Invisible scourge

After 30 years as a teacher, Andrew Bridge was confident he had encountered most issues that could be thrown up in a classroom. So he was more than taken aback by the turn of events in the literacy classes at Wedge Park Primary School this year.  The school, on the edge of Melton, was one of two in Melbourne’s outer western region to take part in a dyslexia resilience pilot program.  Although the program trains teachers to recognise, support and empower students with dyslexia, its strength lies in teaching these students to become their own advocates in overcoming their learning disability.

Out of 72 grade 6 students who took part at Wedge Park, 11 were identified as having dyslexia, a lifelong genetic condition that has a neurological cause.   The results didn’t just surprise Mr Bridge, they unsettled him. This was partly because many of these students were clever and showed every sign of coping with school work.

“All these students hadn’t previously been diagnosed,” he says. “They are bright students who did well in the intelligence test — you can converse with them and be completely unaware of any learning difficulties until you look deeply into literacy assessments.”  Such students slip quietly slip through the net. With estimates that two to three students in every classroom are dyslexic, there could be thousands of undiagnosed cases in Victorian schools.

“Diagnosis is a problem,” Mr Bridge says. “We need to get these students diagnosed because there are a lot that go undetected and suffer for a long time. We are not trained as teachers to recognise and support these students.”  Mr Bridge says the coping program helps students develop strategies to get around problems — such as asking for information on audio or using speech-to-text computer programs — rather than teaching extra literacy skills.

“We are pretty sure many behavioural problems with the students are the result of the frustration of not being able to cope with a classroom full of print and it has made a huge difference to the behavioural problems of a couple of students in the identified 11. Their confidence has improved and one of the students has taken on a leadership role.”  Mr Bridge is not alone in his experience, which reflects the difficulties in identifying children with dyslexia, a condition often referred to as an invisible disability. It is why many students can, and often do, arrive at secondary school struggling to read or write.

The pilot program at Wedge Park was run by Nola Firth, a research fellow at the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Centre for Adolescent Health and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and could change the way dyslexia is dealt with in Victorian schools.  The Australian Research Council project also involves Associate Professor Erica Frydenberg, from Melbourne University’s Graduate School of Education, and Dr Lyndal Bond, at the UK Medical Research Council.  Dr Firth became aware of the problem in her early days as a secondary school teacher. Her year 9 students were struggling to cope. Some failed to progress and even dropped out— classic outcomes for many students with dyslexia.

“I used to find these people falling out of my English classes and I didn’t know why,” she says. “It was a huge source of stress for them because they didn’t understand what was happening and they decided that they were stupid. They got labelled as stupid and that is so undermining because it draws away their self-esteem.”  Dr Firth’s experience spurred a 25-year passion of working with students with learning disabilities.  While most people have heard of dyslexia, it is a term not well understood, mostly because dyslexia manifests differently in every child.

Ten per cent of people are dyslexic, according to estimates, yet experts say very few are assessed and given support.  Dyslexia is used to describe a range of persistent difficulties with reading, writing, spelling and sometimes mathematics that result in a child performing significantly below their chronological age. Students with dyslexia often find it hard to sort out the sounds within words. Many also struggle with text, short-term memory and the sequencing processes of basic mathematics.  Research shows that without intervention these students risk developing behavioural problems at school, giving up, withdrawing socially and eventually dropping out of school and suffering depression, delinquency and unemployment.

But there is another side. Their neurological differences give some dyslexics visual, spatial and lateral thinking abilities that enable them to be successful in a wide range of careers. The roll-call of dyslexics is believed to include Leonardo da Vinci, Steven Spielberg, Andy Warhol, Tom Cruise, Richard Branson, Kerry Packer and Lindsay Fox.  Dr Firth says the program her team is working on highlights the importance of developing dyslexic children’s resilience and coping skills.  It is based on two overseas studies, particularly results from a 20-year longitudinal research study at the Frostig Centre in the US, which showed that the way students dealt with their learning disability had more influence on their life’s progress than the disability itself.

“It is your attitude that is of crucial importance,” she says. “It isn’t how much difficulty you had with your reading and spelling, it is how you approach it that is the indicator of whether or not your life outcome 10 or 15 years later was successful or not.”

Reading this finding was a light bulb moment for Dr Firth, who says her work towards school-based programs teaching coping skills will help to demystify the condition.

“It explores how students are currently coping with difficulty, how to think positively in the face of difficulty and how to be aware of and ask assertively for what you need,” says Dr Firth, who was recently awarded a Churchill fellowship to further investigate such programs overseas.

Self-awareness, understanding and taking control are critical factors in achieving success, but diagnosis is the first step. There are other effective ways to cater for these students, which include teachers using mediums other than print.

“When you have dyslexia you need to get much of your information in and out without using print and you can do this by DVDs or iPods or text-to-speech on a computer,” she says. “They need to learn strategies to cope with the challenges of being dyslexic and the associated risk of giving up and low self-esteem.”

Under the program, each school develops a dyslexia development action plan that includes identifying students with the condition. Those identified are then given further sessions to teach them to use coping skills.Their progress will be monitored into secondary school.

Victorian schools have no tailored program to deal with dyslexia, which falls under the general umbrella of learning disabilities and does not attract separate funding. Because it isn’t recognised as a disability in its own right, the isolated symptoms of dyslexia — such as problems with reading — are addressed in reading recovery programs that do little to overcome the underlying problem.

Experts say this reflects serious shortcomings in understanding dyslexia and supporting those with it.  Dr Firth is part of the national dyslexia forum, specialists who will report to the federal parliamentary secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, Bill Shorten, on the shortfall in services for people with dyslexia.   Recognition of the problem and adequate funding for diagnosis and school support is urgently needed, she says.  “A nationally agreed definition of learning disabilities, its compulsory study in teacher training and at least one teacher with specialist knowledge in each school would be an excellent beginning.”

Everarda Cunningham, associate dean of research and leader of the learning disabilities project team at Swinburne University of Technology, says dyslexia is not acknowledged or understood by schools in Victoria and, apart from pockets of dedicated individuals, little if anything is done to cater for the learning needs of dyslexic students.   “In the UK or USA, the phenomenon is clearly defined, attracts funding and is an integral part of policy and educational discourse. In Australia, a clear definition of dyslexia is not a part of the educational language,” she says.  Dr Firth points to the UK where many government schools have been awarded “dyslexia friendly” status by the British Dyslexia Association.  In New Zealand, the education ministry distributed to all schools a 40-page book about dyslexia, and business leaders with the disability run a Dyslexia Week that demonstrates their strengths.  In Victoria, teachers get little training about learning difficulties, are not trained to identify dyslexia and are unaware of its genetic and permanent nature.

Professor Cunningham says many teachers have little understanding of dyslexia. “It is unfortunate that the simplistic idea that dyslexia only involves letter reversals rather than fundamental and permanent problems involving the input and output of print means that teachers and educators will continue to minimise the problems faced by students with dyslexia.  “The only meaningful way to redress the needs of students with dyslexia is to skill mainstream classroom teachers with understanding of the phenomenon, and effective teaching and learning strategies for this cohort of students.”  Students with dyslexia are often intelligent and many finish school and even tertiary education without receiving help or being diagnosed, she says.

Generally, she says, problems tend to show up by year 3 when the child can no longer memorise stories in books and the pictures disappear.  “That’s when you find they cannot read or write at all, despite being bright,” she says. “They will use the word stool instead of reading the word chair. That’s how you can tell they are guessing.”  At Wedge Park, Andrew Bridge knows exactly what she is talking about. “I think it is something that teachers just haven’t really been aware of,” he says.

The Age

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