Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Highly able children with dyslexia

Dr Carrie Winstanley explains the principle of dual exceptionality with dyslexic children

Children with high ability and a difficulty, deficit or impairment are known as ‘dually exceptional’. When the difficulty is a sensory impairment, physical disability or identified syndrome such as Asperger’s, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), there is a high likelihood that a psychologist has been involved and useful recommendations have been presented. With dyslexia, there are so many issues that it can be very hard to find the right balance between remediation and challenge.

Dyslexia causes difficulties in learning to read, write and spell. Short-term memory, maths, concentration, personal organisation and sequencing may also be affected.’

(Dyslexia Institute, 2002)

The DI also note that dyslexia is, ‘difficulty with words… It is a difference in the brain area that deals with language… Brain imaging techniques show that dyslexic people process information differently’. Other learning situations (such as having English as an additional language, or an issue such as AD/HD) can result in the same difficulties as those suffered by children with dyslexia, causing further confusion and misdiagnosis.

Dyslexia is found within 4-5% of the population, which amounts to around 35,700 pupils in the UK (figures from the Dyslexia Institute and the British Dyslexia Association).

Teachers of able pupils know the effect of labelling children and the controversy surrounding the use of the terms ‘gifted’, ‘talented’ and ‘able’. Similar issues exist concerning the propensity of people to label children by their difficulties, calling them ‘dyslexics’. This is against convention or recommendation and referring to such children as ‘children with dyslexia’ is generally preferable.

Some people, however, feel that their dyslexia is what defines them and their abilities and consider that their dyslexia allows them to think in different ways, freeing them from the conventional and stifling reliance on reading and linear thinking. This ‘gift’ of dyslexia suggests that unimaginative teaching and outdated assessment modes are to blame for failing children. A list on the DI website summarises the apparent strengths of people with dyslexia, but this is definitely disputable, particularly for the child who may also be intellectually very able and not exhibit some of the ‘weaknesses’ also displayed on the site, particularly that of being unable to concentrate:

  •     visual sense
  • practical
  • skilful
  • sporty
  • imaginative.

Likely to be poor at:
  • recalling instruction
  • organising
  • concentrating
  • proof reading.

Dyslexia is an umbrella term for a range of difficulties affecting the processing of visual and auditory information and may encompass difficulties with spelling (dysorthographia), handwriting (dysgraphia) and manipulation of numbers (dyscalculia). Some categorisations of dyslexia even incorporate spatial difficulties (dyspraxia) and so it is vital for careful diagnosis of difficulties to be undertaken if support is to be appropriate.

Despite all this overlap of definitions, it is certainly commonplace to find that pupils have some problems with writing and teachers are often looking for ways to help children close the gap between their oral abilities and weak written work.

Are there any solutions?
Over the years, various suggestions have come in and out of fashion including dietary supplements, physical exercise and coloured lenses. All have their advocates and detractors, but in terms of classroom teaching there are some aspects of good practice that are worth emphasising.

Good practice in the classroom will help all children whether or not they have learning difficulties and matching tasks to abilities and interests will be a great help. As well as providing help where there are obvious difficulties, it is vital to also build on children’s strengths, allowing them opportunities to excel. Sometimes more experienced and older pupils can be called upon to ‘buddy’ a younger pupil, helping them improve and making suggestions to teachers concerning ways of presenting tasks to pupils as well as inventive methods for children to share their learning; catering for the individual is the key.

The classroom environment
Check that children are seated where the board and teacher can be easily seen and that written material is clearly presented. Use alternate colours for alternate lines to help children find their place on the board (avoid red on a white background).

Whilst it is exciting to have a classroom full of bright colours, posters and pictures, avoid overload and keep the area around the whiteboard clear of distracting materials. Seating children away from windows and glass doors will help to minimise outside distractions.

Learning tasks
Present material in a variety of ways; use visual, oral and kinaesthetic presentation modes (taping written material). Allow students to share knowledge and learning in different ways such as making poster presentations, taping reports or producing podcasts. Creating an oral or written quiz is a fun way to check learning – children enjoy testing their friends and creating multiple alternatives to the correct answer. Children can present a wide range of ideas through class demonstrations or dramatic presentations.

Imaginative alternative learning experiences are welcomed by children with dyslexia and many tasks can be constructed in ways that are not dependent on reading or paper and pencil: logic games (such as tangrams), drawing activities (recording a story as a cartoon strip), movement tasks and puzzles.

Children may need additional time for completing assignments in order to present work of good quality. Pupils working under an extra time pressure as they read may not understand what they are reading. They can also work inconsistently, affected more acutely by environmental distractions. Despite trying to follow prescribed advice they are often disorganised, which causes further difficulties.

Children with dyslexia can find that all their tasks remain unfinished. Instead, enter into a contract with children where they are allowed additional time to complete a task, but ensure that time is restricted and not endlessly extended. They may be allowed alternative ways of presenting, but they must still have criteria demanding good quality work.

What not to do
  •  Don’t ask children to read aloud in a large group – even if they are making great improvements they are likely to be significantly less fluent than peers.
  •  Don’t correct every single error in a piece of work – instead, ‘close mark’ a small section of the work and then pay attention to ideas and not mechanics for the rest of the piece.
  •  Don’t compare with other pupils – inappropriate comparisons can affect children’s self-esteem and embarrass the pupils whose work is being held up as exemplary.
  •  Don’t give long spelling lists – shorter tasks are more manageable and these can be distributed frequently resulting in the same outcomes.
  •  Don’t make children rewrite their work – this is the most disheartening task. Using a computer makes editing less laborious, but sometimes getting ideas down is sufficient. There is little merit in rewriting without redrafting.

Computers in the classroom
Technological advances in the classroom have provided great help for children coping with various types of dyslexia.

There is now software that allows users to plan and structure their ideas more easily than on paper. These programmes allow pupils to write ideas in concept or mind maps and then convert the ideas into a linear form that can be the basis of an essay structure. Other programmes convert text to speech and vice versa (such as the pen that will ‘read’ text). Dictating machines can help people with dyslexia to capture ideas without having to write at speed.

Computers also allow for versatility when a simple technique can make a surprising difference for someone with a visual problem. By adjusting the font or colour, text can be rendered readable. It is also possible to use coloured plastic overlays and lamps with variable intensities and colours to help children read more easily. For older children and adults, devices such as PDAs (personal digital assistant, ie hand-held computers) have helped transform lives, particularly where time and task management is problematic.

Identifying pupils with dyslexia as able can be problematic as many G&T checklists cite reading and writing as key indicators of ability. Teachers often have a ‘hunch’ that a child is able; they may say unusual things, have a sophisticated sense of humour or just an unusual outlook.

Noting these characteristics is insufficient as evidence for recommending children for extra provision and so it is therefore vital to ensure that the methods used to identify the able are fully inclusive and that untypical indicators of ability are incorporated in the school’s approach.

Characteristics may need to be weighted differently and a revolving door model is necessary to allow those who begin to shine the facility to be included when they are ready, which might not be at the start of term. Some pupils may need to take a break from the activities for the able and focus on a difficulty for a while; they should be allowed to rejoin the activities for the able at a later date. Making use of peer- and self-referral can be helpful.

Classroom ethos
The classroom ethos should reflect the diversity of abilities and interests of all pupils. There needs to be respect for pupils and their abilities, and understanding and tolerance of difficulties. Those without dyslexia-associated problems need to feel that they are being treated fairly, and that if they are given less time to complete a task, they understand that it is based on need and not favouritism. Teachers need to foster a classroom atmosphere in which difference is celebrated.

Children should be encouraged to talk about their feelings in a safe atmosphere in which they are able to explain what it is like to be able with a learning problem. It can help to invite highly able successful adults with learning difficulties into the classroom to serve as role models.

Case study

Vanessa was a reluctant reader and writer. Keen to please, she struggled through set tasks only to be repeatedly asked to rewrite sections of her painstaking work. It was by accident that one day she was sent out with a group of identified able children to undertake a mathematical activity (a supply teacher confused her with another child). Vanessa excelled and the teacher taking the group saw an able child enjoying a challenge, whereas the class teacher had understandably seen a child doing poorly all-round, held back by her reading difficulties.

On returning to school, the teacher investigated further and was able to identify other discrepancies in Vanessa’s performance. It was discovered that she had been tested for learning problems at a younger age and since no obvious auditory or visual problem had been identified, it was assumed that her difficulties in learning to read were a lack of ability. The teacher was unsuccessful in persuading the head to allow for a further set of tests and parents were unable to pay. The breakthrough came in an unexpected form.

The school ran a hobby day when children were invited to share their hobbies with friends and teachers with a display of items, annotated and explained. Her work in sharing her hobby (electronics) was astounding. The written work was fluent and neatly presented and the obvious abilities and knowledge served as a window onto her enthusiasm and dedication that had not been evident in school. This called for a reassessment of her classroom performance and a review of her earlier assessment with the special educational needs staff. This uncovered some verbal and performance inconsistencies and the resulting changes (style of homework task, ways of tackling spellings, use of a laptop in class), whilst taking some time to implement, had a positive knock-on effect in all areas of her schooling.

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