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Getting dyslexia back to front

The obsession with special needs education has got to the point where one wonders how many educational psychologists can dance on the head of a dyslexic child. But would it not be better, for dyslexic children and poor readers alike, to have less psychology and more teaching?

The process of determining the nature of a child's 'special needs' is very labour intensive (it is spelled out in impressive detail in the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice). Conducting these investigations is one of the major functions of local education authorities, creating a plethora of well-paid non-teaching jobs for psychologists and burnt-out teachers, and an aura of professionalism which (usually) keeps parents in their place. The nit-picking thoroughness of this procedure deludes parents into thinking that the subsequent remedial process will be just as 'professional'. In fact, most schools make only the most perfunctory efforts to improve SEN pupils' reading and writing skills.

Another consequence of the assessment procedure is to create the impression that reading failure is intrinsic to the child. There is never a suggestion that the school might be at fault - not even a little. Considering that 19.9 percent of our primary school pupils are on the special needs register (one mainstream Norwich primary school is now logging 60.4 percent), one can only wonder what they consider a 'normal' child.

Fortunately, some psychologists are beginning to doubt that it is possible to make many useful distinctions between dyslexics and ordinary, garden-variety slow readers. In January, the British Psychological Society published a report which admits that 'low IQ is not a sufficient cause of poor word reading', contradicting the general assumption that non-dyslexic poor readers are just plain thick. Overwhelming evidence supports the commonsense observation that all poor readers have difficulty matching letters to sounds; technically speaking, they are poor at phonemic processing. They have difficulty in hearing individual phonemes - it is not obvious to them that 'fish' is composed of the sounds f/i/sh. Even more to the point, they are poor at synthesising or blending phonemes: given the sounds f...i...sh, they might not come up with the word 'fish'.

The problem is not a lack of money. Special needs attracts at least 10 percent of all education spending, most of which is squandered on pointless paperwork and providing 'support' so that illiterate pupils can 'access the curriculum'. The problem is a lack of expertise. If a primary school has an effective literacy programme, children do not fall behind in the first place.

In all but the most severe cases of reading failure, psychological assessment is fairly pointless. There is robust evidence that instruction must focus on the skills that must be learned, rather than on the pupil's perceived strengths or weaknesses. There is a small but significant number of primary schools where dyslexia and reading problems are almost non-existent - because these skills are taught intensively right from the very start.

Tom Burkard is secretary of the Promethean Trust, and has pioneered new methods of working with dyslexic children. His End of Illiteracy is published by the Centre for Policy Studies

Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999



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