John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
In April last year, Dyslexia Action, went into administration. Formerly the Dyslexia Institute this was the largest provider of assessments, teaching, and training in its field, with centres across the country. At its peak, it had its own diploma qualification, royal patronage, an annual conference that attracted hundreds of teachers, and a clientele of thousands of children. In the year it closed, it still had an income of £6.4 million. The organisation’s passing went largely unreported, but leaves a big gap in provision, and raises questions about what dyslexia is, what should be provided to children and adults who are assessed as dyslexic, and who should pay for it.
Long-term readers of this column will know that I was very critical of the set-up Dyslexia Action exemplified. Although many good people were involved in it, the system was a racket – anyone with any kind of weakness in reading or spelling could pay £500-600 for an assessment, based on simplistic tests that were protected behind a veil of confidentiality, and provided a very easy morning’s work for a psychologist. Reports, like the tests, were usually formulaic, and followed by a standard set of recommendations that usually involved having someone learn to read all over again, beginning with three-letter words. The memory tests, usually limited to recalling sequences of recited numbers, forwards or backwards, were a particular weakness, bearing no relationship to the way we use memory in reading and spelling, and very easily gamed. Reports, moreover, very rarely made an outright statement that a person was, or was not dyslexic – they usually hid behind the formula that results were “consistent with” such a finding. Whatever else they might be consistent with was left to the imagination.
The incentive for gaming was extra time in examinations, and assessments from private schools far outweighed those from state schools, for the simple reason that parents could afford them. The psychologists themselves were in a very unusual professional position. If we go to a medical consultant, we expect diagnosis to be followed by treatment. A lawyer follows an opinion with action, including arguing the case in court. The psychologist provided none of these follow-up services, referring clients to teachers, less well-paid and with fewer qualifications than the psychologist, who actually did the work. It is perhaps unsurprising that local authorities systematically ignored their legal obligation to take account of assessments provided by parents, but they had no better alternative. “Support” in schools was usually provided by untrained assistants, whose quality was a matter of chance. At worst, the assistant would do the work for the pupil, who gained no benefit at all. This remains the case. My advice to parents seeking help from local authorities on dyslexia is not to bother, as it would probably be worse than useless.
So what would a better system look like? First, teaching in schools needs to be based on accurate information on the patterns and history of English spelling, the range and nature of learning difficulties, and the way the brain works as we learn.
The computerisation of the Oxford English Dictionary has provided new access to the history of the language, and allows us to track the introduction of variations from the phonically regular Anglo-Saxon of a thousand years ago. These variations, the bulk of them from French, have been grafted onto the phonic roots of the language over centuries, and it is not enough simply to describe them as “sight words” that children are supposed to learn without understanding them. Many can do this, but for those who can’t, they are a brick wall as far as reading and spelling are concerned. The solution is to knock a hole in the wall by means of clear explanation, in terms appropriate to the age of the person learning, and then to practise.
Next, we need to stop attaching the term “dyslexia” to every problem with reading and spelling. Evidence of differences in brain activity among people assessed as dyslexic suggests that around 1.5 per cent of the population are affected, rather than the ten per cent estimate that is sometimes derived from responses to checklists. A slightly larger proportion of people find reading very uncomfortable because of sensitivity to light, particularly fluorescent light. Some of its effects are similar to those of dyslexia, and The British Institute of Optometry has a £60 screening kit for this that is easy to use in schools. Finally, teachers of children who find spelling difficult need to look at their work, and ask the simple questions, “What is it in this child’s thinking that is preventing them from achieving as they would like to?” and “How do I help them adjust their thinking so that they can do so”?
The case of a sixteen year old recently referred to me illustrates the benefits of this approach. She was highly intelligent, and achieving A* in all of her schoolwork except English, where she was borderline C, because of frequent errors. Her selective private school had taken the usual step of going back once again to three-letter words, an approach that she found insulting. Two twenty-minute lessons by telephone were enough to explain spelling to her and to consolidate it. She obtained A* in English and English Literature three months later and is now a medical student. The secret, if that is the word, was to teach her what she needed to learn, and not to drive her through a programme. Her mother’s comment is here.
Alas, the conflict between putting people through systems and what I will call bespoke teaching, has been with us since the earliest work on reading difficulties. After Annie Sullivan was inspired to trace “water” on the hand of the young Helen Keller as she held it under the pump, Grace Fernald used tracing as one of a range of techniques to teach a group of five people with serious reading and spelling problems, publishing the results in 1921. This was bespoke teaching, and a key element was that the students chose the words they wanted to learn. Just four years later, a group of psychologists led by Dr Samuel Orton took the tracing idea and used it as the basis of a graduated system in which one stage had to be mastered before the next was attempted. This was the first of many examples of such thinking, and the programmes of the Dyslexia Institute/Dyslexia Action were in this tradition. They generate progress – usually slow progress – but at the expense of time-consuming grind, frustration and misery. Grace Fernald’s alternative, based on focussing the teacher’s attention on the person in front of them and not on a formula, is our best hope of cutting dyslexia down to size, and dealing with it.