People often ask me as a specialist dyslexic teacher what are the best or most important skills to teach a dyslexic learner?
It’s a question I’m still not 100% confident in answering as my answer would not necessarily fit with what the ‘education school system’ strives for. It’s an answer I have searched a long time to find. I have also found through my experience that often my thinking changes as I develop new skills, knowledge and expertise. I have come to learn that often answers are really just moments in time too… based on current research, experience and knowledge. A bit like an assessment is a snap shot of a persons ability on a given day! So this is my answer at the moment… I’ll warn you it is not grounded in evidence based on controlled research and it’s not based on theory from a book… Its based on my experiences professional and personal, based on my doing the job for 14 years and seeing for myself first hand what I have seen makes the most and biggest difference to a dyslexic learner, so feel free to argue and challenge my thinking.
The obvious answer to the question is of course reading and spelling skills…When I was doing my specialist training I was taught to use a prescriptive structured and accumulative spelling and reading progrme. This means that one sound/letter is introduced at any one time. Each lesson another sound is introduced and added and only words made from these sounds can be used in the lesson. These programmes focus on reading, spelling and writing of individual letters and sounds. It means that clear links are established in the brain so that pathways are reinforced making the information easier to retrieve. The programmes allow for lots of over learning opportunities and look to make words and sounds automatic freeing up space in the working memory by not allowing it to become overloaded! These programmes are fabulous, evidenced based and explicit. It cannot be denied that they are brilliant but they are also time consuming.
The trouble with these programmes is that in order to get through the whole programme you would need over 100 lessons. Realistically these can only be delivered as an intervention and I used to worry that as a specialist teacher who had the learner for roughly 20, 1 hour lessons at most, I would never be able to teach a dyslexic learner everything they needed in the time available to us. For many years I felt panicked that I needed to find the time to teach a dyslexic every single reading and spelling rule in the english language in our sessions alone, of course this was impossible and of course I never managed it! Most importantly I had already changed my answer because this is of course not what is needed or what I was expected to do!
I have to say at this point I have always been confused and a little baffled as to why these structured and accumulative approaches are not better embedded in the national curriculum! At present they are not embedded into the everyday curriculum so they are left for specialist teachers or intervention support staff to deliver them.
As I said in the real world as a specialist teacher you might get 20 lessons, if you are lucky, at most with a pupil, so how do you prioritise?
I had learnt that realistically we would never get through it all, but actually we didn’t need to because if I taught approaches and skills then the learner could become independent at self regulating and driving their own learning forward! So I began using the programmes to teach metacognition and self-reflective thinking and monitoring approaches such as verbalisation, using the first few letters and sounds of the structured programme as my vehicle… This worked for a bit but my thinking changed again because of where I worked!
In my last job role as inclusion manager in a large primary school I had the power to change the thinking of staff… however it was harder work than I thought and I came across issues that were bigger than I first thought and bigger than I could control!
Even if I was to train all the staff in school on using a structured and accumulative programme, these programmes follow a slightly different pattern to the national curriculum and they suggest different and far more in depth ways of teaching reading and spelling. They take way longer than the time allocated for phonics to be delivered and teachers, well Headteachers, would not be able to allow that much time to be allocated to the teaching of reading, spelling, phonological awareness and phonics because of curriculum demand and the pressure of attainments and results. The time allocated in the curriculum does not allow for anywhere near as much depth and rehearsal that is needed and required to establish each individual sound and spelling rule.
The next problem is class teachers when in training are genuinely not taught ‘how’ to teach in a multi sensory or direct self discovery way that allows for the learner to make the connections independently. New sounds and letters need to be taught and practised in context and built on and added to, not taught in isolation with nothing to connect them to. Strategies to do this would include practising joined handwriting, dictation of individual words and in sentences, marking using a self check card. Spelling and reading routines that allow for over learning and that allow for continuous revisiting. These lessons should still be ‘pacey’ and fast moving but without this depth of rehearsal a dyslexic learner will struggle to both retain and retrieve the information.
The final area which I feel is totally neglected and skated over far too quickly in the curriculum is phonological awareness. This is time allocated to hearing and identifying sounds in words, counting syllables in words, identifying and knowing the long and short vowel sounds and hearing rhyme. These areas are all looked at briefly but again in nowhere near enough detail, depth and rehearsal. Alongside this there are some really usefull skills like learning syllable patterns, (I did not even know these existed until I did my specialist training!) which can improve spelling immediately! They are like a magical wand for working out where the vowels go and where the syllables end, so help with reading and spelling accuracy! These syllable patterns are nowhere to be found in the curriculum and I am baffled as to why! Knowing these make such a huge difference to a dyslexics ability to be able to apply logic when approaching an unknown word in reading and spelling! They would also really help children with lower cognition make more rapid progress.
You can see here that there are issues bigger than me passing on approaches… There are issues that even if I taught everything I know to the staff there is the issue of time constraints and what a dyslexic needs not being embedded or part of the core curriculum.
The final issue is that the leadership of the school and local authority need to be 100% behind you or you cannot make the changes necessary. In order to provide dyslexics with what they really need, school leaders need to be brave and need to stop focussing on levels and start focusing on need… It takes longer to teach reading, spelling and writing using a structured and accumulative approach, however if done in this way provides a solid indestructible foundation! It’s so solid it can’t be knocked down, there are no gaps and no room for errors! I’m fairy sure that if we taught from the beginning in reception in this way then levels for reading and spelling would shoot up for ALL children not just dyslexics… I don’t see how they could not, all children would benefit from a more thorough approach!
So in my blue sky vision, ideal world answer every single child would have the opportunity to access a structured and accumulative programme for reading and spelling that encompassed phonological awareness, joined handwriting and dictation, teaching reading and spelling explicitly… This in turn would stop issues such as disengagement, anxiety and confidence issues as children would feel equal, would have equal knowledge and be on a level playing field!
However I live in the real world and I know that this is not going to happened overnight… In reality I think that there are 2 skills which are key… 2 skills that will help a dyslexic learner overcome the difficulties they face at school or in their learning journey and we don’t need a teaching degree to teach and model these to pupils…we can all teach them, parents, teachers and each other.. I think until something majorly changes in the educational system the best skills we can teach, nurture, encourage and foster within a dyslexic learner are resilience and determination…
If we can establish resilience we can cope better with the constant knock backs, feelings of being useless and feelings of being stupid. We can cope with competition which is needed to drive us on. Resilience doesn’t cure these feelings but it makes us better able to cope and keep battling through. Determination is essential because we need to be determined to keep going even if at that moment in time we don’t feel resilient or able to cope we need to hang onto the fact that with hard work we will get there we have to just keep trying, keep surging forward and keep on driving ourselves to the place of success! We have to be determined in order to visualise and see the goal and know where we are going!
So if you asked me today as a specialist teacher, a primary practitioner, parent of a dyslexic and dyslexic myself I would say determination and resilience are key skills to establish! These skills alone will take a dyslexic learner far… and towards some successful destinations. If a dyslexic has these skills they can probably teach themselves the rest when they are ready! Remember we are bright intelligent souls who just need to be shown the way, we are generally intuitive and driven individuals who want to make a difference. You ask any successful dyslexic and they will tell you these are the skills that matter, they are hard to learn and the knock backs are painful but with these skills we are a fairy unstoppable force and a force that can be used in your class to improve your SATS results, as an adult or teenager they can be used to get a job or finish the essay, they can be used as a parent to complete the homework and push your child forward and as a specialist we can make rapid progress because the pupil can cope with making mistakes and knock backs jumping straight back on the horse after falling.
Never underestimate a dyslexic… Especially a dyslexic with determination and resilience on full throttle…because dyslexics on full throttle have the power and strength to change the world…
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