The gift of Dyslexia
“I remember a teacher making me cry because I used my fingers to do ‘simple’ math problems.”
“I have trouble expressing myself using words, and I have an extremely difficult time remembering exactly what people say. I only remember the concepts of discussions.”
“When I try to read, the pages start to criss-cross and everything becomes distorted. Then everything starts bouncing up and down, almost like my eyes are shaking only they are not.”
“I have a really hard time with my co-ordination. I always get my left and right body movements confused. I also write my letters backward at times.”
“If I do manage to get through a page, by the time I get through the second I forget what the first as about and have to go back. It doesn’t seam to soak in.”
These are the voices of dyslexia. And it was in response to these that a workshop on dyslexia with Kate Currawalla was held at Hyderabad on the 14th and 15th of February 2009. Organised for parents, teachers, and decision-makers, the workshop brought to light the meaning and incidence of dyslexia, problems experienced by these children and strategies to address them.
Ms. Currawalla, President of the Maharastra Dyslexia Association (MDA), discussed the signs for early identification, practical academic adjustments, modified evaluation procedures and tips on helping with memory, spellings, and math strategies, importance of a multi-sensory approach, and building self-esteem and confidence. The structured activities, games, and interactive session allowed the participants to experience first hand the dismay and frustrations of a learning disabled child.
The workshop had case studies where participants formed groups to discuss appropriate strategies to help the case in point. The interactive session brought forth ideas, exploded myths, and exposed prejudices. The brainstorming on how best to integrate a dyslexic child into the classroom brought some very practical tips forward. A participant for instance, felt that a dyslexic child be seated close to the teacher, so the child could be offered extra attention and also prompted when needed. Ms. Currawalla agreed that this was a practical idea and added to the point. “The teacher can have an understanding with the child and decide upon some subtle cue or gesture to prompt the child, each time he slips into a reverie. It is important to note here that the child must not be made to feel ashamed or ridiculed. Peer rejection can leave deep scars that can last a lifetime.” she cautioned.
Another teacher felt that the system of marking a child’s work in red should be done away with. “It is the colour of revenge. It looks like you are getting back at the child for a mistake. Let’s stop the red revolution and be more humane.” beseeched the teacher.
Another teacher suggested an innovative strategy for effective teaching of math fractions. A simple and fun idea of using eatables like a cake or fruits to be cut and divided among students could help explain the concept of parts that make a whole. The method would help the child move from a concrete idea to an abstract notion, while making it seem like play.
The ubiquitous problem of a messy script and spelling errors was a topic for a larger discourse. A majority of the teachers felt that the child’s work be ‘marked for content’, without making a great deal about the spellings. Ms. Currawalla made it very clear, that the emphasis laid on good handwriting and correct spellings is over hyped. She also stressed on the ‘buddy system’, for note taking. When a child has trouble copying from the blackboard, he could be made to sit with a friend who can help him with taking notes. Also photocopying notes, making carbon copies or recording the lessons can be considered when the child has a problem with writing. In severe cases, a child may take the services of a scribe.
In a brainstorming session when a teacher suggested that students with learning disabilities be put in a separate class, Ms. Currawalla was of the opinion that this would be detrimental to the development of the child. “It is important to note here that a dyslexic child is different from a slow learner, mentally challenged, or an emotionally disturbed child. Dyslexics in fact have an IQ of 90 or above. They are of average or above average intelligence. It is just that they process sensory information in a different area of the brain and have poor decoding skills. Difficulties result from reduced ability to associate visual symbols with verbal sounds,” she explained.
Ms. Currawalla also shared her experiences and anecdotes that helped the participants get a better understanding of the subject. She displayed worksheet slides by dyslexic children to illustrate, and help teachers get a better picture of how things are. What at first glance appeared as incoherent sentences, jumbled phrases, and illegible writing began to make sense when Ms. Currawalla read them out aloud. The participants were initiated into realising that the child actually ‘knew’, but had not been able to put it in writing. What indeed was stirring was the child’s tremendous effort at trying to make sense ‘on paper’.
Hushed tones, mumbled reactions, the questions ran bold and clear – Is being able to put pen to paper the only criteria of ‘worth’ in our lives? In these progressive and liberated times are we so limited and restricted in our modes of expression that we cannot think beyond typical stereotypes? Have we not to offer anything more? Cannot we accommodate and comfort these gifted, imaginative and extremely creative individuals who sense and express themselves in a medium different from that of the vast majority?
Children with learning disabilities need understanding, support, and help to manage their difficulties. They may need aids and tools to coordinate their senses. On the note of allowing dyslexic children transitional tools and aids, a teacher doubted if a child could take aid as a crutch and excuse to escape performance. ‘No child likes to believe he cannot do a task. Kids want to learn and know they can master a task. When a child feels he can manage on his own, he would be the first one do away with an aid,” clarified Ms. Currawalla. Elaborating on the point, she said that when a physical setback is offered support and aids then why not dyslexia which is also a difficulty, though not apparent or easily discernible?
So when a child has persistent problems with reading, writing, or comprehension and the warning signs are noticed, it is necessary to have an interdisciplinary test done, to exclude other possible causes for reading difficulties, such as cognitive impairment or physical problems with vision or hearing.
Dyslexia’s main manifestation is a big discrepancy between a child’s potential and production. The problem can go undetected in the early grades of schooling. The child can become frustrated by the difficulty in learning to read, and other problems may arise that disguise dyslexia. The child may show signs of withdrawal, depression, and low self-esteem. Behaviour problems at home and school are frequently seen and the child may become demotivated and develop a dislike for school.
Classroom teachers may not be able to decide if a child has dyslexia. They can detect early signs that suggest further assessment by a psychologist or other health professionals to actually diagnose the disorder. Ideally, every school should have a team made up of the principal, classroom teacher, the school psychologist and the parents to meet on a regular basis to discuss problems a specific child might be having. Any parent or teacher who suspects a learning problem may request a meeting with this team to discuss the child’s problem. A Teacher-Parent-Child alliance is extremely important to address learning difficulty problems. Teachers need to educate parents on cutting down on expectations and being patient and supportive with the child. They need to liase and act together to work out a successful remedial programme for the child.
Each dyslexic child’s difficulty may be different and vary from a slight to very severe disruption of the learning process. Depending on the type and severity of difficulty, the child may require modifications in learning experiences, like giving the child extra attention, allowing extra time with work, marking the child’s work for content, ignoring spelling errors, reducing expectations, repeating instructions, cutting down tasks into smaller units, allowing oral evaluations, motivating the child and helping boost self confidence. Sometimes a child may need therapeutic intervention and the services of a scientific remedial centre including, remedial education, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and counseling.
The participants also confessed their frustrations and difficulties on dealing with learning disabled students in their classrooms. A teacher shared her experiences with a child, who she said was brilliant and of above average intelligence but who had enormous problems with writing. The teacher said she accommodated the child by overlooking her errors and encouraging her, but she expressed her concerns about the other teachers not being as understanding. It was here that a very important point of liasing between educators and mentors was brought up. Ms. Currawalla stressed that it was very important for teachers to team up and act together to address the problem.
Another teacher expressed her concerns with the board examinations. She said the teachers could be understanding and support children with learning difficulties, but was concerned at the child’s predicament at the boards. Upon this, Ms. Currawalla informed the gathering that the Central Boards did have provisions for children with learning disabilities. It is for the educators to be aware and apply for these provisions when needed. Parents and teachers must identify students who need help, get them evaluated and if need be apply for the provisions through the school principal, with test reports and supporting documentation. However not all State Education Boards extend these provisions. It is for the teachers and parents to come together to demand rights for children with learning difficulties, and work for government resolutions, concessions and provisions.
Dyslexia may seem resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effects can be mitigated with appropriate and timely intervention, support, patience and an understanding that dyslexics are talented and gifted, in a different sort of way. It can be difficult at times, but as frustrating as it can be for a teacher or parent, it is twice as frustrating for the child. Dyslexia is something that with time, practice, and patience can be managed. The concern and understanding on Dyslexia has put the ‘impossible, clumsy, messy, lazy, awkward and disinterested child’ in a new light. The perspective has changed, the attitude altered, it is the same child, but you view him differently. All that irritation was not on purpose, the vexation unintentional. Now you know and now you understand.
Dyslexia does not mean dull, lazy, or incorrigible kids with a learning disability; it just means those children need a little extra time and need to be in an environment where they are encouraged to do their best and are not expected to live up to the expectations of the ‘smart, normal’ students.
Be sensitive to the child: Currawalla
Ever since Kate Currawalla learnt that her two sons were dyslexic she wanted to do something to help children with learning disabilities. In 1996 she founded the Maharashtra Dyslexia Association, of which she is also the President, with the aim of promoting the rights of children with learning disabilities. The Association trains teachers in administering a multisensory, structured language programme to a child with problems in the area of language development. It also runs several short courses and workshops throughout the year across the country to help more teachers and parents understand their children with learning disabilities better. In Hyderabad, to conduct a workshop for teachers, Teacher Plus caught up with her briefly. Here are a few excerpts from an interview with Ms. Currawalla.
What is Dyslexia and what are the early signs?
Dyslexia is a neurological disorder characterised by difficulties in reading, writing, spelling and short-term memory, despite adequate intelligence and appropriate instruction. This means that a young person with dyslexia struggles to pick up these skills although he or she has normal (and sometimes above-normal) intelligence. In the pre-primary years, these children often display a marked lack of bilateral coordination. They have difficulty in the normal Montessori activities like lacing, threading beads or drawing and colouring within a specified space. They may seem to be clumsy, always tripping over themselves. Speech development may be slow, and accurate pronunciation is often affected. Children with dyslexia may also have poor social skills, and often display a lack of understanding where rules and social norms are concerned.
In primary school, these difficulties rapidly escalate as the demands on mastering print – both reading and writing – increase. Poor reading and writing skills lead to difficulties in comprehension, acquisition of vocabulary, in written mathematics and abstract reasoning skills as the student moves through the school.
What is it like to have dyslexia?
Because of the difficulties they face in the classroom, young children with dyslexia show signs of distress. They may complain of headaches and stomach-aches, become quiet and withdrawn or aggressive. The sensory-motor deficits that underlie this disorder often lead to anxiety and maybe even depression. Poor social skills, combined with their abject class performance often lead to bullying and peer rejection. To make matters worse, few adults seem to understand what the child is going through, that he/she is genuinely struggling with day-to-day tasks. Even students with relatively mild problems face a daily struggle that impacts their personality.
How can parents or teachers tell that a child is dyslexic?
Children with dyslexia often seem “different” from others of the same age. They may show no interest in being read to, colouring and activities that others their age seem to enjoy. They usually have difficulty with activities requiring fine motor skills, such as using the scissors, holding a crayon or buttoning up. While these are not necessarily red flags at an early age, parents faced by a child who is reluctant to go to school, or shows sudden changes in behaviour after starting school should take these seriously and speak to the class teacher to find out what is happening at school.
Pre-primary teachers should be alert for the child whose motor and language development are not at par with others their age, especially if the child appears bright and capable in some areas, but lagging markedly in others. At any age, a teacher or parent who feels that a child’s academic performance does not seem to match his/her perceived intelligence should observe the child more closely or ask for an evaluation.
Is dyslexia genetic/hereditary?
Dyslexia does appear to run in families, and recent research on the human genome has isolated what seem to be genetic markers for dyslexia. However, there may be other reasons – for example, birth trauma. Although there is a common belief that it is more prevalent among males, recent studies do not bear this out. The important thing to remember is that, with early and appropriate intervention, people with dyslexia can build on their considerable talents and lessons in resilience to become productive and successful adults.
What kind of medical tests does the child have to undergo?
While early intervention is very advantageous, a diagnosis of dyslexia is only given after the age of seven. A battery of psycho-educational tests needs to be administered to confirm that the child’s IQ falls within the normal range (it could be in the above-normal or even in the gifted range, as is seen among high-functioning people with dyslexia). Ophthalmic, auditory and neurological problems also need to be ruled out. A full-scale assessment would also involve an analysis of the child’s performance in reading, written expression, Mathematics, reasoning and short-term memory, and normally takes several sessions.
What strategies can a teacher adopt?
Traditionally, a remedial programme that uses a multi-sensory approach to the teaching of language, with a stress on phonics has been recognised as the best approach to teaching children with dyslexia. This methodology addresses the underlying deficits in the language area such as phonemic awareness and sound-symbol recognition, gradually building the language skills in a systematic and structured manner. Such a programme should be administered by a trained remedial teacher or special educator to ensure that all areas of this “hidden disability” are adequately addressed. Activities that develop auditory and visual perception are also built into the programme. Occupational therapy is helpful in overcoming sensory-motor difficulties, and some children may need speech therapy as well.
Interestingly, recent research in the area of neurology has shown that this kind of multi-sensory, structured language programme can actually result in changes in the functioning of the language areas of the brain.
What teaching aids can a teacher use to make it easier for the child?
A trained Montessori teacher is well equipped to handle a child with problems in language development and motor coordination, as experiential learning is best suited for these children. At the primary school level flashcards, word games, puzzles and manipulatives are useful in presenting lessons through appropriate and accessible media, rather than the written word. Above all, the classroom teacher needs to be sensitive to the stress that the child experiences in the classroom.
Do dyslexic children need to be taught for longer periods?
Children with dyslexia have problems with learning anything that is new. As the student moves through the school from the Primary to the Secondary years and beyond, the pattern of difficulties evolves and the challenges multiply. Remedial education and training in language, social skills and study skills at various stages definitely prepare a young person better for the challenges of adulthood. At the same time, it is also important to keep in mind that dyslexic children have a multitude of talents – some excel in the fine arts, some at sports, etc. It is important for them to develop hobbies and interests that may boost their self-esteem and could guide them into a career as they reach adulthood.
In a regular classroom, if there is a dyslexic child, what should a teacher’s approach be?
A teacher who combines several methods of teaching, addressing visual, auditory and kinaesthetic modalities in the course of a lesson, will always serve her students well. Using different modes of demonstration, discussion, computers, etc., to deliver information caters to the learning styles of all the students, but certainly benefits those with learning problems. Similarly, allowing students to present assignments through different media and in different ways not only nurtures creativity, but also allows those with writing problems to demonstrate how much they have understood a topic. Above all, a little sensitivity in recognising the student’s struggle to cope can go a long way towards making the child comfortable in class, reducing stress, and leaving the mind free to focus on the task at hand.
The author is a freelancer based in Hyderabad. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Give them what they require
Remediana Rodrigues e Dias
Education in India is only now slowly waking up to the fact that not all children are the same. Different children learn differently, have different needs and require attention in different areas. We are slowly discovering the many different learning disabilities that children are either born with or acquire over time. Dyslexia is one of the more known about learning disabilities. Yet there is a lot that people have to know to help children with dyslexia learn.
Here are some suggestions for parents and teachers.
Every school should have a parent resource board that is up to date with the latest news in research, learning styles and methods of assessment. If a school doesn’t have such a board then approach the principal and offer to put one in place. As a teacher I have found that schools are often burdened with vast syllabus and appreciate the input.
The Internet has been a godsend to parents and learners. Use it and share that information with other parents and teachers in your school area.
Student resource centre
Schools also need to have a student resource centre specifically for students with learning issues. If your child’s school doesn’t have a resource centre, lobby for one. It’s your education and you are paying. We need our institutions to be current and answer the demands of a changing student population.
School policy towards learners with difficulties
Students with learning difficulties should have a complete psycho-educational assessment every three years. They should also have an individual program plan.
Teachers may sometimes ask you to wait and watch your child’s development at school before you decide that he or she needs special attention in school, but early intervention is often the key to success for children with dyslexia. Therefore, if you know that your child is dyslexic then don’t hesitate in asking the school to have a different plan to teach your child.
Your child’s strengths
Find your students’ strengths and encourage them. There is often one area that children with dyslexia excel in – music, painting, craft, working with their hands, etc. Observe your special student or students and teach them subjects using that one thing they enjoy the most. Learning then becomes effortless for these children. Also try and have more practical classes with children with learning disabilities as they understand better by doing things than through rote learning.
Teachers and parents have to work together to help children with dyslexia or any other learning problems. Work with your child’s teacher to help your child learn and assimilate with the rest of the class. Teachers are always glad to receive any kind of help from parents especially when there are such special students in their class. Meet the teacher often to discuss what you have observed of your child at home – what he or she likes doing, what he or she is not comfortable with. These inputs will help the teacher develop a plan to teach your child. With 40 or 50 students in a class often a teacher may be unable to spend the kind of time required in such cases.
Learning to teach differently
It is important that as parents and teachers we understand that children are different and that they have different needs. And as their caretakers we have to learn to give them what they require through ways and means that best suits each of them.
The author is Special Educator at the British Institute of Learning Development, Dubai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.