25 Oct What in the world of dyslexia?
After years of reviews, legislation and funding allocation, we are still yet to see effective education reform for students with specific learning difficulties. Legislation and reviews seem to take an extremely long time to filter down to teaching practice, if it happens at all. Many schools show an unwillingness to accept dyslexia exists (despite the inarguable neuroscience showing that it does). Legislation and reviews are not often backed up by clear implementation plans, meaning many teachers may not even be aware they exist, let alone the implications for what’s expected of them in the classroom as a result. The outcome of these failings has a devastating impact on these children, and their families. Not only are many of our children leaving school without functional literacy and numeracy skills, the impact on their self-esteem and emotional wellbeing has been shown to lead to higher rates of unemployment, social dysfunction, and even higher risk of imprisonment. In 2016, to have a mandatory, publicly funded education system that fails up to 10% of its students is unacceptable. So what is the hold up?
Growing up, I was aware that my maternal grandfather, who was born in 1918, left school in year 6 having never learned to read, and being able to write only his own signature. It would fill me with sadness to listen to his many stories, describing how the teachers thought he was ‘good for nothing’ and often judged him as a trouble maker, and even called him a thief, with no real basis for their accusations. The sadness and sense of injustice in his voice was unmissable, and I thought ‘How awful those days were, that they would just leave children behind and cast them out as being no good’. My grandfather was not a stupid man, he could fashion just about any type of machine out of the most basic materials, having grown up during the great depression. He could tell amazing stories and had an intelligent outlook on life. Although diagnosis was not possible in his time, everything about his strengths and weaknesses suggest to me it is likely he had dyslexia.
What I didn’t know at the time, and have realised in my adulthood, is that my eldest brother was suffering a similar struggle. Unable to read properly and finding it difficult to understand and complete instructions, he was going through school, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, being called stupid, a trouble maker, good for nothing, and being told he would never amount to much. He left school in year 7, soon after his 14th birthday, without functional reading and writing skills. As an adult, I thought ‘How awful that in those recent times, teachers didn’t realise he had specific learning difficulties.’ My brother grew into an angry teenager, then into a young man filled with inner rage. I cannot express the devastating impact his behaviour had on my family. How scary it was growing up with someone who was bigger and stronger, and had a tendency to vent volcanic rage at any moment (he also has impulsivity control issues). The stress of the debt my parents got into paying his legal fees or the nights spent worrying about where he was. I don’t mean to blame this entirely on the teachers who belittled my brother, there is already an over readiness to blame schools and teachers for all of society’s problems, but I doubt very much their lack of awareness, or their harsh words helped very much. Luckily, in his later adulthood, my brother used his excellent maths and entrepreneurial skills to become a successful company owner. But I cannot help think this was, in many ways, in spite of his education, not because of it. Although he was never diagnosed, everything about his strengths and weaknesses suggests to me it’s likely he has dyslexia, and possibly ADHD.
Now I see my brother’s son going through school, unable to read adequately, told he is a trouble maker, to sit in his seat, to think before he acts. I see the same frustration building inside of him, the same belief that he will have limited life choices. We seem to have made some progress. When he got to high school, his teachers acknowledged they thought he may have dyslexia, and asked my brother if they could have him assessed. My brother has developed a perhaps understandable distrust of the education system, and refused them any opportunity to further ‘mess with his head’. Even if he had, the diagnosis would have come much later than the ideal time, which is early in a child’s school life. A late diagnosis is better than none at all, but his teachers have no training on how to deal with his problems in any case. I wonder what lies ahead for him, and the questions he asks about career paths tell me he does too.
As a trained teacher, a ‘specialist’ teacher, I find it hard not to allow the frustration and rage build inside me, as I watch generation after generation of my family members subjected to an archaic education system that refuses to change. A system which ignores scientific research and evidence-based practice methods. And I know that my story is far from unique, there are thousands more families with stories just like ours. Even in the face of 40 years of research, evidence, papers and enquiries, the education system is yet to catch up. Even in the face of millions spent on discrimination policies, initial teacher training, and the introduction of standardised tests, we have failed to address dyslexia adequately in our schools. Our dyslexic children continue to fail.
Around 10% of the population has dyslexia, or to put it another way, almost 1 in 10 students, or another way, around 2-3 students in every classroom in Australia, or another way, approximately 2,300,000 in Australia. We are not talking small or insignificant numbers of people here. Dyslexia really only became an issue when formal, public education began and it was expected that everyone would learn to read and write. Humans invented writing systems around 4000 years ago, however it was only in Victorian times, around 200 years ago, that we decided everyone should be able to read and write. It is possible for people with dyslexia to learn to read and write functionally with the proper instruction, yet many still make it all the way through without this vital intervention.
Why aren’t we embarrassed as a nation that we are about 30 years behind the UK and the US in dyslexia provision? Why aren’t we utterly ashamed that we accept at least 10% of our students will likely fail and develop poor self-esteem, with devastating impact on their adult lives and society in general. Some estimates suggest up to 70% of prison inmates have dyslexia. Although correlation does not necessarily suggest causation, we cannot ignore that when 10% of the general population, yet up to 70% of the prison population has dyslexia, evidence suggests we are not managing these children well. And I use the word children here quite deliberately. Take pause. We are treating children in such a way that they become dysfunctional adults. We are treating children, who have no say over their lives, no say over the education they are offered, in a way that thrusts them into the world without adequate academic skills to successfully enter the workforce and build a decent life for themselves. We Aussies hold close to heart our ideal of a ‘fair go’. This is anything but a fair go.
One of my favourite quotes is ‘When you know better, you do better.’ It helps me to forgive myself when I’ve made a mistake and in hindsight, I realise it was avoidable. But can we say that about our education system? We can no longer say ‘we don’t know better’ because we do. We have seen it modelled in other countries, we have more good quality research than we know how to sift through. All we need is a plan to have that research translate into practice within schools.
This problem could be solved in one generation. It could be solved within 5 – 10 years. What is needed in a huge, targeted and deliberate push to educate all teachers in all schools in dealing with students with specific learning difficulties. Not just dyslexia, but ADHD, Asperger’s, autism, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and speech and language impairments. Not just early childhood teachers, not just primary teachers, not just high school English teachers, – ALL teachers should be ‘specialist’. Why is it that I’ve had training in special education needs, I am considered some sort of rare anomaly? Children with specific learning difficulties are not a rare anomaly. The teaching methods we use to assist these students are beneficial to all students. It is not a case of slowing down the curriculum or even changing the content, it’s about simple adjustments to the way we deliver it.
It is not impossible to achieve such a goal. Simply making our teachers aware of how to identify specific learning difficulties, and arming them with cost-free, easy to use strategies to support these students would make all the difference. Surely we owe it to our children, the ones currently in our system, the ones who are about to enter it, and all the children thereafter, to ensure that school is a psychologically safe place for them to be, and that it provides what it promises, the chance to be employed and enjoy a productive and happy life. What is stopping us from launching such an initiative? A feeling that it cannot be done? An over attachment to long, complicated processes of developing courses that trickle down from initial teacher training? This is not the case. Training programs could be rolled out and delivered to schools quickly if we willed it so.
I wonder what sort of legal action we open ourselves to in the future should we fail in this quest. After all, schools have a legal responsibility under the disabilities discrimination act to meet the needs of all their students, and yet, we fail many. Could we blame these students for taking us to task on their suffering? We do, after all, know better.