Last week, while reading my SEN news feeds, I came across an article about dyslexia on the Conservative Home website by education expert, John Bald. John is a former OFTSED inspector and contributor to The Guardian. He has almost forty years' experience of teaching people of all ages to read and write, to learn foreign languages and to understand and use arithmetic.
I got in touch with John and asked if he would mind setting out his ideas in an article for Special Needs Jungle readers. He very kindly obliged - and I think you will find it extremely interesting reading:
Tania's request seemed simple - she had read a posting dealing with literacy problems on another site, which set out to explain what I described as "the dyslexia racket". Could I write a straightforward guide for parents on what to do if their child has a problem?
For some issues, the answer is, "Yes". If the problem concerns literacy, and does not reflect a serious general learning difficulty, bring your son or daughter to see me, and I will fix it for you without charge. This is a big claim, but I deliver on it, time after time, because I know the mental processes involved in reading, and the regular and irregular features of English spelling like the back of my hand. As we read, we use the information contained in letters to do several things at once. We identify words by tracking print closely with our eyes - the latest tracking devices show eye movements following print, as well as changing their fixing point on the page. As we do so put them together into phrases, to reproduce the intonations of the language and reconstruct the sense indicated by the author.
The process is a little like reading music. Phonics, the relationship between words and sounds, is at the heart of it, but, unlike musical notation, they are not always reliable, so we have to learn what the letters are telling us in an individual word. For example, the a sound in can has to be stretched to say can't, and the letters don't tell us this, any more than they tell us the difference between do and don't. Once we've learned to use what the letters tell us, without supposing that they tell us everything, we understand that the language is a human construct, with human failings, and that it does always respond to strict logic.
As I say to children, English is roughly a thousand years old, and if we were a thousand years old, we'd have a few wrinkles. Much of the difficulty many people experience with reading in English arises because teachers do not know the wrinkles. It's not their fault - no-one has pointed these out in their training. The reason I came to know them myself was that I did a degree in French, which is the source of over half of the problems. Say table in French and you will hear that l comes before e. It's phonics, but French phonics. William the Conqueror's invasion in 1066 left us with a lot more than castles!
How we put words together in phrases and sentences is also a bit like music, and I only understood this last year, when I read the French government's national curriculum for learning English. It points out that, except for very short words, one part of each word is almost always picked out for stress. Again, the letters won't tell us what this is - we have to know it, and it is not even the same in words of the same family - photograph, photographer, photography. The last straw for foreign learners is that we pick out one word in each phrase or sentence for extra stress on its own, usually without even knowing that we do it. Controlling these patterns of stress in real time requires very detailed knowledge of the language, and is one reason why so few foreign speakers of English have no detectable accent.
So, if someone comes to me with a reading problem, I explain this and we practise. First, though, I have them read to me, and ask myself two questions:
1. What is it in this person's thinking that is preventing them from reading?
2. How do I help them adjust their thinking so that they can read?
These questions focus my mind on the person I'm working with, and not on some theory - my own or anyone else's. We need to tune into print, and to help people do this, we need to know the causes of interference. The most common are guessing at words, usually from their first letter, not seeing clearly - some people are sensitive to certain wavelengths of light in a way that only becomes clear when they have to apply their eyes to the tightly disciplined activity of reading - and not hearing clearly, sometimes because of misconceptions developed in early childhood through conditions such as glue ear. Teachers should know all about these things. Alas, most don't. So, if your child has a problem with literacy, take him or her to someone who does.
I use a similar approach to spelling , Slimmed Down Spelling, but that is for another posting. An account is at http://johnbald.typepad.com/language/2009/06/slimmed-down-spelling-and-government-nonsense.html. I am currently working on maths.
But what if the problem is not with reading, spelling or arithmetic? What if it is a behavioural issue, Asperger's or Autism? The truth here, I think, is that our knowledge of these issues is not far advanced from that of our general knowledge of science in the seventeenth century. We can see things that we can't fully explain, and our attempts to solve problems are therefore not fully effective. Even respected scientists such as Simon Baron Cohen resort to blatant speculation, such as his idea that autism is the "extreme male brain" when the evidence runs out.
But I still come back to my two questions, perhaps extended. What is it that is making this person angry, or anti-social? What is it that they need to understand and don't, and how do we make it clear to them? We know of successful techniques such as social stories to help children focus attention on other people as well as themselves or, more recently, of practising telling the time quickly in order to focus attention on detail. One thing I can say, from extensive experience, is that anger and poor behaviour often arise from children's frustration at not being able to do their work, and in some extreme cases because of the effect of sensitivity to light that is not identified because no one is looking for it. If the issue that is causing concern is anger, however it is expressed, then if we are to tackle it, we need to move beyond our concern with managing the anger, find out what is causing it, and do what we can to remove the cause.
Find John's blog and contact details here: http://johnbald.typepad.com/
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