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Dyslexia – the Building Blocks of Learning

Dyslexia, a specific difficulty with the learning of literacy skills, is the most common and best-defined learning disability. Moreover, after thirty years of steadily expanding research of excellent quality, it is the condition which – for sufferers and professionals alike – has made the most progress in identification and remediation. There is now good agreement about:

1. the value of early identification
2. the utility of structured, multisensory, cumulative teaching methods
3. the support structures that need to be maintained throughout academic life, after the period of intensive tuition is past.

This short article will look at this sequence, as well as the area where disagreement remains, essentially about the value of IQ in psychological assessment – or the so-called discrepancy definition.

Early identification
Thus far, there are nine genes that are known to be responsible for dyslexia and, theoretically, more are needed. Though dyslexic tendencies, inherited, may not always be fully expressed in children, there is a multiplied risk when there is some dyslexia on both sides of the family.

Because dyslexia is thought of as a species of language disorder, this development is most often seen in delayed or anomalous speech development in the pre-school years. For instance, children may muddle the constituent sounds or sequences of sounds in words – car park = par cark, spaghetti = basgetti – and may not be interested in books and nursery rhymes.

From the first day of school, young children may start to feel that this place is not for them; and, even if they settle well, early experience of being unable to do certain things may be baffling, disappointing and corrosive to them. A lowering of self-esteem may set in and prove very hard to reverse. It is important to emphasise that these trends are usually well-established by the age of seven.

The earlier the age at which the problem is accurately identified and skilfully addressed, the better the outcome.

Professional assessment is the first step towards clarifying the nature of the difficulty. Educational psychologists are scarce, but nowadays many specialist teachers are trained to use good quality tests with children and adults. An early indication of the extent and severity of any literacy-learning problem is valuable.
Specialist teaching
Following a positive identification of dyslexia, individual specialist tuition should be sought for the child (or adult). This is best delivered by a specially trained teacher, one holding a postgraduate diploma in dyslexia from an accredited course, who will be able to build on the psychological assessment and review progress thereafter.

Typically, there is an emphasis on the foundation elements – letter shapes, sounds and combinations – in alphabetic literacy. These may be shaky even if the individual appears to have left this stage behind, so a return to secure basic structures is often a feature of an individual learning programme. Each structure of level is secured through practice and repetition before another is added. These building blocks create an edifice of skills that remains secure lifelong, even if underlying problems – of limited short-term memory and slow processing – remain.

Continuing support
After progress is made with fundamental phonics and morphology, the pupil may be able to resume normal classroom and curriculum progress without continuing tuition. Nevertheless, it behoves teachers to continue to be aware, as the pupil progresses to secondary school, of the accommodations in the classroom that might lighten the load:

1. Keep instructions short and issue them one at a time.
2. Break down longer instructions into smaller chunks.
3. Repeat key words and phrases.
4. Allow time for processing – he or she may need extra time to think through what has been said.
5. Check that the pupil has understood – by asking him or her to retell what they have to do (not in public): children should not be allowed to become dependent on their friends for information.
6. If a child is sitting close to the teacher, for instance near the front of the class, making such a check discreetly is much easier.
7. Tasks involving codes and sequences, such as copying information from the board or transferring from one sheet to another, may pose problems.
8. If possible, the need to copy should be eliminated altogether, including by the provision of worksheets and photocopies of work (e.g. sentences to be completed) or lists of instructions for homework.
9. When questioned, children with processing difficulties may take longer to find words and retrieve what they want to say, necessitating some patience on the part of the teacher and the class.
10. The pupil may need a dictaphone to get key information down when taking notes further up the school.

This awareness is particularly important as the individual progresses through secondary education towards examination-based syllabi, when tuition itself becomes ancillary to the main task of preparing for examinations. At this stage, we relate such support to study skills – note-taking, question reading, essay planning, revision timetables, mind-mapping and so on (see, e.g., Cogan and Fletcher, 2004 ). The provision of access arrangements – extra time, use of computer – may be an important contribution to levelling the playing field up to, and including, further and higher education.

The logic of assessment
The use of intelligence measures as an integral part of psychological assessment remains somewhat controversial, but this may have to do with the perceived unfairness of nature in assigning different levels of ability to people. The argument against including measures of IQ in assessment relies upon criticisms of the method of evaluating different levels of development in impaired and unimpaired processes. It becomes easier to accept this argument if one sees little relationship between intelligence and learning.

The argument for including intelligence measurement in assessment is so as to be fair with respect to all levels of intellectual ability. Historically, dyslexia has been seen – and still is seen – as a contrast between impaired and unimpaired abilities and IQ is a legitimate by-product of the general survey of skills and abilities that is necessary if an individual assessment is to proceed without assumptions in impartial and neutral fashion. The use of high quality tests makes it possible to obtain objective evidence, impartially evaluated according to explicit criteria.

About the Author: Tests And Assessments from NFER Nelson

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