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Dyslexia, Improving Teaching

Orthographic dyslexia, where English is the native language, affects about 4% of children. The combination of imperfect teaching practices and difficult written language conventions combine to make this percentage higher than it is in countries where the written language is more regular and predictable. Many children learn quickly through implicit teaching but children with any kind of learning difficulty need lessons spelled out with no assumptions that they will simply catch on. We have no control over the writing conventions but we can improve teaching to cater properly for dyslexic children and others with a learning difficulty.

The dyslexic child needs explicit and systematic teaching in class and at home. Occupational therapists and teachers provide useful suggestions that involve the other senses, such as raised or rough surfaces for writing, and strong colours to help children identify letters and sounds. I recommend, however, slowly removing these aids as your child improves.


Preparing for School:
In speaking English, in contrast with some other languages, the speaker uses the lips, tongue and teeth to a much greater degree. A young child needs attention at an early age to develop good speaking habits. It is important to correct a child’s oral mistakes. Pre-school provides a lot of social interaction and story-telling. It prepares children for the Prep classroom. Children who can recognise all the letters and sounds of the alphabet in pre-school are prepared for school.

I have spent a lot of time on a one-to-one basis with primary school children who cannot enunciate words. If a child can’t say words correctly then he will have difficulty reading them and writing them as well. So I sit opposite the child. I get him to watch how I say a word he has difficulty with. Then I show him where my tongue is, or whether I smile when I say the word.

Children’s speech benefits when you look at your child and your child is looking at you. Meanings of words can be picked up if you use gestures freely. (Jon Lieff in http://www.searchingforthemind.com) These instructions to a child need daily reinforcement. A twenty-four hour period is long-term memory, not short-term memory which is counted in minutes. If you meet a person with a short-term memory problem and you are asked, “What time is it?” and then asked the same question a few minutes later, then this defines short-term memory. This does not apply to dyslexic children.

Classrooms can be noisy places. It comes back to individual teachers and their teaching habits and norms. The noise levels do not agree with all children and some can be quite stressed because of it. If your child’s classroom is extra noisy, it may be possible to have him moved to a quieter class.

I always preferred to have any child needing extra attention at the front. This gives the teacher a chance to watch how they are going with a task and to teach that child when the other children don’t need it. You can ask for your child to be moved towards the front. I don’t agree with the practice of seating children at the back with an aide. The education of the child is the teacher’s responsibility and classroom aides do not have the teaching skills, regardless of their training, to compensate for your child’s learning disability. If the aide is there to help a handicapped child in a wheelchair for instance, there is no reason for the aide to be helping your child. They should not be at the same table.

The Curriculum:
Dyslexics have particular difficulty decoding irregular words. Often, words are introduced to children in class without a context, that is, in lists or in isolation. There is no reason for Grade 2 children to be given the word ‘debt’ or to experience such a word in a story. I would not introduce the word ‘island’ or ‘yacht’ to early primary school children. Yet, all three words have been cited in websites about dyslexia. Also, there is no discussion on these sites about the age of children being introduced to these words. Teachers shouldn’t be introducing such words to early primary children without dyslexia! When teaching the letter ‘y’ as a consonant, the word ‘yes’ is easier than the word ‘yacht’.

Vocabulary in the Classroom:
So how would I introduce the word ‘island’ into the primary school classroom? I teach children geography. So I have pictures and brief descriptions of geographical features, such as ‘cliff’, ‘bay’, ‘coast’ and ‘river’. The definition of an island is ‘land with water all around it’. There are islands off the coasts and in the middle of rivers. I would never introduce more than one irregularly spelt word at a time. So I would not give children a sentence such as, “The yacht sails around the island.” There are also some great stories about islands.

Take a close look at spelling lists, magic words and the like that come home from the school. Ask yourself whether this word is regular or irregular in spelling. Ask your child if the irregular words have been discussed in the classroom. Find out if any problematic words have been given to the class in the context of a story. If not, there’s your problem.

Classroom Literacy Standards:
No child can be expected to learn new vocabulary in a vacuum. There should always be a context such as a story, a report, a set of instructions, or the like. Obviously, this is even more important if a child is dyslexic. Schools today are pressured to perform and to obtain results. Often this pressure comes from parents. This means that many schools are teaching above standard and beyond the specifications of the Curriculum. You could find that Grade 3 material is being taught as if it is Grade 2. And children are being assessed for Grade 2 on Grade 3 materials. These practices are now common and can cause some children unnecessary frustration. The school, however, will continue the over-reach and you need to be aware of that. And the consequence is that the parent can get their child’s school performance into a truer perspective.

Check your curriculum on the internet carefully. Words mean a lot in curriculum writing. Compare one grade with another grade’s curriculum and you will see what your child’s standard needs to be.

Many reader sets used in primary schools are old. A confusing aspect about readers is that each publisher uses their own grading codes. If you believe the readers for your child are too easy, too hard or in other ways a mismatch, you could do your own analysis of a reader. Make lists under certain headings, such as irregular words, sight words, high frequency words and even odd words. Note what each one is and the number of times it is used. Form your own opinion about the value of the reader and then take your findings to the classroom teacher with your argument that the material is not suitable for your child.

Some readers, I’ve noticed, have a sprinkling of uncommon words and I’m at a loss to understand why such words are included in early primary.

Explain to your child that our alphabet has twenty six letters. And there are other alphabets that have more letters. As we only have twenty-six letters, fifty two if we include capital letters, we use them in combinations to create other sounds such as ‘th’ and ‘oa’. Many teachers don’t explain these things to children. Children are not aware that the letter ‘y’ acts as the vowel ‘i’ more often than a consonant. So we have A,E,I,O,U and Y as vowels.

Real words versus nonsense words:
There is nothing to be gained in giving any child ‘nonsense words’ to read unless it is part of a test conducted by trained psychologists or related professionals. Teachers should not be doing this for any reason. There is a huge number of real words that can be used to help children learn to read. Using nonsense words only confuses. Every time a child sees a word it registers in the memory. So why register nonsense letter combinations. A child needs to see a word between 40 and 60 times to be able to read it – and preferably in context. If your child hasn’t seen a word that many times and can’t recognise it or read it, then this is a matter for the school that needs to be addressed.

For dyslexic children, I think texts need to be bigger so they can differentiate letters more easily. Use Dr Jon Lieff’s suggestion of making bigger spaces between words. With all children, writing skills lag behind reading skills. However, model good writing style by making sure the stem on ‘h’ and ‘d’ and the others is exactly double the size of the body of the letter. The same applies to letters with a tail such as ‘p’ and ‘g’ as the tail should also be exactly double the size of the body of the letter. This should help your child differentiate the letters. Many writers, even teachers, make the stem and tail too short and I think this adds to children’s inability to differentiate letters. An ‘h’ should not look like an ‘n’.

To reinforce the stem and tail on letters, ask your child to make an umbrella out of the stem on all these letters and draw a kite tail on the tailed letters.

Explain to your child that the way some letters appear in books and magazines is different from the way we write those letters. Good examples are ‘a’, ‘g’ and ‘y’. Then reinforce the hand-writing style by drawing it in the air and then writing the letters on paper.

Writing is a very important intellectual activity on its own and should be encouraged. It is unwise to put greater emphasis on keyboard work in the belief that the keyboard will dominate your child’s education later on. If a child feels frustrated when writing then tell him it’s like drawing and it’s a form of art. Write some letters in large, ask your child to copy them and then see if he can turn each letter into a picture.

To strengthen a child’s hand muscles, you could set up a potato peeling activity at the kitchen bench.

One step at a time:
When teaching your child writing, work on the small letters first, then the capital letters. Many books and classroom methods teach the two together. For any child finding this difficult concentrate on one at a time. Starting with the lower case, work on letters with only straight lines. Then work on letters with round shapes, followed by letters with stems and tails. Don’t overload the child. Do the same with capitals – straight lines such capital ‘L’ and follow up with letters with rounded parts.

Say to your child, “All capital letters stand on the line,” meaning none of them has a tail. Regarding small letters, say “The body of the letter sits on the line.” Explain that the body of the letter is the round part. Ask your child to write small letters such as ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘u’, ‘o’, ‘p’ ‘q’ etc. Then ask him to colour in the body of the letter. This reinforces what the body is and where it sits.

How handwriting is not taught in classrooms:
Handwriting today is rarely modelled by the teacher on a board or large paper. Many classrooms are cluttered with lists and written material that can confuse the struggling child because it makes it harder for them to differentiate in this forest of material. The classroom clutter overhead and on every wall and every space harks back to earlier decades when research produced Whole Language results and Whole Language dominated the literacy landscape. Associated with Whole Language in the primary classroom was the idea of submersion in language and I think this remains one of the persistent remnants of that era.

Children are teaching themselves writing:
So without deliberate modelling in the classroom, many children write their letters to reproduce what the finished letter looks like. Close observation of children reveals that they often don’t know where to start writing a letter. Letters that are written in one stroke are often written in three separate strokes by the children so it ‘looks right’ afterwards.

The lack of teaching in this area is now cultivating bad habits in writing that are hard to break and fail to establish good writing habits. In other words, children don’t know how to form letters unless expressly taught. In the secondary school classroom, these habits translate into the popular adolescent line, “This is the way I write.” I have replied to such students, “If I can’t read it, your mark will suffer.” That usually got them thinking. They try to at least make their writing legible.

Problems with Victorian Cursive and other scripts:
I don’t encourage children to use Victorian Cursive Script because it claims – through the shapes of the letters – that letters in the alphabet are square. This squarish shape is hard for children to write and it is even harder for them to maintain the slant of stems and tails.

One problem I see with classroom instruction on writing is the use of the word ‘loop’. Children now ‘loop’ into the ‘m’ and ‘n’ and then write a loop on the way out of letters. Explain to your child that loops are not a part of the letter. The loops are becoming big and make the children’s letters too wide.

Teaching children to write is hard work:
Children will find it much easier to learn to write using rounded tops and bottoms on the body of the letters. I say to children, “Around, up and down, tick,” so often that I think I just need a recording of it. The other line is, “Down, up and around, tick.” I accompany this refrain with an upward inflection on the word ‘up’ and I usually do it in the air with my finger. The gestures and vocalisations reinforce the child’s learning.

Tidying up your child’s handwriting:
With rounded tops and bottoms on letters, instruct your child to write stems and tails straight up or down and disregard any slant in Victorian Script. The slant is also an extra problem for left-handed children.

When a child has the rounded top and bottom, then encourage him to make the sides of the letters straighter. This produces an oval shape in the body of the letter.

Explain that you want the letter to begin on the line, eg ‘m’ and finish with a tick not a loop. Children love to write ticks and it means there is a harder corner at the end of the letter, leading later to linking letters in script.

Teachers will notice writing improvements but in my experience they never complain that a child is not writing in Victorian Script. I think the same would apply wherever you live and whatever writing style your child’s school teaches.

Never underestimate how much hard work this really is. And this is the only way to get the desired result. If you are not doing this, and the school is not doing this, why be surprised or worried that your child is not mastering the skills of writing. If these inputs are not there, then surely it is too early for any diagnosis of a learning difficulty.

The curriculum is crammed with requirements. Your child’s learning flits from topic to topic quite quickly. In many ways children’s attention is taken up with organisation of the activities and classroom arrangements, such as what group he is in for spelling, what group he’s in for reading and filling out completion charts. No child with a learning challenge needs all this while also being required to concentrate on multiple learning tasks through the day.

Other examples of mental clutter:
Teaching the writing of capital and small letters at the same time.
Teaching the writing of letters with straight lines at the same time as letters with rounded lines.
Teaching of the twelve hour clock, the 24-hour clock and railway timetables all at roughly the same time.

Your child, as well as most other children without dyslexia, would do much better being taught the twelve hour clock first and allowed to master that. Follow up with the 24-hour clock and master that one.

If you can arrange for this approach to your child’s learning, it could result in far better outcomes.