I can't: spell it and read it’ | Daily News

I can't: spell it and read it’

Diagnosing dyslexia in young children:

* Have you come across children struggling with spelling?

* Have you come across children who struggle to read?

* Have you come across children who have incorrect letter patterns?

* Have you noticed some children struggling to pronounce certain sounds?

* Have you come across children who are forgetful?

Children with dyslexia usually show such difficulties. Dyslexia comes under the category of specific learning difficulties (SpLDs). Sometimes the term is used to describe reading difficulty; however, there are other difficulties that learners with dyslexia encounter (Kormos & Smith, 2012).

They include difficulties in sound, letter and word recognition (e.g. they may be unable to differentiate between the sounds /sh/, /s/ and /z/), pronunciation issues, poor spelling, mixing up letters and words (e.g. b with d), difficulties in understanding and following long instructions, poor handwriting, difficulties in organising ideas, taking time to respond when someone asks something, being messy and having a short attention span.

They may also lack social skills and prefer to be with the same friends or on their own. We should also remember that some children may experience some of these difficulties but will outgrow them with their development. Hence, having some of these difficulties does not mean that the child is dyslexic; a proper observation and diagnosis should be done to verify it.

If someone is dyslexic, they may encounter these difficulties when they learn their first language. For example, they may take more time to read and understand texts. However, not all dyslexic children will show these difficulties when learning their first language. This is the case when learning another language, particularly when their first language is very different to the new language that they are learning. For example, English and Sinhala have many differences. The word order is different and some sounds are unique to the two languages. Therefore, dyslexic children whose first language is Sinhala may struggle when learning English.

How is it diagnosed?

If a child shows such difficulties, it is important for parents and teachers to pay attention to them without coming to conclusions immediately. The child should be observed for a time – about six weeks – and their difficulties noted, in order to analyse if they show the same difficulty very often. For example, if a child mixes up letters, either the teacher or the parents, or both can keep a record of the number of times this happens within the observation period. Keeping a record of all the difficulties that the child shows and the number of occurrences will be helpful in diagnosing if the child is dyslexic. When it comes to identifying something as a ‘difficulty’ we need to do it comparatively. For example, if a child takes ten minutes to read two sentences and if the other children in the same class do not take that amount of time to do that, it can be considered ‘a difficulty’ that the child encounters.

If the teachers’ and parents’ observations reveal that the child regularly shows difficulties in some aspects mentioned above, for a considerable period of time, the child can be screened with standard tests which are helpful in identifying children at risk of having dyslexia.

Coming to a diagnosis is not straightforward and simple. It is a collective decision, taken along with many exclusions, after a period of thorough evaluation with multiple standard tests. If the evaluation, remediation and re-evaluation suggest a full diagnostic assessment, it is possible to get a diagnosis with a complete profile of the child’s strengths and weaknesses from a professional dyslexia assessor. However, it is important to note that such holistic assessments are not widely available in Sri Lanka. In addition, it is highly recommended to use first language tests (Huang, Chen & Sun, 2018) while diagnosing dyslexia and such tests are unfortunately not yet available in Sinhala or Tamil in Sri Lanka.

Even if a standard diagnosis is not done, it is important for teachers and parents to observe the difficulties that children show and come up with a plan to help them. Regular discussions between teachers and the parents may be helpful in helping the struggling children.

Not a lack of intelligence

Dyslexia is not about lack of intelligence; it is important to understand that dyslexic children are as intelligent as non-dyslexic children. There is research evidence to show that it is genetic, but it is not a disease and thus there is no specific medication.

There can be children who are severely dyslexic, and some who may show mild dyslexia. Depending on that, the difficulties that they show may vary. Also, all dyslexic children do not show all these difficulties. Instead, each individual dyslexic child has their own profile, i.e. their own strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it is not accurate to recognise a child as dyslexic only by observing one of the difficulties.

If a child is dyslexic, or if a child regularly shows the difficulties mentioned above, it is possible to use some techniques to help them. One of the recommended teaching approaches is called Multisensory Structured Language Teaching (MSLT) (International Dyslexia Association, 2002). In this approach, different sensory pathways are simultaneously used. For example, imagine that the teacher has to teach the word run. The teacher pronounces it several times (auditory pathway), then the teacher shows a picture of someone running and also writes the word on the board (visual pathway). The teacher can also imitate running (kinaesthetic-tactile pathway). With such input, it is also important to ensure learners practise the word in different ways. For example, they can pronounce the word, write the letters on the board, in the air, and in their workbook, imitate running and draw a picture of someone running. Extensive practice will help dyslexic children remember the words and grammar structures better. Multisensory techniques should be used in teaching reading (e.g., read and do) and listening (e.g., listen and draw) too. These techniques are also useful when teaching other subjects.

The following is a list of other things that teachers and parents can do to help those who show the difficulties mentioned above, whether they are identified as dyslexic or not (adapted from DysTEFL project, Kormos & Smith, 2012 and Sparks et al.,1991).

* Giving more time: Dyslexic children need more time to complete tasks reading tasks, for example. Alternatively, dyslexic children can be asked to read a section of the text, not the whole. Giving this type of achievable goal will increase their self-confidence.

* Alternative response methods: Usually dyslexic children struggle in writing. If there are tasks in which children have to read and write or listen and write, dyslexic children can be asked to do an alternative, e.g., read/listen and speak or read/listen and do. This can be done in exams too.

* Simplifying instructions: Dyslexic children have a lower working memory capacity. Thus, they struggle if several things are told to them at once. For example, when giving instructions, it is better to make them short and simple. Alternatively, written instructions can be given, so children can revisit them when they forget. Repeating instructions or giving them step-by-step is also useful. For example, if the teacher wants the children to do Task 5 on page 33 in the English Workbook, he or she has to ask them in steps to: take the English Workbook; then turn to page 33, etc.

* Colour coding: Particularly when teaching new words and grammar, colour coding can be used to provide visual help for learners. For example, when teaching a set of words with similar spelling or pronunciation, such similarities can be highlighted by using a particular colour (e.g., bat, cat, rat, hat – ‘at’ in all these words can be highlighted in red to show that the spelling and pronunciation of these two letters are the same in all these words).

* Highlighting essential information: If there are many things to read and understand/remember, dyslexic children may struggle. Therefore, it is possible to highlight the essential information. For example, if the children are required to answer only five questions out of ten, such instructions can be given in a different colour or make them boldfaced. Clues can also be used (e.g., * sign) to denote important information.

* Explicit and direct teaching: It is helpful if the rule explanations are given to dyslexic learners when teaching grammar and vocabulary. For example, word order rules, spelling rules and pronunciation rules should be clearly explained.

* Presenting a small amount of work at a time and following a sequence: It is important to choose what to teach, based on what the children have already learned. Items should be sequenced from easy to difficult. Only a limited number of items should be taught at a time. For example, it is recommended not to teach more than six new words at a time.

* Teaching learning strategies: Children can be taught strategies such as how to memorise words, how to predict content of a reading text, etc. For example, mnemonic devices can be used to remember words or a series of steps, e.g., NEWS – North, East, West, South. Students can be taught to predict content of a reading text by looking at the illustrations and headings.

* Extensive practice: In order to aid memory, dyslexic children need extensive practice of the items they learn. Therefore, many practice activities should be given. Regular revision and revisiting of the previously learned content are very important.

* Graphic organisers: Dyslexic learners struggle in organising ideas. Therefore, it is recommended to provide charts and outlines where they can organise notes. Mind maps are particularly helpful.

* Block out extraneous stimuli: When there are too many things on a page of a textbook or exam paper, such as pictures, texts in different textboxes, etc., dyslexic children may get distracted. On such occasions, it is possible to ask children to cover the sections that are not relevant using a blank paper. Then they can focus on the activity or text that they are working on.

* Glossary: Remembering vocabulary is a difficult task for dyslexic learners. It is helpful for them if a glossary of unfamiliar words is provided, particularly when they have to read long texts.

* Avoiding taking down notes: Dyslexic children may find it very difficult to listen and take notes. If a child is struggling to take notes, the teacher can provide a copy or peer sharing should be encouraged. Alternatively, a recording of the lesson can be provided.

* Non-white backgrounds: It is difficult for dyslexic learners to look at words in black on a white background. Therefore, a mild background colour can be used (e.g., light blue) on PowerPoint slides. Handouts can be printed on coloured paper (e.g., beige)

The techniques mentioned above are not only relevant to language classes, but also to any class where there are dyslexic or struggling children. While understanding the difficulties that dyslexic children face, it is important to acknowledge that they may not be able to learn a language at the same speed as non-dyslexic children. However, the techniques that we have discussed may assist them in coping with the challenges they face. In addition, most of these techniques are considered as good classroom teaching practices. Hence, they are helpful not only for struggling children, but also for all learners.

More importantly, both parents and teachers need to understand that dyslexic children need more attention from them and should not be forced to achieve targets which are beyond their reach. While assessing these children in routine tests and exams, teachers should be careful not to interpret results based on the performance of non-dyslexic children. Instead, targeted skills can be assessed providing appropriate exam support such as more time and alternative response modes (e.g., instead of writing answers, these children can be allowed to answer orally).