When learning isn’t so easy

It’s back to school time and with that comes homework and sometimes struggles with homework. Some children are labelled lazy or unable to learn when in fact they may be struggling with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia. With October being European Dyslexia Awareness Month, West Cork People talks to CEO of The Dyslexia Association of Ireland (DAI) Rosie Bissett about the recent announcment of the change to the Irish exemption criteria and what this means for children with dyslexia. Rosie also gives advice on what parents should do if they feel their child is experiencing difficulty in school.

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty, which affects ten per cent of the population. Children with dyslexia have trouble reading accurately and fluently. They may also have trouble with reading comprehension, spelling, and writing.

Over 90 per cent of teachers agree that unidentified dyslexia damages children’s self-esteem. Teachers also lack adequate training in both identifying and supporting children and young people with dyslexia in school.

The Dyslexia Association of Ireland (DAI) has welcomed the recent announcment of updated criteria for exemptions from learning Irish in schools. Previous criteria based on IQ and psychological assessments will be removed and exemptions will now be based on identified needs and not necessarily on a particular diagnosis.

DAI CEO Rosie Bissett said, ”This is a more holistic approach to accessing Irish exemption and we hope that it eliminates the false perception that children with dyslexia are somehow accessing supports that they are not entitled to or are faking their very real and very serious difficulties. We are hoping that this is a start of a shift in the narrative around persons with invisible disabilities in Ireland.”

The final decision on whether a student can be exempt from Irish will continue to be made by the school principal. 

Children will now need to have a standardised score at or below the 10th percentile in word reading, reading comprehension or spelling to qualify.

According to the DAI this is a much fairer process and in line with the overwhelming evidence that dyslexia is not meaningfully linked with IQ.

However Rosie Bissett emphasises that when identifying a learning difficulty the Irish exemption should not be the focus of the first discussion between parents and teachers.

“The first thing you should be having a conversation about if a child is having difficulty is what is underlying that difficulty, what kind of supports can be put in place in the classroom and, if needs be, what kind of intervention can be put in place through parental support and the special education teacher. Only when you get to a stage where you have put interventions in place and the difficulties are still very significant and testing has been done and the child’s literacy levels are still at this level, then you might talk about an exemption from Irish.

“The most important thing is that there is dialogue between parents and teachers.”

For any parent uncertain about if their child has a learning difficulty, Rosie recommends looking at if your child is performing as expected for a child of their age. “If your child is under-performing to any degree, minor or major, then that’s a cause for concern,” she says. “It’s also about trusting your own instincts”

Homework can be a valuable identifying tool for parents who are uncertain if their child needs help.

“Views on the effectiveness of homework are very mixed but where it can be valuable is when you’re doing homework with your child or reading with them and you notice that things are not clicking,” says Rosie. “If this is the case you really need to start thinking is there something else going on here.

“The first thing we’d always advise parents to do if they have any concerns is talk to the school. Ask the teachers if they are seeing the same things and if they could give you advice on how to help your child and reinforce learning at home.”

Repitition and reinforcement are very important to people with dyslexia. “They need to do things more times in order to make those connections,” says Rosie. Every time we learn something new there are literally physical and chemical connections happening in our brains. Often people with dyslexia need to be taught in a multi-sensory way through different mediums and repetition so those connections can be formed.”

People with dyslexia can also have strengths in other areas. “It’s very broad. Sometimes people can have very good visual spatial skills or might be very artistic. But you have to look at each person individually. What we definitely see and see so many times with people who have dyslexia or any kind of learning challenge is that they often develop wonderful communicaiton skills. If you’re not so good at written information you get good at getting your information in different ways; have great interpersonal skills; become very persuasive and intuitive; also often have great empathy. Someone who has experienced what it’s like for things to be difficult is often much more attuned to that in others, even in other aspects of life. People with dyslexia can also have great persistence and lateral thinking.

“Dyslexics who are very successful are people who know they have to work hard and persist and find ways to work around things. It’s often hard to know if these skills are inate or as a consequence of having dyslexia.”

Assistive Texhnology can be an absolute gamechanger for people with dyslexia depending on the individual and their environment. ‘It can be anything from technology-based programmes that they can use to practise their reading and spellings, even with phonics, or as they get older, text to speech solutions so they can listen to their books. Perhaps they can read but inaccurately or their reading is slow, so an ebook could enable them to keep up with their peers,” explains Rosie.

Unfortunately there are huge issues around access to assisted technology in schools. “There are issues with broadband, access to power sockets and a real need for teachers to get trained in using Assisted Technology,” she says.

“AT is not something to be feared,” continues Rosie. “We associate technology sometimes with children’s play but actually for kids with specific needs who are using it as a tool to work around their difficulties, having your school books on an ipad and having them read to you is a lifesaver. The technology may be there in school but because teachers aren’t trained or there are physical limitations to access of it, it may not be used as much as it could be.

“In the real world, we are using devices all the time. I think sometimes we can put the educational experience that we had in the past on a pedestal. Personally I think we should have flexibility. For those kids for whom technology is of benefit, let them use it, for those kids who love books, let them use a book. For those kids who perhaps like to do both, have your book and listen to the audio version at the same time. That’s something we’d often recommend for children with dyslexia. If you’re looking at the text and listening to it being read to you at the same time, you’re creating reinforcements, helping with your word recognition and vocabulary. There are real benefits to doing things in this type of multi-sensory way.”

Rosie explains that it’s never a one size fits all approach. “It’s about flexibility and asking what does this child need, what might help them and, if that helps them, then they should be allowed to use it.

For children attending gaelscoils Rosie says the challenge is the lack of access to resources in the Irish language.

 “One of the things we know about literacy that’s incredibly important is phonological awareness, proper instruction in phonics, and in a lot of gaelscoils that is not always provided due to a lack of phonics materials in Irish. Irish tends to be taught more orally and aurally initially and then it’s whole words, which from a research point of view in most languages, we know is not the way to go.

“A good proper structured multi-sensory, phonological awareness programme is about teaching a child or an adult the code of that language, be it in English, Irish, Italian or Finnish. The phonetic code is critical because we need to know that code in order to decode when reading words on a page and we also need to know it when we’re trying to encode, which is to spell a word. Children learning through Irish are not always taught the phonetic code of Irish unfortunately. We would therefore welcome the development of more structured phonics-based approaches in the language to give children a better opportunity to learn the code of Irish. 

“We need an education system which is more responsive, and aware of the needs of students with dyslexia and this can be achieved through better education policy and with mandatory teacher training on dyslexia identification and support strategies. An education system that is truly and fully inclusive for people with dyslexia, is an education system that will be good for all.”

The Dyslexia Association of Ireland runs workshops for children during the school year, one of which takes place in Clonakilty. The association also runs workshops for parents and teachers. For more information go to www.dyslexia.ie.

Mary O'Brien

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