Wednesday, 25 October 2017

My Dyslexia Journey (Dyslexia Awareness Month)

"As Daniel began to read he began to rock - an indication of how anxious he has become." This is an extract from an Educational Psychologist report about me as a child and a small part of my dyslexia story. The purpose of this blog post is to raise awareness of dyslexia and give some information about how to help dyslexic children with their learning. I will also share my own personal journey with dyslexia. 

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month and Landmarks across Australia are being lit up red to raise awareness of dyslexia as part of the Light it Red for Dyslexia campaign.  Dyslexia literally means difficulty with words. Dys means difficulty and lexia means words (Greek). Dyslexia is far more common than many people think. 10%-15% of the population are on the dyslexic continuum.  (The figure could be as high as 20%). The dyslexic brain is structured and wired differently compared a non dyslexic brain and as a result dyslexics struggle with reading, writing and spelling. Unfortunately many dyslexics are not identified until later in life or at all and can spend their lives thinking that there is something wrong with them or that they are unintelligent. I know I spent a great deal of my early life thinking I was "dumb" due to the fact that I struggled to read, write and spell. "Daniel has severe specific learning disabilities....He feels inferior to others."(Educational Psychologist report aged 9) It should be noted that reading ability and intelligence don't collateral.

Here I am outside the State Library of N.S.W. on Saturday night (October, 14th).

 Dyslexia should be viewed as a learning difference as despite the many challenges that dyslexics face there are also many strengths that they possess such as often being highly creative, artistic, articulate, enterprising, intelligent, big picture thinkers, excellent problem solvers, having advanced critical thinking and communication skills as well as being able to think outside the box. I will share some of my experiences with dyslexia later in this blog post. I am certain that there would be no Rocking Dan Teaching Man if it weren't for my dyslexia.

Here is my Light it Red for Dyslexia song

The dyslexia continuum ranges from severe to mild. Dyslexia is a neurobiological genetic condition and is something that a person has for life. Early identification of dyslexia and the implementation of evidence based intervention (Structured Language) is key in order to help dyslexics overcome their reading, writing and spelling problems and to help keep dyslexic children's self esteem and mental well being intact. It is four times harder to intervene with literacy problems in Year 4 than it is in Year 1 and the problem only intensifies in upper primary and secondary school. (Wanzek) As Tanya Forbes (Outside the square director, Australian documentary film about dyslexia) says "Eight is too late." So the earlier the intervention the better and children as young as five can be identified with a 92% accuracy rate with the correct screening. The idea of having a screening process (for prep/kindergarten children) in place is to catch children before they fall.  (Steven Capp, Principal Bentley West Public) "If we elect not to evaluate a child and that child later proves to have dyslexia, we cannot give those lost years back to him." (Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Author of Overcoming Dyslexia)

                            (Outside the square, Australian documentary film about dyslexia) 

Struggling with reading, writing and spelling can have a profoundly negative impact on a person's self esteem and self worth. For dyslexics school can be a miserable, lonely place that causes anxiety. I can vividly remember being in Year 2 at school siting on the floor during a whole class lesson looking out of the window watching some birds flying around and thinking how lucky those birds were because they didn't have to go to school.

Challenges that dyslexics face

Dyslexics have difficulty identifying, segmenting, blending and manipulating individual sounds (phonemes)(There are 44 phonemes in the English language). This process is known as phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the most important predictor of success in children being able to learn to read and spell. Dyslexics also have difficulty matching phonemes (sounds) to a letter or combination of letters (Graphemes) when trying to read, write and spell. This is due to the fact that the dyslexic brain is structured and works differently compared to a non dyslexic brain. This means that dyslexics find reading, spelling and writing challenging despite often being highly intelligent. Dyslexics can also have inefficient verbal short term and working memory problems.

Dyslexia and Reading

The process of reading requires two abilities: correctly identifying words (decoding) and understanding their meaning (comprehension). Dyslexics have good listening comprehension skills which means when a text is read to them they are able to confidently and accurately answer questions about what they have listened to. However dyslexics lack the ability to decode words accurately, fluently and automatically. This results in slow, laborious reading. (By decode I mean taking print to speech by identifying graphemes mapping them to phonemes and blending them together.) It takes up so much working memory for a dyslexic to lift the words off the page that it makes comprehension difficult and therefore results in poor reading comprehension. 

Reading research has shown that "The ability to read and comprehend depends upon rapid and automatic recognition and decoding of single words." (G. Lyon). A skilled reader is able to rapidly identify the graphemes (letter/ letter combinations) in a word and map them to the correct phonemes (smallest unit of meaningful sound) then blend them together quickly and accurately. This process is know as orthographic mapping and for a skilled reader it happens almost instantaneously at the speed of sight. Dyslexics struggle with this when attempting to read a text which impacts negatively on their reading comprehension.  "Slow and inaccurate decoding are the best predictors of deficits in reading comprehension." (G. Lyon). Of course there is more to reading then just being able to decode the words. There have been major literacy inquiries in Australia, The USA and the UK and they have all concluded that The Five keys to reading are Phonemic awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary and Comprehension. Five from Five (Five Keys to Reading) 

The end game of reading is to make meaning however if you can't lift the words off the page rapidly and automatically then you won't be able to make meaning. Decoding is the most direct and efficient route to lift the words off the page. In the words of Bill Hansberry  "Decoding is the bedrock of meaning." 

Dyslexia and writing and spelling

Likewise when a dyslexic is trying to write something their inability to accurately, fluently and automatically spell words (encode) makes writing slow and laborious. Dyslexics use so much of their working memory trying to spell the words they want to write that it makes it difficult for them to remember the content of what it is they want to write and therefore makes it very challenging to get their thoughts down on paper in clear concise manner. 

Evidence Based approaches to teaching dyslexics

In order to address the weakness in decoding and encoding skills dyslexics need explicit, systematic, cumulative,structured,systematic, multisensory teaching of the alphabetic code to help them learn to read, write and spell (matching sounds to letters/ phonemes to graphemes). They also need a lot of repetition and reviewing of the the alphabetic code and the blending and segmenting of the code in order to move their learning from their short term memory to their long term memory so what they have learnt eventually becomes automatic. Explicit teaching of the seven different syllable types is also very important (open, closed, silent e, vowel team, r controlled, consonant le, diphthong). A non dyslexic will be able to master a skill a lot quicker than a dyslexic. A person with dyslexia will need lots of repetition to bring the new skill to mastery. Reading single words (decoding) and spelling (encoding) should be taught simultaneously to reinforce the learning. 

The reason that multisensory teaching is so important to help dyslexics learn is that it opens up multiple pathways to the brain to make learning and cracking the alphabetic code easier (auditory, visual, kinaesthetic). Linking these pathways enhances memory. Dyslexics can also have inefficient verbal short term and working memory problems which is why lots of repetition is important.

English is an orthographically complex language that follows an alphabetic principle made up of a number of linguistic origins 55% Latin, 20% Anglo Saxon, 10%-15% Greek and words that come from French, Dutch and Italian origins. About 90% of English words follow the rules of phonology (regular words) which is why the explicit teaching of this complex code is vital. A dyslexic should be taught to read and spell all words including high frequenting words that follow the rules of phonology using the alphabetic code ( blending and segmenting the individual phonemes and matching them to the correct graphemes). e.g. can /c/ /a/ /n/, am /a/ /m/. 

About 10% of words in the English language are irregular and don't follow the rules of phonology. These words also need to be taught to a dyslexic in a multisensory way (auditory, kinaesthetic, visual)  breaking the words down letter by letter. This is because dyslexics find it very difficult to remember a word as a whole unit due to the fact that dyslexics often have a weak eidetic memory system which means that it is challenging for them to perceive and hold on to a whole word configuration in the mind's eyes. e.g. come c-o-m-e,  said s-a-i-d. 

Decodable Readers for Dyslexic children

It is important for dyslexic children that they are given decodable readers as opposed to predicable levelled readers when they begin reading books. Decodable readers focus on the skills of decoding taking print to speech. These books follow a structured scope and sequence that builds in complexity and focuses on the phonemes and graphemes that the child has already been explicitly taught. This ensures that the child is decoding the words (identifying graphemes mapping them to phonemes and blending them together) rather than working out the words via indirect routes such as guessing words from context or looking at pictures. The drawback with levelled readers for dyslexic children is that they contain a variety of different graphemes and syllables types that have not been explicitly taught yet. Think about how difficult it would be for a dyslexic child to decode words in a book that contain multiple syllable types and a range of different graphemes such as ir, ph, ow, ea, ure and short, long and unstressed vowels if they had not yet been explicitly taught them. For a dyslexic child trying to work out words based on context is an indirect and inefficient, route to reading the words. It slows down fluency and is very taxing on the working memory which hinders reading comprehension. It's the decoding that the dyslexics have most trouble with not the listening comprehension. Little learners love literacy books are an example of decodable readers. There are also chapter book decodable readers for older dyslexic children.  Emily Gibbons The Literacy Nest has some excellent decodable passages for all ages. 

From personal experience as a dyslexic child I remember in year 1 and year 2 having a very difficult time with the readers I had been given. I can now understand that the readers contained a range of different graphemes and syllable types and I had to try and memorize whole words. One morning I did well with one of the readers so my teacher called my mum in after school to show her how well I had done but by the end of the day I had forgotten the book. I couldn't parrot back the words from memory like I could in the morning and I certainly couldn't decode/ read the words in the book.

Here are two excellent books I am currently reading about Reading Development and Dyslexia.

It is also important that dyslexic children have a range of high quality language rich books read to them and have access to audio books so that they can still develop and improve their vocabulary and listening comprehension. It is of some interest that good teaching methods for dyslexic children are also good teaching methods for all children. " Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some." (Snowling, Hulme, snow, Juell). So all children benefit from the explicit teaching of the alphabetic code.

Check out the Five Keys to Reading song.

My Dyslexia story
I remember my first day of Kindergarten walking into the classroom eyes wide open full of joy and excitement to be at school. I sat down on the floor and the teacher had drawn a picture of Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall on the blackboard. I told the boy next to me that that was Humpty Dumpty and he agreed. We sang the nursery rhyme and I think that was the highlight of primary school for me. From that point on it seems like it all went down hill. Each day went by and I wasn't able to read, write, spell or do mathematics and I worked out pretty quickly that I couldn't.  My parents raised concerns at the end of Kindergarten when I couldn't read or write but they were told everything was fine. They were told "we all develop differently, we all get there in our own time, You can't compare him to his brother"(not dyslexic) They raised concerns again when I was in Year 1 and were told similar things. 

On top of my learning problems I had difficulties with all sequencing skills - fine motor, gross motor, auditory and visual. I was cross dominate which led to coordination problems (right eye dominate, left handed for some things, right handed for other, I jumped off my left leg but kicked a ball with my right leg.) Life at school was very difficult. I know I got tired of hearing about all the things "I should be able to do by now at my age." And that I "wasn't trying today." No child goes to school not wanting to be able to learn and yet at times I was told to try harder or you could do this yesterday so you must not be concentrating today. That's the funny thing about dyslexia and working memory you never know when it's going to work. I was miserable at school and I just wanted to be normal. 

At the age of 9 years and 2 months my life changed forever I went to an educational psychologist and was diagnosed as dyslexic. The psychologist found that my verbal intelligence, vocabulary and listening comprehension skill were far greater than my reading and spelling ability. (My reading comprehension and spelling were 4 years below my potential level.) The reason for this was that I couldn't decode the words on the page. I would now say I had poor orthographic mapping skills which impacted adversely on my reading comprehension. According to the psychologist's report I was trying to use my intelligence to work out the words based on the context due to the fact that I couldn't read the words which undermined my comprehension of the text. A later educational psychologist report from high school noted that I had very strong oral language and vocabulary skills as well as excellent listening comprehension. However I had problems with decoding particularly with multi syllable words and these inaccuracies undermined my reading comprehension. "Daniel has a decoding problem not a comprehension problem." The psychologist also found that I had severe fine motor coordination problems. So things like holding a pencil, writing and tying shoe laces were difficult. I had severe problems with auditory sequencing and auditory processing. Overall there was a "Very wide differential between verbal and performance scales."

At the end of the report the psychologist concluded "Daniel will also need a very great deal of sympathetic support and encouragement  from home and from school to help re-build his rather battered self-image, and also to maintain his motivation to continue the struggle to learn against the odds." This comment sums up how I felt about myself in year 4 and beyond. Unfortunately the school said they didn't hold to IQ tests and I suspect they didn't know much about dyslexia or how to help me. However it was a great relief for me to know that I wasn't "dumb" and It was a starting point. My parents were able to get some intervention from specialists outside of school based on the report in the form of tutoring, occupational therapy and speech pathology. It was the beginning of a long hard journey to overcome my learning difficulties/ differences. A journey that I am still on today and will be for the rest of my life. I was very lucky to be identified and to get some intervention for my dyslexia not every dyslexic is so lucky.

What's it like being dyslexic?

My own personal experience of being dyslexic is one of extremes and not much in between. At times it is wonderful. I have a vivid imagination, I am creative, I am good at problem solving and can think outside the box, I enjoy drawing, animating and photography as well as playing and writing music. I have a good sense of humour and I am good at seeing the big picture.   At other times it's incredibly frustrating and demoralizing.  I have to work hard on my organisational and planning skills, my short term memory can fail me. (So I have to take notes...I just have to remember where I put them.) I get anxious about things and at times still feel like that 9 year old boy who felt inferior to everyone else. As much as I have a creative side I have difficult expressing my ideas as precisely as I want. Dyslexia has made me determined and resilient but at times dyslexia has made me anxious, insecure and full of self doubt. like I said my experience of dyslexia is one of extremes and contradictions. 

 I've been fortunate enough to have had lots of support and I thank my family for that. As a mature age student I decided to become a teacher. There is no way I would have considered stepping back into a school after I finished it. I was so glad to get out. I've been fortunate to win multiple awards for my educational music YouTube channel (education and music two things I really struggled with as a child!) I am now studying Multisensory Structured Language with MSL Australia and helping my son with his dyslexia and hopefully I can help many more dyslexic children in the years ahead. 

If I wasn't dyslexic and my brain didn't work differently then there would be no Rocking Dan Teaching Man. When people ask me "How do you write your songs?" I can only answer with "I don't really know!" Because I don't really know the songs just come to me. It is amazing how the dyslexic brain works sometimes it's like magic! Dyslexia awareness month ends in a few days but for dyslexics every month of the year is dyslexia month and they need support.

My Advice

My advice for teachers is to consider that the child who may seem like they don't want to try or are avoiding work or not concentrating may have a neurobiological condition that means that their brain can't learn in the way that others might be able to learn. (Remember at least 10% and it could be as high as 20% of children are on the dyslexic continuum.) Seek out evidence based alternatives to help that child learn. My advice to other dyslexics is don't give up! I know things are hard but you are intelligent, you are capable, you are resilient and you will find your place in the world.  

Listen to this beautiful song by Eleanor about her dyslexic experience.

For more information about dyslexia go to the Australian Dyslexic Association page 
For more information about the Light it Red for Dyslexia campaign go to the Light it Red for Dyslexia Facebook page If you would like to read about the experiences of dyslexics go to My Red Letter.

Yes they can!

Until next time Rock on, 

Rocking Dan Teaching Man