Why Liz became an advocate for supporting children with dyslexia.
Monday 5 October 2020
Liz knew that her son Josh was experiencing difficulties from an early age. Since then she has been an advocate for supporting children with dyslexia to reach their full potential.
From a very early age, there were signs that Josh was experiencing some difficulties with language. For example, when he was 2 he only had a vocabulary of 20 words. As he spoke more he mixed up lots of words and would call a car park a ‘par cark’. He would also get phrases and terms confused, such as when we were driving on the motorway once and he asked a question about the cold elbow...it took a while for me to realise he meant the hard shoulder! He has always had an incredible sense of humour and quick wit but other things took him a lot longer to grasp, highlighting to me a disparity. He struggled to remember the days of the week, months of the year and names of people.
None of these early signs seemed to bother him and even when he started school initially he didn’t encounter many issues in reception other than a possible query over needing speech therapy as not all of his sounds were clear. He was seen by a speech therapist who was happy that he had the vocabulary expected for his age and that the only potential issue she saw with his speech may be that his sister talked for him so he didn’t need to or didn’t always have the chance to! Looking back, I think this partly developed when Josh’s speech was more unclear and Sophie (20 months older) knew what he wanted to say so said it for him to help him out.
Support through education
Josh’s teachers were great and spoke to me about some of his difficulties, for example, his Y1 teacher explained to me how when completing a ‘Big Write’ task he had written a few sentences in the time allocated (other children with a similar ability based on his early years foundation assessments, had written a lot more in this time) but then he would rub it all out because he couldn’t read what he had written and felt the teacher wouldn’t be able to make sense of it either. When he moved into Y2, his teacher highlighted the disparity between his oral explanation and understanding compared to what he was able to get down on paper. The school's SENCO was keen to rule out any hearing or sight problems before exploring dyslexia, although I felt certain he was showing classic dyslexia traits. We had his ears and sight tested and there were no issues identified.
Like many schools in the UK, the school was reluctant to explore dyslexia until he was 7. At this age they carried out a dyslexia screener on him. However, there is a problem with this screener that is commonly used in schools in that it was designed to give an indication of dyslexia and this part of the package is often not accurate. With my son, I knew enough to query it and was already carrying out British Dyslexia Association training for educational professionals, so also had access to highly trained professionals in the field. Looking at the data and discrepancy in different areas tested, his was a fairly typical dyslexia profile even though the screener produced a comment of ‘no signs of dyslexia’. The tests in this screener are actually very thorough and can give great insight, as long as someone with a greater understanding and experience interprets the data rather than relying on the generated indicator of dyslexia. In fact, I myself now use this screener along with my own tasks and analysis and find it very useful in identifying strengths to address areas of weakness which can be of great help for parents and teachers to support and empower young people.
The screener was repeated a couple of years later with similar results and a local educational psychologist also carried out some tests with Josh. When she called me with the results she was excited by how high some areas came out, for instance he was on the 98th percentile (meaning he achieved higher than 98% of other children his age would) on a non-verbal reasoning task. On the contrast, his word definition skills were on the 7th percentile and in other tests his processing speed was on the 4th percentile (meaning 96% of children his age would achieve higher than him). Again, this all showed a typical spiky dyslexia profile but in the comprehensive report the educational psychologist wrote she did not mention dyslexia other than mentioning that I had told her there’s dyslexia in the family. She gave lots of helpful suggestions such as when Josh was struggling to recall a word, give him a choice of a few and to give him time to respond to questions. We used and still use many of the recommendations at home but her main recommendation for next steps professionally was to see a Speech and Language Therapist. They saw him once and said there was nothing they could do to help him as his spoken language was good. As you can imagine this was frustrating and disappointing.
I think it is essential that all teachers are taught a dyslexia-friendly style of teaching from the moment they start training. Dyslexia-friendly teaching benefits so many and doesn’t disadvantage anyone but teachers have so much pressure on them that it can be difficult to adapt at a later date. If all trainee teachers are taught the key signs of dyslexia and how to teach everyone in a dyslexia-friendly way I strongly believe more children will reach their own true full potential and there will be a lot less emotional harm along the way.
I would also like to see less emphasis on traditional exams to assess ability and allow for more creativity within the way children are taught. I believe our education system needs to better reflect the 21st century - there has become an even stronger emphasis in exams to remember facts, whereas in the real world, we rely on Google and Alexa to do the remembering and we do the interpreting and reasoning.
The impact of Covid-19
Organisation and change can both be difficult for Josh so when his school was first shut due to a student testing positive for covid and he had to work from home, it was a challenging week and I felt like I had done more teaching than when I was full time teaching in a school! However, something amazing happened during the prolonged period of school closures and he developed more independence, resilience and the ability to organise himself. In many ways, home learning suited him as he could complete tasks in his own time.
Some elements were challenging, in particular the fact that much of the work given was done so in text format so there was a lot of reading involved. However, we are incredibly lucky that he goes to a secondary school that is a shining example of assisting everyone to reach their own potential. During lockdown, staff across the school tried out creative ways of remote teaching to help all students, for example, video instructions; using their own kitchen cupboards as a white board to illustrate what they were teaching and voice recording feedback instead of/ as well as written feedback on work.
The emotional impact
To see your child losing their confidence doubting themselves and missing out on conversations with friends because they can’t speak quickly enough can be absolutely heartbreaking. On the flip side, to have a son who is so empathetic, humorous and sees things in amazing ways is incredible and has taught me so much about the important things in life.
A few years ago Josh walked into the room I was in and out of the blue said this to me “One thing I’ve learnt about being dyslexic is never to underestimate yourself.”
He then went on to say “But also don’t fly too high!” I was ready to jump in at this point encouraging him to fly as high as he wants and never to limit himself but he explained, “In a subject that I find particularly hard, I shouldn’t aim to be the best, because I’m not going to be in that subject.” At that point I realised he has a greater sense of realism than I’ve ever had!
He has also developed a great sense of pride about being dyslexic and thinking differently and generally has a good sense of confidence and self-worth now.
We live in an area where there are still grammar schools and because reading and writing are so fundamental to early attainment it seemed very unlikely that by the age of 11 Josh would be able to score highly enough in the 11+ test to get a grammar school place and join his sister. However, thanks to continual support and drip feeding strategies to help him he finished primary school at a high standard. He initially just missed out on a grammar school place - unsurprising when there is a heavier emphasis on vocabulary than the non-verbal side of things. Within a few months of starting secondary school, he gained a place at the grammar school of his choice and couldn’t have been happier with the move to a school where it was understood that although he is an intelligent boy, there are some things that are a greater challenge for him because he thinks differently. Similarly, some things come easier to him because of his different way of thinking.
Helping Josh to thrive
Josh’s Y6 teacher already had a good understanding and awareness of dyslexia before he started in her class and she asked me to make a list of everything that helped him. It is always important to remember that everyone is different but several of these points are likely to be helpful for many children with dyslexia and other Specific Learning Differences (I prefer differences to difficulties):
- Clear instructions, broken down into numbered steps. Said twice is a bonus.
- Avoiding black text on a white background.
- Avoid being pressured by time because of his slow processing speeds.
- Assistance with word retrieval.
- Making connections with numbers wherever possible as this is an area of strength for him and he remembers numbers much better than objects. For example, he had once totally forgotten what he had given me for Mothers Day but knew exactly how much it cost!
- Being able to type sometimes rather than write everything.
Throughout primary school, I tried to help Josh to find strategies to help him without overloading him. I knew it was essential that when he wasn’t at school he had to be doing the things he loved and achieving a sense of achievement by enjoying his natural talents - Josh is a good footballer and general sportsperson. He also needed time to relax as the time he spent at school focussing on learning was incredibly tiring for him. Several teachers commented on how much effort he put into his learning even when things were really challenging for him. Any extra ‘work’ I asked him to do had to be in small doses and for reasons he could understand. The two resources that worked particularly well for him and worked by doing regularly but taking at a slow pace were Toe by Toe and Touch-type Read and Spell (TTRS). TTRS teaches computer keyboard skills in a unique dyslexia-friendly way, and by following a very structured literacy program from word lists of the textbook Alpha to Omega, by Dr Beve Horsby, Frula Shear and Julie Pool which is based on the work of Orton and Gillingham. It was so good for Josh to be learning a skill that would help him throughout his life. By doing 5 – 10 minutes per day, 3 or 4 times per week, Josh is now able to touch-type, and the program has had a massive impact on his reading and spelling. Josh has gone from a reading age below his chronological age to starting secondary school with a reading age two years ahead of his actual age!
I was really impressed with how much TTRS helped to develop Josh’s reading and spelling skills, almost subconsciously, while he was learning to type so he didn’t feel he was doing more of the things he didn’t like and found difficult. In fact, I was so impressed by how much it helped him and how supportive and values-led the directors were that a large part of my freelance work as a communications and education consultant is now for TTRS. TTRS works closely with the BDA and offers its members a 20% discount on annual home subscriptions.
Advice to other parents
My first piece of advice is to watch the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) short animation ‘See dyslexia differently’ yourself and with your child plus share with family, friends and teachers. It is truly inspiring and shows the positives as well as the challenges of being dyslexic. I had the pleasure of working for the BDA when this animation was released and my role was to share the animation after the talented project team had created it. Although originally intended for primary aged children, it was overwhelming to see the responses flooding in from people of all ages and from all around the world.
Another thing I believe strongly, is the importance of building a good relationship and having clear communication between parents and schools. There are times when it can be very difficult and it is easy to get into a battle fighting for your child, however, when parents and teachers work together the child always benefits the most.
I am so passionate, as a parent and education professional, about every child having the opportunity to reach their own full potential and the importance of them having a positive image of themselves. If I can be of any help and offer support from my own experiences, please feel free to get in touch via twitter @lizzyloly or through the British Dyslexia Association.
Throughout Dyslexia Week, we are asking people to sign our petition to increase access to assessment in schools. Join our campaign by visiting www.change.org/bdadyslexia