Dyslexia, dyspraxia and the dinosaurs.

Fturelab Newsletter 61 – September 2009 http://tiny.cc/503KA
Dyslexia, dyspraxia and the dinosaurs. Kim Thomas

Jane Scaysbrook tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who has dyscalculia – a learning disability that makes it very hard to remember numbers or to understand even simple mathematics. After her diagnosis, the child’s mother asked the headteacher what he was able to do for her. The head – whom Jane describes as “a real dinosaur” – said, “We don’t know anything about dyscalculia – you’ll have to take her away.” Eventually, the mother found a primary school with a more forward-thinking approach to the condition, and her daughter is now thriving there.

Such attitudes are still commonplace, says Jane. She worked for 34 years as a secondary school teacher, initially specialising in PE and maths, and later training to become a special needs teacher. She spent several years at Loreto College, a girls’ secondary school in St Albans, where learning disabilities were taken seriously and pupils were helped to flourish.

Having qualified as an assessor, Jane now works for the Broxbourne Dyslexia Unit, where her job is to assess schoolchildren and university students who may have a learning disability, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia. If she finds that the child or student has a learning disability, then a programme of support can be put in place. University students with an identified learning disability are entitled to a grant of £5,800 with which to buy equipment or pay for one-to-one support.

Although Jane uses a set of standard tests to carry out a formal assessment, years of experience have given her the ability to recognise a dyslexic very quickly: “If you meet someone who can’t get the words out, that’s the indication of dyslexia. It’s not about reading, it’s about expressed language.” Dyslexia is to do with the brain’s difficulty in processing information, she explains, which is why dyslexics often struggle with reading and writing. Some dyslexic adults even have difficulty telling the time or correctly answering the question: “Which day comes before Sunday?”

Many dyslexics are very intelligent, she points out, and with the right help, can become high academic achievers. These days, the help is often technological. Text-to-speech software packages that “read” text aloud, for example, can make life much easier for dyslexic students. In particular, Jane often recommends Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a voice recognition package that enables students to speak their words into a microphone and see them appear as text on the screen. Although voice recognition technology used to be a hit-and-miss affair, the latest version of Dragon (version 10) has high levels of accuracy; provided the students are prepared to be persistent (the more someone uses the software, the better it gets at recognising their voice). Jane has seen students’ lives transformed by voice recognition because it gives them the freedom to express themselves more fluently: “If they’re having to stop every few minutes and worry about spelling, they won’t use the advanced vocabulary which they are capable of, so they’ll skirt around the big words and use little words. The quality of their output is nothing like it is when they use voice recognition. When they speak a word into Dragon and it just picks it up, it’s wonderful for them.”

As a special needs teacher, Jane once worked with a school student who was very severely dyslexic: “She was totally dyslexic, right at the bottom of the continuum for reading, but bright as a button, and it [voice recognition] transformed her life.” The student was able to use Dragon to write her A-level examinations, and she then went on to study surveying at Reading University – an achievement that would otherwise have been unthinkable, says Jane.

Yet not all schools are willing to provide students with the help and support they may need. Some teachers are wary of what they regard as “pushy mums”: mothers who believe the reason their child isn’t doing well academically is that they have a learning difficulty. As a result, says Jane, a correct diagnosis of dyslexia or dyspraxia can come as a huge relief to parents. The battle to get good support for students is not helped by a still-prevalent belief that dyslexia doesn’t really exist – a view that gained a lot of media coverage when it was expressed by MP Graham Stringer earlier this year.

Jane sees many older students who have never been diagnosed. At Northampton University, for example, she is often asked to assess trainee midwives. These may be women who, having struggled at school, trained as nurses before deciding, in later adulthood, to take a degree in midwifery. Tutors will notice that a woman is clearly bright, but unable to communicate well in writing. It is only when Jane or a colleague is called in that the student is diagnosed as dyslexic.

While most people are aware of dyslexia, and have some understanding of the condition, dyspraxia is still what Jane calls a “hidden disability”. Dyspraxic children tend to be clumsy, are usually bad at sport, and generally have difficulty in writing and drawing. Jane explains the cause as a fault in the brain’s ability to transmit messages correctly, so the child will have poor fine and gross motor skills: “Their handwriting is appalling, and they often have poor muscle tone. Often they can’t spell, because they can’t sequence; they can’t do jigsaw puzzles because they can’t break things down and build them back up again.”

Unfortunately, dyspraxia is often overlooked. “Teachers will say ‘This child is messy and never writes full sentences and doesn’t punctuate or understand what capital letters are,’” says Jane. “The child may be hugely bright, and frustrated, and written-off and overlooked.” Older dyspraxic children benefit from being allowed to use a laptop to write, while younger children can use a simple technology known as AlphaSmart – an electronic keyboard with an integrated small screen. The student can type in text and later use a memory stick to transfer the document to a computer and print it out. Like dyslexics, dyspraxics can also be helped by voice recognition software. “They can be so amazingly clever and intuitive, and have fabulous emotional intelligence, but they just get overlooked and written off,” says Jane. “So if you can get a dyspraxic using a laptop successfully and they can show their ability, they can be really good in subjects like history and English.”

The technologies to help dyslexic and dyspraxic children (laptops, voice recognition software and text-to-speech software) are relatively cheap, but can make a big difference to children’s academic performance. Jane is a firm believer that all schools should have appropriate assistive technologies, particularly voice recognition, provided they understand that it requires a little effort and persistence to use successfully.
It saddens Jane that so many people who could have been helped have slipped through the net, such as the mature students she sometimes sees at university: “It completely transforms them [to have the right technology]. They can be so clever, these people who missed the system completely.”

Futurelab’s September newsletter http://tiny.cc/503KA

Information about Broxbourne Dyslexia Unit: www.hertsdirect.org

Dragon Naturally Speaking for Education: www.nuance.co.uk

Renaissance Learning (AlphaSmart parent company): www.renlearn.com

British Dyslexia Association: www.bdadyslexia.org.uk

Dyspraxia Foundation: www.dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk

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