Chris Shute: Lysdexia Rlues K.O.

We can always rely on Chris to get us thinking!

 I’m dyslexic, not in English but in Hebrew. I know all the letters in both the printed and cursive styles, but somehow, when I have to read a word which is unfamiliar to me I often find that I have to pause, decipher the word a letter at a time, and find that even then it won’t come out fluently. I remember that this has always been the case, ever since I started learning Hebrew, in my twenties. I remember with a pang of frustration thinking to myself, “You’re supposed to a linguist. Why can’t you rattle these words off like your teacher? You know all the sounds that make them up.”

When I started tutoring home-educated children I sometimes came across a similar response in them. James, who came to me for a couple of hours a day, liked to read aloud from his fishing magazines. He would often begin reading a sentence, fairly fluently, then stumble and find himself unable to go on. “The words go fuzzy,” he used to say, by way of explanation. I didn’t know what make of his problem at the time, but on reflexion I think it might have something to do with my own difficulties in reading Hebrew. In my case the stumbling block was my worrying about my own competence, which I suspect occluded my ability to read the words in front of me. I suspect – and I have no experimental data to go on – that difficulties with reading come not from any organic ‘miswiring’ of the individual’s brain, but rather from a complex set of contradictory aspirations and perceptions.

I remember reading in one of John Holt’s admirable books about an occasion when he participated in a set of meetings about dyslexia. At the end of the meeting he asked one question to which no-one had an answer. It was, “Has anyone done any research into the effects of stress on competence in reading?” Of course, no-one out of all the experts and educators gathered together to discuss a common problem in reading had the wit to recognise the all-pervasive influence of classroom stress on the minds of young people forced to perform intellectual feats for which they may not be ready.

When I was a boy I tried to learn to play the violin. I was profoundly untalented, as were most of my fellow scrapers. Among us was Stevie Mawer, who had enrolled in the class with his friend Berridge for the sake of the mischief they could get up to during lessons. We all ground out the practice pieces our unfortunate teacher tried to teach us to play. One day,  in the middle of the cacophony we became aware of a mature piece of fiddle-playing. It was not the teacher – it was Stevie Mawer! He was playing the violin with a proper vibrato and with good intonation. At the start of the lesson he had been a toneless, talentless scraper: at its end he had become a musician. He left us and went into a higher class, and appeared as a soloist at concerts. The point of the anecdote is that that Stevie’s success at playing the fiddle was not the    result of inspired teaching or particularly well-formed technique: rather, I suspect it was a simple case of maturation occurring at a particular moment, a precise instant, when all sorts of subtle mental, physical and intellectual factors combined to produce an unexpected effect. It might have been inhibited or advanced by a million factors, such as self-criticism, fear of failure, frustration, sudden attainment of a developmental stage, and doubtless many others derived from unknown and unknowable experiences and impressions accrued through life.

I want to suggest that reading efficiently may be a function of the milieu in which the learner is allowed to be introduced to it. If the teachers surround the learners with competitiveness, if they associate reading with house points, graded books of different colours which are known to be set in a hierarchy, such that, say, a blue book is known to ‘lower’, or ‘easier’ than a red book, or if reading is turned from a pleasure into a performance by forcing children to read aloud when they are too self-conscious to take pleasure in it, they run a grave risk of creating a division in the class between those who happen to be outgoing and confident, able to hold their own in discussion and debate, and those who are more reticent, who see speaking up as perilous and likely to lead to ridicule. Freer Spreckley, a pupil at Summerhill school, did not learn to read and write there. He learned later on, partly because nobody worried about assessing his reading age while he was at school, because his educators recognised that for him, as a unique individual, childhood was not a time for learning to read and write. He had other fish to fry, other concerns to pursue. His life would have been infinitely less rich and successful if he had been stood over by a succession of stern teachers all exhorting him to try harder at his books. As it was, he travelled widely, worked for NGOs, founded a therapeutic community, and then a training college for the Cooperative movement. His life was fulfilled beyond anything that the ‘professionals’ could have foreseen.

What does all this contribute to the debate about dyslexia? Certainly nothing definitive: the human mind is far too complex to be diagnosed by a single set of criteria. But I am convinced that the present approach is infirm because it does not consider the individual needs of the children, the different rates of their maturation, and the simple fact that some students simply have other things which they hold to be more immediately important than literacy.

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