Word blind

After a century of recognition of dyslexia, which affects 4 per cent of people, some children are still not being diagnosed early enough
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A hundred years ago today, a Dr W Pringle Morgan, writing in the British Medical Journal, made the first diagnosis of dyslexia, or "word blindness" as he called it. His subject was a bright 14-year-old boy, Percy, whose inability to read was "so remarkable and so pronounced, that I have no doubt it is due to some congenital defect. In spite of laborious and persistent training, he can only with difficulty spell out words of one syllable ... The schoolmaster who has taught him for some years says that he would be the smartest lad in school if the instruction were entirely oral."

A century on, progress in the scientific understanding of dyslexia has not, for many children and adults, been matched by the more practical steps that are needed to help them to come to terms with it.

The British Dyslexia Association's survey of 1,600 members of the Professional Association of Teachers, published this week, found that three out of four teachers felt ill-equipped either to identify, or to take the right action to help, a child with dyslexia. Two out of five of those who began teaching in the last three years said that they had received no information at all about dyslexia in their initial training.

"At our college we were told by our English lecturer that dyslexia does not exist," commented one recently trained teacher.

But dyslexia does exist, in a severe form, for 4 per cent of children - an average of one in every class - and it affects 10 per cent of children to a lesser degree, according to the British Dyslexia Association. Boys tend to be more significantly affected than girls. Research has established that dyslexia often runs in families, and studies of the brains of dyslexics reveal abnormalities in structure, unusual clusters of cells which impede the working of the brain and the speed at which it processes information.

Bob Turney is a dyslexic who turned to crime because he thought he was thick. At primary school, he sat at the back of the class looking at picture books and did not have a clue what the teachers were talking about. When they said that he was stupid, he believed them; and when they treated him as disruptive, uncooperative and lazy, he behaved accordingly. He left school at 15, barely able to write his own name, got involved in his first burglary, and spent the next 18 years in and out of prison.

Now 52, Bob Turney is training to be a probation officer, and is in the final year of a degree in social work at Reading University. In January, what is more, he publishes his autobiography, I'm Still Standing (Waterside Press). Self-help groups, and his second marriage to a woman with a passion for books, have played their part in all this, as well as, finally, a clinical psychologist who diagnosed severe dyslexia, enabling him to register as disabled and qualify for grants for a computer and for proof-reading.

"I still only have a reading age of about 13," he says. "But I want to make other people with dyslexia see that you can become a productive member of society."

Not all dyslexics will show the same symptoms, making it sometimes difficult to identify them, but they will tend to have poor short-term memory, and difficulties with reading, writing and spelling.

Numeracy may be affected, and musical notation, and there may be problems with physical co-ordination and organisational skills. If these difficulties are allowed to persist for too long unrecognised, the child's self-esteem plummets, leading to behavioural problems and worse; the incidence of dyslexia is known to be higher among offenders than the rest of the population. If, however, dyslexia is spotted early, although it can never be "cured", its symptoms can be greatly alleviated. A "multi-sensory" approach in school, which reinforces learning through as many channels as possible - aural, visual, tactile - can stimulate the brain, with lots of practice, to perform more effectively.

Dyslexia is not, then, the middle-class complaint it was, in the past, often alleged to be, the invention of disappointed parents who thought that their children should be showing more academic prowess. But middle- class parents tend, nevertheless, to be more vociferous about it, and, in schools where there is little knowledge of dyslexia, to be perceived as pushy and difficult.

Gail Montgomery was told by a head teacher that she had "unrealistic expectations" for her son, who at nearly six was showing no signs of being able to read, and she was made to feel that her parenting was partly to blame for his lack of self-esteem and difficult behaviour. But after a child psychologist diagnosed dyslexia, as well as a high IQ, Gail, at her own expense, took her son to private lessons with a specialist and has seen a vast improvement in him since.

In 1994 the Government's Code of Practice on special needs spelt out a school's responsibility for identifying and supporting dyslexic pupils, but in practice many parents have found it extremely difficult to get the help they need.

Gail Montgomery had tried to get a "statement" for her son - which would have funded one-to-one help in class - but was told this would be out of the question at least until he was eight or nine, by which time his work and his confidence would have slipped back immeasurably. "Having already seen his self-esteem damaged, there was no way I could allow that to happen again; I had to do something myself," she says.

Statements, even when they can be obtained, are often too vague and inaccurate to be of any real help, says Paul Cann, executive director of the British Dyslexia Association (BDA). An increasingly common strategy of last resort, for parents who can afford it, is to offer to pay themselves for a specialist to give their child extra help in school. But some schools refuse to allow this - as Gail Montgomery found when she suggested it for her second son, also dyslexic - on the grounds that it is unfair.

Early diagnosis, followed by prompt action, urges the BDA, is a far better and far cheaper alternative to a special needs statement when the child is older.

Early screening tests have been developed at the universities of Hull and Sheffield. Hull's Cognitive Profiling System (COPS), for instance, is a 40-minute series of "games" on computer for four-to-eight-year-olds, which tests different aspects of short-term memory, and is now being used in more than 500 schools. Chris Singleton, one of the architects of the project, hopes it could be taken up as part of the "baseline assessment" of five-year-olds that all schools will soon be introducing.

As well as early diagnosis, the BDA is campaigning for some knowledge of dyslexia to be included in the forthcoming teacher training curriculum. Liz Brooks, executive director of the Dyslexia Institute in London, and a member of the BDA, argues more broadly that better training for all teachers in how to teach literacy is one of the keys. "If dyslexic children were taught really well in the first three years at school - with more structure, phonics, sequencing, and more emphasis on the link between sounds and letters - they would be much less likely to fail. We need to start with good literacy skills, then focus in on dyslexia"n

The British Dyslexia Association helpline: 0990 134248.

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