Dyslexia & Learning
An independent investigation into the available support
for students, parents, teachers, and schools to assist
students with dyslexia.
Turn on what this page might look like in some forms of dyslexia.
Some say it is a gift.
Others a disability. Others an affliction.
“What does DNA stand for?” One of my favourite jokes, because it makes so much sense. The punch line:
“National Dyslexics Association”.
Reading. Writing. Spelling. As a teacher I have seen many students struggle with these day in day out. Naturally, we question why in order to begin to understand and help students to achieve in learning language. When we consider the ten percent statistic, and apply that to a classroom, or a school, the potential impact that Dyslexia and other learning difficulties has on learning is huge.
Furthermore, the statistic on learning disabilities exasperates this. It is said that one in five students have a learning disability such as Dyslexia. This covers a wide range, such as Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, Language Processing Disorder, and Auditory Processing Disorder.
In a class of 29, we can therefore expect that up to 6 students might have a learning disability of some description.
In a syndicate of four classes of 29 students, up to 23 students might have a learning disability. That’s almost an entire class.
In a school of 250 students, an entire class would have Dyslexia alone, and 50 students would have a learning disability like it.
That is a huge impact on schools and teachers. An impact that has not been realised fully (or maybe has not been acknowledged). What support is there for teachers with students who struggle with reading and/or writing because of learning disabilities such as Dyslexia? What support can students receive? What avenues are available for parents to take to help assist their child with dyslexia? What is the Ministry of Education doing in regards to supporting teachers and schools with dyslexia and other learning disabilities? What role do other agencies provide in supporting students who struggle with this barrier in their learning?
All of these questions are the foundation of this investigation, as I look into the avenues available to those who have Dyslexia, and those who support them in their education. I have spoken informally with a number of agencies and the various roles they play in the life of a student who has Dyslexia, and received some very interesting information around these very questions. Some of my findings might surprise you, though those with a more cynical persuasion may not find them surprising, but more confirming what you expected all along.
Finally, we want to leave you with some practical steps, tools, ideas, and resources that we know work for students who suffer with Dyslexia. We have collected a range of different things that will assist students to learn with, and learn through Dyslexia, and have made them as simple and easy to use for you. As busy classroom teachers ourselves, we know how much you just want something you can put in place immediately so students with this disability can reach their full potential in learning.
University of Canterbury professor John Everatt said New Zealand struggled to diagnose and address dyslexia.
“To be honest, we don’t really understand dyslexia at an academic level,” he said.
“A lot of teachers understandably find it confusing about what they should do. I think that is one of the reasons why provision varies greatly across different schools.”
Everatt said teaching all pupils phonetics – the sounds of words – would go some way to addressing dyslexia.
The following is a sickening case that is so shameful, it is difficult to not be upset and angered on their behalf. The following is taken from an article that outlines the Johnstone family’s quest for support for their son, Ian, who was diagnosed with dyslexia only a matter of months before they arrived in New Zealand in 2006. Full of hope that our world class education system would have solutions, programmes, and support for dyslexic children, they were incredibly hopeful that Ian would receive a good education with his learning disability catered for:
“We heard such good things about the New Zealand education system and we thought we were both intelligent and engaged enough to support Ian,” Johnstone said.
But it was not until 2007, a year after they arrived, that the Government formally recognised dyslexia as a learning disability and began funding programmes including reading assistance and resource teachers.
“But it [the programme] did not help Ian, it is not phonetic and kids with dyslexia need to be explicitly taught chronological methods,” Johnstone said.
“By the end of the first year he [Ian] hated school.
“We moved him to Discovery but unfortunately a few weeks after, the [February 2011] earthquake struck.”
Ian, now 14, forged ahead at Discovery but the family soon found him struggling with too many choices at the school, where pupils set their own learning agenda.
“We moved him to being home schooled by a tutor. That is working really well, but he is a social kid.
“We looked at all the school options from local high schools to fantastically expensive private schools but there was no option out there that would suit him.”
With nowhere to turn, the family looked back to the US and found dyslexia-specialist Thomas Edison High School in Portland, Oregon.
I cannot tell you how important this is for our country. There is absolutely no way that families should have to pack up their bags and head overseas before they find somewhere where there is in school support for dyslexic children. In fact, families shouldn’t have to move anywhere, because each and every school in the country should be equipped and supported to cater for each and every learning disability, be it from the individual teachers, or external support provided by the Ministry, so that cases like this do not happen.
Turn on what this page might look like in some forms of dyslexia.
INVESTIGATE | QUESTIONS
Each of the associations I contacted were given the same or similar questions regarding the support that is available for students with dyslexia, their parents, and their teachers. I was very interested to see what in class support was available for teachers, given that very few have a full understanding of dyslexia, yet have a high chance of having at least two students in their class who are suffering in learning because of it.
The main questions are outlined as follows:
- What is the process can teachers, parents or children take to getting their child a) assessed, or b) support for their learning?
- What support is available for students at different age levels throughout their education?
- What in-class support is available for students and teachers?
- What interventions are in place for diagnosing and assessing students for Dyslexia or other learning disabilities?
Of the several sources I contacted, many referred me to a variety of web-pages which I have listed at the end as references. Feel free to peruse these in your own time.
From each of these questions, I have tried to collate the responses, and present them to you in as much detail and understanding as I have, with my own perspectives as a classroom teacher added in.
WHAT PROCESS IS THERE FOR GETTING ASSESSED?
Essentially, the answer to this question should be straightforward for a learning disability that is as widespread as dyslexia is. However, there is a real disconnect with this, especially for schools.
As an initial stage, teachers are told to make a Resource Teacher of Learning & Behaviour (RTLB) referral. Multiple facets of the Ministry list this as the first point of contact. This will then lead into the RTLB process of how their cluster provides support for the schools.
Despite this, RTLB can not formally assess students with suspected dyslexia unless they are an educational psychologist themselves. RTLB have a series of tests that show dyslexic tendencies, or indicates that a students is at risk of having dyslexia, for example. But to receive a formal dyslexia diagnosis, assessment must be carried out by an educational psychologist.
This, of course, comes at an additional cost, usually in the range of $300 – $400. This automatically rules this option out for many families and schools around the country.
WHAT SUPPORT IS THERE?
In terms of this question, we’re talking about actually getting support in the class, support in the home, and support for the child themselves. Essentially, once a ‘diagnosis’ is confirmed, with the RTLB still involved, the teacher and RTLB will work together to address the learning needs of the child. However, in terms of actual in-class support, be it teacher aides, individual or group times, support programmes, or one on one tuition, there is nothing. The teacher will be provided with a range of suggested things that they can do in the class (and if they are up with the play with modern teaching suggestions, they will already be doing most of these) and then are left to do their best. I have known RTLB to even sign off the case at this point, even though nothing new has changed or has been implemented.
The numerous associations I talked with all suggested RTLB as the first point of call. However, there is not a lot that RTLB will actually offer in terms of support (at least in my experience) for dyslexia. If there is, it is usually in the form of a group referral for similar needs that all suggest dyslexia occurring. But other than that, zero in class support, teacher aide hours, or one on one tuition.
The reality is that RTLB themselves do not have the resources (time and/or money) to work with every child who displays dyslexic tendencies. But as we outlined earlier, getting a formal diagnosis is nigh on impossible for some students.
Where I struggle with this is that other disabilities get fully funded and a wide range of supports given, but when it comes to a learning disability, there are next to no supports at all.
Note: I am not implying that students with ORS or impaired vision should not get any funding, or as much funding as they do. They need it. But in my opinion, students with dyslexia need the same level of support to overcome their learning disability.
Support for Other Disabilities
Students with impaired vision get one on one support, programme funding, and sometimes assistive technology funding. Students who fit within the ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme) outlines also receive ongoing funding and resourcing that can see them receive independent support through teacher aides or other programmes.
However, the average dyslexic student receives nothing. A lot of the time they go unnoticed, but even when they are noticed, the range of support that is provided for these students is so miniscule it may as well be nothing. There is no doubt as to the reason for this lack of individualised support, and as always, that comes down to money. 10% of the population are not blind or have impaired vision, so it comes with less of a price tag. It is also a physical disability, and so it is more obvious and easier to address.
Turn on what this page might look like in some forms of dyslexia.
WHAT SUPPORT IS THERE THROUGH DIFFERENT AGES?
My reason for asking this question is because I know support was given through at least one school in the form of a reader-writer for exams in NCEA. This is as close to Ministry funded one-on-one support I have heard of for dyslexia in schools. In reality though, by the stage a student is sitting NCEA exams, it is too late for the support to start showing up. Where was the support when that child was learning to read. For me, it’s an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, rather than a fence at the top, or even a net half way down.
For whatever reason, even though the research says that the earlier dyslexia is detected and strategies are put in place, the better the student will do, students are not able to be given a diagnosis until they are 7 or 8 years of age. By this time, the student has already struggled through two years of having letters dancing around the page while they learn to read.
WHAT IN-CLASS SUPPORT IS AVAILABLE?
In short: Not a lot. In reality, the only indication I got in response to in-class support is in the form of either assistive technology, or on the rare occasion, Teacher Aide time; both accessed through the RTLB service.
What support is required?
As a teacher, even with a reasonable knowledge of dyslexia as well as assistive technology for dyslexia, I have little time as it is to meet all the day to day needs of students. Students need dedicated time with a teacher to learn the technology that will help them, to learn the letters, sounds, and to identify where their dyslexic tendencies lie. Students need the opportunity to talk with someone they trust in order to be honest about what they are seeing, and gain individual feedback around what they should be seeing, and be able to do so without judgement. Unfortunately, the reality is, that this kind of support only comes through private providers, such as SPELD, or even enroll in a private school that deals specifically with students who have some of these learning disabilities. These of course come at a cost that parents need to fund, and as already stated, many don’t have this kind of luxury. Instead, the current situation means that most of the ten percent of students with dyslexia are left to fend for themselves and make do trying to learn language with as best they can.
The Support Disconnect
It is obvious there is a very big disconnect here. On the one hand, the Ministry feel that they are providing incredible support for dyslexia. They have a web page dedicated to it after all, and a book ‘About Dyslexia (2008)’ that schools and teachers can access. They fully support teachers to conduct their role, and any additional learning needs can be addressed through the RTLB service associated to each school.
On the other hand, teachers don’t have time to read a 42 page book, and web pages are relatively generic – especially from MoE, and certainly don’t go anywhere to provide for specific learnings for the individual students in the class. RTLB can only offer so much support in terms of time, money, and resources. They regularly suggest making a classroom ‘dyslexia friendly’, apply for assistive technology, and very rarely provide Teacher Aide time, which could be used to run a phonics based programme such as Toe by Toe. Anything on top of this however, you can tell your story walking.
Yet each instance of dyslexia is different. Some have backwards letters. Others have letters swapping, left to right, or up and down. Others still have bits of letters missing, and others have a disconnect between sound and letters. Generic solutions, or more accurately, suggestions, only go so far as to provide for the learning needs that students with dyslexia may have.
In addition to this, RTLB clusters also serve their schools to assist with high level behaviour needs, and these often get priority over lower level issues such as dyslexia. Each RTLB teacher has a workload, and a set number of cases that they can manage at any one time. The high priority cases get allocated first, and very rarely would a child with dyslexia get a look in, unless there are additional needs, such as behavioural problems as well.
Essentially it comes down to either going private, like we’ll see in the following case studies, or setting up a classroom programme. One particular model that I am beginning to try out is to identify students who may have dyslexia, and those that would benefit from a language based programme even if they don’t have dyslexia, and work through Toe by Toe with each student individually, at their own pace.
Essentially, there is no support so if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.
CASE STUDY 01
DIAGNOSIS JUST IN TIME
Friends of mine have had experience with the kinds of supports that are in schools for dyslexia. Their son was diagnosed in Year 11, at the age of 15 or 16. It came about quite by chance, when his Mathematics teacher recognised a few characteristics or traits common with dyslexia. It would be interesting to see how things would have gone, should the Maths teacher not have noticed. Thankfully it was picked up and their son, who we will call Kirk, received some help at school. Once they had confirmation from a teaching professional that he thought there was an issue they went privately to an Education Psychologist for an official assessment who diagnosed Dyslexia in Writing, Slow Processing, and Slow Writing Speed.
They stated, in not so many words, that all in all, the school was pretty useless in getting an assessment or any kind of support for their son. They felt we had to get into it quickly as it was Kirk’s first year of NCEA and would be disadvantaged if he didn’t get assistance. While they are not sure that day to day lessons were modified to better meet Kirk’s learning style and needs, there was no in-class support and they confirmed that during exam time, Kirk did get assistance of a reader / writer, time extensions, or use of a computer where appropriate.
As mentioned, the impact dyslexia has is different for different people. In Kirk’s case, he is particularly hindered in assessments or assignments that need to be presented in a written format. Put simply, his hands cannot convey written information at the speed the brain wants it too and thus becomes super frustrated. Numbers and formula that could be explained easily verbally were often transposed or written down wrongly, but were verbalised correctly when read back.
I asked them about whether they had picked up on it at an earlier stage. They said that they had suspected an issue from late primary, but felt ignored by the two schools (decile 9 and decile 8) involved. In both Year 6 and Year 8, they can remember having discussions with classroom teachers about the discrepancy between Kirk’s verbalisation of understanding as opposed to his written ability to convey the same information or understanding. Both schools pretty much gave the same response; that it was nothing to worry about or just a boy thing. As Kirk was already achieving at achievement levels well above those expected, there seemed to be little point in referring to RTLB or getting an assessment, as his needs wouldn’t have been high enough to get assistance anyway.
CASE STUDY 02
DYSLEXIA THROUGH GENERATIONS
In this second case, I interviewed a friend (who we’ll call Larry) who grew up with dyslexia, who is now a parent with a daughter who has just been diagnosed with dyslexia, and the journey that he and now his daughter are on, especially in regards to getting support for her in her schooling.
He first noticed that he was having issues when he was about 7 or 8 years old, although, like many, has never been officially diagnosed. Some of the affects Larry had were the usual mixing up letters and numbers, having trouble spelling, and tying up shoelaces. This causes issues for him even today with reading numbers, reading and typing without significant typos. Growing up, there was no support for Larry at school, either from the school itself, from RTLB, or from the Ministry. This was probably because of the lack of diagnosis, but also possibly due to the rural location. Regardless, a pretty sad state of affairs to be growing up knowing you have issues, yet not having any help.
In regards to Larry’s daughter, Alice; it was his wife that noticed her struggling at the age of seven, soon to be turning eight. Both parents picked up issues Alice was having with reversed numbers and confused letters like b and d. They noticed that she was easily distracted, and had difficulty with left and right understanding. The school (decile 8) confirmed this, and said in hindsight there was probably something, but they generally don’t do anything until students are 7 years or older.
In terms of getting a diagnosis, this has been totally parent driven. When the school did confirm it was an issue, they tried to go via the public system. This proved to be too hard to get support because Alice wasn’t an ‘extreme’ case, and so they went private, through SPELD, getting her tested and diagnosed. This was a similar situation in Case One, where RTLB would not pick them up because they weren’t bad enough to fit on their list of open cases.
Alice goes to an Educational Psychologist on a regular basis, sharing what she has been been doing in school. Alice leaves school in the morning once a week to do this, so the school does support her in that way.
To date, RTLB, Special Education, or Ministry of Education have had nothing to do with Alice.
In terms of the support Alice is receiving in class, the parents have not been made aware of any special support. The teacher is aware and they give the teacher the benefit of the doubt that she is trying what she can within the class programme to help Alice.
All names have been replaced with anglo saxian alternatives to protect identities.
CASE STUDY | NOTES & FINDINGS
- If dyslexia is not officially diagnosed, there is very little that can be done to receive support. Unfortunately, as we have found out, getting a diagnosis costs an arm and a leg.
- The only kind of individual support provided is in the form of a reader-writer, and only for exam times, in Years 11-13.
- In both cases, it has been parent diligence that has been the driving force in getting support. Support received has been through private organisations.
The support that the Ministry of Education, the government, provides for dyslexia is through the RTLB service.
In both cases, RTLB have had no involvement. In both cases, they would not have been picked up because they would have be seen as low priority.
- It seems that schools have been told, rightly or wrongly, that they can’t diagnose dyslexia until seven or eight years of age – even though research says early detection is key.
- Schools seem to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to dyslexia. This may be because they know the difficulty around getting support within the system, including the workload that RTLB have with extreme behaviour cases.
- It was interesting to note that the lack of support does not just apply to low decile schools or those from lower socio-economic communities. In both cases, even high decile schools did not seek support for dyslexia.
- Some teachers are aware of common symptoms, but more PLD around this needs to be available so that all teachers can identify the signs of dyslexia within their classes.
- Thanks to both families who shared their experiences with us, and giving an insight into their journey into the world of dyslexia, and the seeming abyss of support that the Ministry of Education provides for learning disabilities.
SHE SHELLS SEA SELLS
SUCCESSFUL SCHOOL STORIES
It is important we learn from those that have gone before. There is no doubt that, despite the seemingly lack of support from the Ministry and the Government in fully supporting dyslexia, that some schools have taken it upon themselves to provide support for dyslexia students independently. The following are excerpts taken from schools webpages, with some replies from schools themselves when we emailed them, with a focus around what they do within their school to support students with dyslexia – whether it be from an individual point of view, or a whole school or whole class perspective.
Dannevirke South School
“We aim for our all children to be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.” (NZ Curriculum)
In the last 4-5 years we have been exploring the world of the dyslexic child and the implications this has for how we teach. When I first heard the Dyslexia Foundation of NZ say that dyslexia was a gift I wanted to cry. Watching your dyslexic child, try and fail, seeing their self-esteem plummet, asking you why they cannot do things other children find easy and watching everyday activities cause frustration, breaks your heart. But there is hope and there are many things both in school, at home and with outside help that can be done to assist these children to become confident achieving teens and adults. The more I learn about dyslexia and the unique way they see the world I often wish I could step into their shoes for a while. We would like this part of our website to be useful to you so will appreciate feedback and questions as we go along. We are not experts in this area but have made a start. Firstly at South School we see Dyslexia as a different way of learning – not right or wrong just different. Dyslexics tend to think in pictures and we often refer to these children as being ‘picture thinkers.’ We do not label students as dyslexic, only a psychologist can do this in NZ.
As a staff we have had a range of professional development in this area. Several of us attended a 3 day training workshop in the Davis Dyslexia Techniques down in Christchurch. We have had a course in Davis Learning Strategies where staff and support staff continued to learn about ways of supporting students in their learning. Our school is also a member of the 4-D Schools – a useful website to check out. We have been very lucky in having the opportunity to attend a Neil Mackay seminar this year. Neil MacKay is one of the world’s foremost thinkers on dyslexia and the author to several books and papers.
We have a great BOT who support us, in what we are trying to do for the students at South School who show dyslexic type learning difficulties. In Dannevirke we are also very lucky to have a Davis Facilitator who can help children and adults.
Years 9 and 10 Form Classes
A form class at both year levels comprising motivated students with dyslexia and other specific learning issues and ‘buddies’ of those students. These are mixed ability classes taught in a dyslexia friendly format following the same curriculum as all other year 9 and 10 classes. The class benefits from the extra help of a Teacher Aide. This class operates as any other year 9 and 10 form class.
Years 9 and 10 Literacy Option
This course runs for two terms and is suitable for those who struggle with any aspect of Literacy. It is particularly suitable for dyslexic students. Multi-sensory teaching is used to boost skills in reading, writing and spelling. Students develop their own Learning Profile and choose learning strategies based on their learning strengths. Class sizes are kept small and have the extra benefit of a Teacher Aide. Information about these courses can be found in our Year 9 and 10 Option Booklets.
Small Group Tuition
For those students who would benefit from continued support in a small group, this can be offered once a week and is driven by the students’ individual needs. Again multisensory teaching strategies are used to support students’ learning strengths. This is primarily for year 9 students.
Dyslexia focused English, Maths and Science courses are offered at year 11, NCEA Level 1.
In addition to these classes, Kāpiti College’s philosophy is to teach all students as if they are dyslexic; in doing this we aim to teach effectively to all our students.
The school will support students meeting NZQA criteria in regards to application for Special Assessment Conditions (SAC). Evidence of eligibility is gathered throughout years 9 and 10, or through outside professional reports, such as an Educational Psychologist assessment. From there, applications are forwarded to NZQA for approval. The cut off date for SAC consideration at year 10 is the end of Week 1 Term 3.
An Educational Psychologist Assessment (Speld Assessment) for diagnosis of dyslexia/specific learning difficulties is required for your child to receive reader/writer/extra time/computer use for formal tests and NCEA exams.
Become a Reader / Writer
Able students who have a diagnosed learning condition ( ie-Dyslexia, Dyspraxia) approved by the Ministry of Education are eligible for supported assessment conditions in their NCEA assessments and exams.
This entitles students to a Reader/Writer and/or extra time to allow their ability to be acknowledged and accessed. If you would like to become a valuable support person, as a Reader/Writer, and can fulfil the following criteria please email the HOD of Learning Support
Turn on what this page might look like in some forms of dyslexia.
INCONCLUSIVE | CONCLUSION
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
From all of this, and as I reflect over several months on this inquiry, it is interesting to see how other teachers are catering for dyslexia in their class. Some have gone down the RTLB service, but do not seem to get very far, and our local RTLB has just cease carrying out funding dyslexia assessments for students. It also closes all of it’s cases at the end of the year, and so each year’s teacher must fill out forms to get attention for the student. Others have been down this track and have come to realise there is no real ongoing support, and they have begun their own in-class programmes. From here, we can see examples of schools setting up their own school-wide programmes and making dyslexia awareness and deliberate teaching strategies a priority.
There is little doubt that more needs to be done from the Ministry and the Government, especially within schools, and especially given it is a learning disability. Schools need to be supported better, and students need ongoing learning support. Given that dyslexia is not prejudiced, this support needs to be widespread through the education system. Lower socioeconomic areas tend to have more cases of dyslexia, and so these schools may require more support than others.
We’ve seen two cases where the parents have had to step in to address the learning needs, and go down the private route. Luckily for these two cases, the parents were able to support their child financially to do this. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, especially in low socioeconomic areas, where dyslexia is more widespread.
Until something more is done, we will continue to have students struggling in their learning, and more students go through their education struggling but not knowing why or how to fix it. They will learn some coping strategies very well, and no doubt some will go on to be very successful. There will be countless students going undiagnosed, and struggling without support. Teachers will (as always) do their best to address the pitfalls in their class as a whole, but without any inclass support or specific PLD, many will not be in the position to identify symptoms of dyslexia in class, and even once diagnosed, will be unable to provide a rigorous programme to fit in with their already busy schedule.
I wish you all the best. I really do. It’s not easy. It’s not going to be easy. But please, do what you can for those who mix up b’s, d’s, and p’s, who have letters and numbers jumping around the page, who have letters float right in front of them. Because while it is difficult for you to fit any programmes into your class timetable, it’s more difficult having dyslexia in that class and not having any help. Do it for those students who struggle. Stand up and support them when the Ministry will not.
Media & News
- Summit Point School – https://www.thesummitacademy.co.nz/pages/services
- Dannevirke South School – http://www.dannevirkesouth.school.nz/dyslexia
- Kapiti College – http://www.kc.school.nz/index/home/Dyslexia
- Toe by Toe – https://www.toe-by-toe.co.uk
- Reading Rockets – http://www.readingrockets.org/article/top-10-resources-dyslexia
- Dyslexia Teaching Materials – https://www.dyslexiamaterials.com