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Graham Stringer MP has launched an attack on what he calls the Dyslexia Industry claiming that dyslexia is a myth, a cruel fiction designed to cover up poor teaching. He cites South Korea, Nicaragua, Wigan and West Dunbartonshire as places where there is virtually no functional illiteracy because teaching methods are ‘right’. If literacy levels can be raised in these places then it is clear to him that dyslexia does not exist. Poor reading, he says,  is a direct result of poor teaching.

This demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of what dyslexia is.  Specific learning difficulties are a result of more fundamental differences in some people’s neurological make-up. brainGalaburda is one of many neuroscientists who have examined brains of people with dyslexia and proven that their construction differs from others’. I am not denying that good teaching is fundamental to the acquisition of literacy; nor that ill-advised methods can harm a child’s progress. I am declaring that despite excellent pedagogy, commitment, motivation and effort from teachers and learners, persistent difficulties can still remain.

 Dyslexia represents a difference in cognitive processing that results in difficulties with planning and organisation, memory and visual and auditory processing. In countries like Spain and Italy, where the written language is transparent, and in China, whose system is pictographic, there are far fewer people identified as dyslexic. Learning to read and spell is so much simpler with phonically regular and pictographic languages. The complex orthographic system of English has been borrowed from many other languages and presents unique challenges to those whose cognitive processing skills differ from those of the majority. tshirt

 I don’t believe there is any less incidence of dyslexia per se. I suspect (and I admit I can’t cite references – yet) that there as many people in these countries with different methods of organising themselves, whose memory focuses on the big picture rather than small detail, who are more inclined to think laterally and creatively than the bulk of the population as there are in English speaking countries. The differences just don’t appear as literacy difficulties. 

 Dyslexics tend to see the wood but not the trees, unlike traditionally successful learners  who may see the trees but not always the wood: b and d the ‘right’ way round, good recall of sequences such as times tables, correct spelling, linear thinking. Fluent readers aren’t inevitably superior; a reading age is not an assessment of intelligence.

 Stringer is correct in identifying synthetic phonics as an excellent method of teaching reading in the early stages, though he is somewhat out of date. Scottish academics publicised its benefits as long ago as 1997; Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire have proved its efficacy and the Rose Report recommended its use across schools in England in 2005. apple

However, while phonological processing and phonics are essential for effective reading, they are not sufficient. And for learners with dyslexia it is sometimes important to focus on other aspects of acquiring literacy before failure becomes too embedded.won

One of the major problems encountered by some children at the early stages of reading – and most learners with dyslexia – is that they become so enmeshed in focusing on individual sounds and letter strings that they have difficulty extricating themselves from the print enough to develop fluency. Without this automaticity of word recognition, they find it hard to shift attention from getting the words to getting the meaning. The smooth transition from one to the other is of paramount importance if a child is to become an enthusiastic and confident reader. Failure to crack the code discourages children from taking risks and making educated guesses, which further impedes fluency.

 Decoding is the stage where the child looks at print, converts it to speech (first externally then internally) and then creates meaning. It is a generative process. Combining information from the text with personal knowledge and experience results in the reader’s growing understanding of ever more complex texts. Focus is an essential ingredient in all cognitive processing. Selective attention – the ability to concentrate mental energy on certain aspects and to filter out other parts that are less relevant – is one of the distinguishing features of a good reader. Thus the hallmark of a person on the way to becoming literate is the ability to decode and comprehend simultaneously. Once a child is fluent, she may be said to be literate. The danger is that the child may come to believe that automatic word recognition IS reading and that going beyond superficial knowledge of the text is unnecessary: reading has been reduced to a mechanistic task.

The 3 strands Phonics, Fluency and Meaning , described by Reason and Boote, should be taught simultaneously at all stages from early development, beginning to read, becoming competent and achieving competence. When one of these strands develops at a different rate from the others, then we may begin to identify dyslexia and start to investigate the underlying aetiology.

 But we must never lose sight of the ultimate goal of teaching reading: to make it a pleasurable, sensory, learning experience which can launch us into other worlds. If a child cannot access print at her intellectual level, because she has the very real condition of dyslexia, then our duty as educators is to enable her to find alternative ways to learn.

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