PHOTO: PETER McINTOSH
Dyslexia has many guises. It can be a cloak smothering one's ability to learn or a platform for achieving great things through pictorial visualisation.
CATHERINE PATTISON sorts through the learning disorder's multi-faceted
characteristics and talks to education authorities about it, including
a Dunedin facilitator of a dyslexia correction programme.
Picture this - Better managing dyslexia
ONE OF four facilitators of the Ronald Davis dyslexia
correction programme in New Zealand, Shelley McMeeken (42) knows only
too well the frustrations the disorder can bring to people's lives.
Her daughter, Alice (14), had always struggled at school despite being
a bright, articulate girl. Mrs McMeeken, of Dunedin, knew Alice had a
learning difficulty and refused to believe her increasing protests that
she was just dumb.
Alice was eventually diagnosed as dyslexic and Mrs McMeeken was encouraged to read
The Gift of Dyslexia
by Ronald Davis. Suddenly, things began to fall into place about "why a
bright and intelligent person would struggle with school and learning",
After sending Alice to a series of tutors, Mrs McMeeken was reluctant to send her to another but had a
feeling the Davis programme might just help.
She travelled to Sydney and attended the programme's fundamentals workshop.
"I was absolutely convinced if I could convince Alice to go, it would be of real assistance."
The McMeekens went to Sydney so Alice
could complete the 30-hour intensive course and, shortly after, Shelley
decided to take the 12-month course to become a facilitator.
Reading became easier for Alice and her
fluency improved dramatically. Her mid-term English mark, for example,
went from 42% to 64% in her end-of-year exam after completing the
Learning aside, Mrs McMeeken found her daughter's self-perception was changing.
"Most importantly, her confidence in herself has been restored in a big way."
Looking through a dyslexic's eyes, the
letter "p" can be three-dimensional, spinning on varying axes and in
It joins "d", "b" and "q" as the letters most commonly confused.
But all letters have the potential to
warp out of their standard appearance and there are 217 words in the
English language which cause confusion because they have no picture.
Abstract symbols, like numbers and musical notes, also pose
Every person with dyslexia presents with different symptoms, which is why it becomes difficult to diagnose, Mrs McMeeken says.
President of Speld New Zealand Susan
Schweigman adds that people with special learning difficulties tend to
have a "zig-zag pattern" of intelligence.
"They are very good at some things and not so good at others", she says.
Speld tests for areas of strength and
weakness and assigns individual programmes to each person. These can
include the use of audio tapes for people who learn better aurally.
The average time for a Speld course is
about 18 months and it aims to provide skills for the person to manage
their learning difficulty.
While it has its positive results, Speld
is not going to transform someone into a genius, Mrs Schweigman says:
"But a lot of them go on to do well".
She is aware of recent statistics
compiled by a University of Auckland department of psychology
researcher which indicate 7.7% of New Zealanders have a special
But when it comes to visualisation, dyslexics have an advantage over everyone, according to Mrs McMeeken.
"Their mental pictures are similar to 3D virtual movies. They can experience their imagination as reality."
However, education department head at
the Dunedin College of Education, Dr John Smith, disagrees that
dyslexics have any special picture visualising abilities.
He argues all children are encouraged to
associate words with pictures and early-learning books highlight the
links between the two.
"I don't go along with this stuff that people have difficulty because they think in 3D or in pictures."
Dr Smith says learning difficulties stem
from inappropriate teaching methods and these need to be modified to
suit children experiencing problems.
He advocates the Ministry of Education's
Reading Recovery programme that targets 6-year-olds and focuses on 30
minutes of daily one-on-one attention.
It has been running for 25 years and had "numerous reports" documenting its successes and failures, he says.
"We don't have all the answers. We would like to think we do but we don't."
However, the Davis programme believes
dyslexics have a "roving imagination", and provides a place for it to
settle, Mrs McMeeken says. It teaches them how to put their mind's eye
in the correct place to be able to focus on reading, writing and
Mrs McMeeken works through three techniques which are based on "orientation counselling". They address the cause of dyslexia as opposed to the symptoms, she says.
"In essence, I'm teaching these kids the
techniques to make sense of the 2D world - that is reading and writing.
They are taught to recognise when they need to use their tools or
Mrs McMeeken insists early intervention is "great" but it is never too late to try the Davis programme.
Sally Jackson, of the Ministry of
Education, says no systematic evaluation of the programme had been done
and was unable to comment on how effective it was.
Ms Jackson, the special education
operational policy and support manager, says "different individuals
will have different experiences and views of this course".
"As has always been the case, parents
can make choices about any additional out-of-school support they choose
to purchase. The Ronald Davis programme is one of many courses offered
for people with additional support needs."
The ministry would like to focus on the
initiatives already in schools that aid literacy development, such as
the systematic training of classroom teachers through literacy and
assessment strategies. These increase teachers' skills to better
address students' needs, she says.
Unfortunately, lack of detection often
means dyslexics begin to develop strategies to avoid having to read or
write. Children can switch off and start daydreaming or manifest
behavioural problems at school, to draw attention away from their
If left untreated, dyslexia can lead to depression, Mrs McMeeken says.
Her mission is to empower dyslexics to match their intellect with an ability to read, write and spell confidently.
"The stigma of dyslexia needs to be lifted so that people stop feeling that they are dumb and
their self-esteem and confidence are not battered by being unable to
keep up in the classroom."
Once mastered, it can be a gift and Mrs McMeeken strongly believes well-known people who have dyslexia got where they are because of it.
"They are not successful in spite of their dyslexia. They are successful because of it. Because of their picture-thinking abilities."