Thursday, September 3, 2009

Dyslexia - Getting to the heart of the debate

Heated debates in the media about dyslexia are nothing new. Whether it centres around how best to diagnose and help dyslexic children, or whether the learning difficulty even exists, dyslexia continues to be an emotive topic. When Labour backbencher Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley in north west England, stated that the condition is a 'cruel fiction', the debate was re-ignited.

As an expert in teaching children with dyslexia, I follow these debates with great interest, but was dismayed to see that yet again, the real issue isn't being addressed here. In my experience, the central issue isn't whether dyslexia exists or not, it's about how the individual learning needs of children are being addressed by the school system.

Mr Stringer wrote; "To label children as dyslexic because they're confused by poor teaching methods is wicked." I think this generalisation about teaching methods is misleading in this latest dyslexia debate. Is it possible for a system that needs to teach children in large groups to match teaching style to each child's learning style? The answer is inevitably no. This is not about teachers failing - it's about the fact that all children are different and schools cannot accommodate individual learning styles.

So where does this leave the thousands of parents who know that their child is struggling to flourish in a system that cannot cater for their needs? Many go down the route of getting their child formally assessed and labelled as having a learning difficulty, which can create other problems. I believe instead that a different approach is required, one that is at the centre of my attitude towards every aspect of a child's education and development: avoid labelling. In my experience, and those of the private tutors that work for my agency, when one adapts the teaching style to the needs of the child, the 'need' for that label disappears.

I'm not saying that as a tutor I ignore dyslexic symptoms and pretend there is nothing to address. On the contrary, many of the children that I have taught with dyslexic profiles have extraordinary strengths in pictorial reasoning and logical inference which are impossible to ignore! I prefer to teach these children with the attitude that their dyslexia has no negative impact, it simply means that teaching them has to be approached differently. If these children are taught in such a way that these strengths can be capitalised upon, with techniques that make any difficulty with the written word simply irrelevant, then they develop into students with more resources for learning. There are also psychological benefits as they form a self-perception that is untainted by any negative labels. To me, that is the most important result, but sadly, debates such as the one triggered by Mr Stringer do nothing to achieve that.