing tensions and pressures for parents, teachers and the child.

If a teacher finds that a bright child is underachieving in class due to what may look like carelessness or lack of effort, then she should bring it to the attention of the Head of the school and it needs to be investigated before it is brought to the attention of the parents. After discussing the investigations with the parents, the parents could get the child assessed. If the school has remedial teachers then the child could get learning support in the school otherwise parents could arrange for a specialist learning support tutor at home.

Class teachers need to have an understanding of the problems that the dyslexic child may have within the classroom situation. Hopefully, with this knowledge, a great deal of misunderstanding of a child's behaviour can be prevented. In a positive and encouraging environment, a dyslexic child will experience the feeling of success and self-value.

UNDERSTANDING DYSLEXIA:

We all use the word dyslexia very widely. But what does the word actually mean? The word dyslexia is derived from the Greek word—‘dys’ meaning difficulty and lexis meaning language. The literal translation is difficulty with words or language.

There are a number of different definitions and descriptions of dyslexia. As the condition is not fully understood because dyslexia can show itself in so many ways and can result from different causes, it is important to keep any definition of dyslexia simple and to the point. Perhaps the simplest definition of dyslexia is the one approved by the British Dyslexia Association Management Board in October 2007 which says:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It is likely to be present at birth and to be life-long in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities. It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effects can be mitigated by appropriate specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counselling.”

We have to remember that no two pupils with symptoms of dyslexia are the same. Dyslexia could be thought of as a different learning ability rather than a difficulty. Pupils with dyslexia can learn efficiently and effectively but often need a different approach. Dyslexia is a puzzling mix of distinctive strengths and talents as well as clusters of difficulties. The difficulties vary in degree from pupil to pupil. It could range from mild, moderate to severe. Knowledge about the extent and severity of the problem is important in order to provide adequate support. Lack of understanding and inadequate support can lead to low self-esteem and depression.

Like all of us, dyslexics have their own individual mixture of strengths and weaknesses. Some may find things harder or easier than others and may also have developed different ways of dealing with dyslexia. They may struggle in school, as reading and writing are the main skills that are valued. Research has proved that there are many positive aspects to being dyslexic including being creative, being able to think multi-dimensionally or in pictures, think laterally and being good at solving problems. We will look at successful people with dyslexia in this chapter.

Dyslexia is hidden. There are no physical or visual indicators. Unlike some other difficulties, you cannot look at a child physically and say that the child has dyslexia. Because of this there is the danger of the child not being diagnosed for a long time or sometimes never diagnosed. No one may realise that the child is experiencing problems unless you observe the child closely and it may be too late when we realise that the child is experiencing some learning difficulties.

Dyslexia is typically characterised by an unusual balance of skills. It is a collection of associated characteristics that vary from person to person. They encompass distinctive characteristics of problems as well as distinctive talents. In childhood its effects can be misattributed to emotional or behavioural disorder. There is a misconception that dyslexia is brought about by poor parenting. This is an incorrect conception and has no relation. Parents should not blame themselves for having a child with dyslexia.

Is Dyslexia inherited?

It is clear that dyslexia is frequently found in families and a lot of people tend to agree that it is a genetic condition passed on through families. It is often accompanied by left-handedness in the family. Please note that not every child who is left-handed is dyslexic and not every dyslexic parent gives birth to dyslexic child. Studies have shown that it might not be the parent but it can be anyone in the family. Researchers are still working to pinpoint the genetic mechanisms behind dyslexia.

Dyslexia can be a result of hearing problems at an early age. It could be because they were not able to hear clear simple instructions, so they were not corrected properly. John Bradford has pointed out that if a child suffers frequent cold and throat infections in the first five years, then the ears can be blocked from time to time and hearing is impaired. The parents can easily be unaware of this until a doctor usually looks into the child’s ears. This glue ear condition if not noticed at an early stage, then the developing brain does not make the links between the sound it hears. The lack of clear hearing will also delay the child’s phonemic awareness which could cause lifelong learning difficulties.

There is increasing awareness that dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty of neurological origin. It is not related to race or social background. It also does not imply low intelligence or poor educational potential. But our education system focuses a lot on a student’s ability to read, write and spell and equates the ability of child to read spell and write with intelligence. Reading, spelling and writing is sometimes overwhelming for pupils with dyslexia. So when a child struggles with the 3 Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic, it is assumed that the child has low IQ, which may not be the case.

IDENTIFYING DYSLEXIA

Research has consistently demonstrated that early identification of dyslexia is a strong predictor of future academic success. The most frequently cited reason for the importance of early identification is that many of the interventions for dyslexia appear to be most effective in early childhood. In addition, early diagnosis also provides individuals with access to accommodations that “level the playing field,” which enhances the student’s likelihood of experiencing academic success at a young age. Early identification offers both immediate and long-term benefits. Therefore, if parents notice that their young child demonstrates a weakness in reading that may require support services, such as tutoring, the parents should consider a psycho-educational evaluation, as this will document the developmental history of the difficulty, as well as assist in the child receiving formal accommodations at school.

The earlier a child with dyslexia is identified the sooner that child can be directed to effective instruction for their specific need. A child identified earlier with correct treatment can be brought up to grade level without the extra burden of the secondary effects setting in, which can include; low self-esteem, frustration, loss of motivation for learning, social and emotional issues including attentional difficulties.

Learn about the common characteristics of dyslexia, trust your gut feelings and do something about it. Effective screening for dyslexia will tell you a lot about the type of teaching your child requires, it is not just a label. Dyslexia is an informative description which allows educational treatment to be tailored to the unique differences that an individual with dyslexia has. If you feel that your child is displaying symptoms of dyslexia, do not listen if someone says, "They will grow out of it" or "All children progress at their own rate". No one grows out of dyslexia and time is valuable when it comes to dyslexia and a child's positive self-esteem.