It is hoped a new federal initiative for early detection of dyslexia will deliver a better education for those with learning difficulties, as well as avoid the stigma that can lead to mental health problems. By Cat Rodie.

Early detection key for dyslexia

Dyslexic 11-year-old  Tom Gregory.
Dyslexic 11-year-old Tom Gregory.

In February 2018, 11-year-old Tom Gregory will start high school, along with thousands of other kids his age. Naturally he is apprehensive about the change, but behind the nerves lies a weary cynicism. “I won’t get to sit the HSC,” he tells me, sadly.

Like 10 per cent of the population, Tom is dyslexic. Broadly defined as a “learning difference” it typically affects reading and spelling. Tom has an alternative definition: “If you’re dyslexic it means that your brain works differently. Some things, like reading and writing, can be really overwhelming. But it also means you think outside the box.”

Although he now sees the positive side of dyslexia, Tom has had a tough few years. Watching his peers excel while he struggled knocked his confidence. “Everyone was achieving except me,” he recalls. “I felt like the classroom was crushing me.” 

Tom’s experience is all too familiar. Before my own dyslexia diagnosis, my teachers had written me off as stupid or lazy. School was a catalogue of humiliation – from being made to read out loud (while the words swam in front of me) to enduring the laughter of my peers as my spelling mistakes were broadcast to the classroom. My experience is depressingly common; in fact, the Australian Dyslexia Association found 95 per cent of adult dyslexics recall being either told they were “dumb”, “lazy” or “stupid” by a teacher at school, or made to feel they were.

While dyslexia doesn’t cause mental health problems, negative experiences in the classroom mean that huge numbers of dyslexic kids are struggling not just with learning, but with crippling self-esteem. When I posted a case study callout in a dyslexia help group I was inundated with replies. Parents told me their kids were depressed, anxious and angry.

Sandra Marshall is chairperson and co-founder of the non-profit organisation Code READ Dyslexia Network – pronounced “code red”. She is also a GP and the mother of a dyslexic child. Marshall tells me that a staggering number of dyslexic children have presented for mental health reasons. “It drives me crazy seeing broken students attending general practice to try to get fixed,” she says.

So what’s going wrong? Marshall says our education system doesn’t adequately meet the needs of dyslexic students. She stresses this is by no means the fault of individual teachers, many of whom are doing the best that they can with limited resources. “There is little or no preservice teacher training on dyslexia and very little time spent on how to adequately teach literacy using evidence-based approaches in Australian universities,” says Marshall.

“[Graduate teachers] often tell me they don’t learn about dyslexia. So it is very difficult for teachers when they confront dyslexia in their classroom and do not have the requisite skills or knowledge to identify or provide the correct instruction.”

There is another issue – funding. Marshall says there is little or no funding to provide resources for students with dyslexia. “Neither Gonski funding nor state funding directly targets students with learning difficulties. Schools receive a pool of money and then have to decide which students need it most. One student may be three years behind in reading, but because another is four years behind they receive no help,” she says.

At the moment, individual outcomes for dyslexic students heavily depend on their circumstances. “The lucky families might find their way to a quality educational psychologist or a speech pathologist for an assessment – which costs upwards of $1000 – and if they can afford it, private tutoring,” says Marshall.

“The only students who can get help are those whose families are flush and have the smarts to research then advocate strongly and consistently. It is a system that is very inequitable for low SES [socioeconomic status] and rural families.”

Some families have become so despondent about the education system that they’ve withdrawn their children altogether. Melanie Wolters, from the New South Wales central coast, tells me she pulled her 11-year-old son, Jet, out of public school this year. “We left the school system because Jet had shown very little progress over the past five years in literacy,” she says. “He was still getting the class spelling test every week and pretty much getting every word wrong. [Home-schooling] was a last resort, but we felt like we didn’t have any other option.”

Despite Jet’s struggles, Wolters doesn’t blame the school or teachers. “They just don’t have the funding or resources. I feel like the education system is flawed and just doesn’t work for kids like Jet,” she says.

She has been home-schooling Jet for just over a month but says he is already much happier: “He is believing in himself more.”

Wolters has been able to balance her son’s lessons with a part-time job that she also does from home. But it will limit her work options considerably. It is a sacrifice she is willing to make, but of course not many families have the option, and nor should home-schooling be the only solution.

Jodi Clements, president of the Australian Dyslexia Association, notes that with the right kind of teaching and support, students with dyslexia can learn, succeed and excel. “We need to ensure that schools know how to make adjustments for students with dyslexia so that they have every chance to access the curriculum fairly and equitably,” she says.

As well as educating teachers about the challenges of dyslexia, Clements believes we should also focus on the unique strengths that come with it. “We need to appreciate dyslexia as a diverse way of thinking and value that there are many ways to learn and demonstrate knowledge.”

To this end, Clements says that it is vital for people with dyslexia to find and cultivate their strengths. “Many [dyslexics] can and have achieved great things, they have been known to do very well in the areas of business, design and architecture, creative arts, science and computers, music, sports and acting, to name a few,” she says.

Being able to see dyslexia as a gift or advantage is an important step in balancing the self-esteem issues that come with difficult classroom experiences. Writer Margaret Rooke explores this concept at length in her book Dyslexia Is My Superpower (Most of the Time). When Rooke interviewed 100 dyslexic children from around the world, she discovered that most of them knew they had special strengths.

To give dyslexic kids the best possible chance, early diagnosis is critical. At the moment, dyslexia is picked up when a child shows a significant delay in reading skills. Dr Marina Kalashnikova, a researcher in infancy studies at Western Sydney University, says the “wait to fail” method is deeply flawed. “By the time [a significant delay is detected] the long-lasting effects of dyslexia – low marks in school, decrease in motivation to learn, low self-esteem – have already started to affect the child,” she says.

In September, the federal government released a landmark report from a panel of principals, teachers, speech specialists, academics and researchers regarding the need for literacy and numeracy checks for grade 1 students. Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham notes that the assessment will mean children with learning difficulties can be identified at the earliest opportunity. “Too often, young people with dyslexia fall behind their peers at school and the learning gap blows out,” Birmingham says.

“Our planned skills check is not a test but rather a light touch assessment that ensures teachers, parents and schools know at the earliest possible stage if children aren’t picking up the reading skills as quickly as they should and that they can intervene rapidly.”

Dyslexia advocates have been campaigning for such checks to go ahead despite some state and territory governments saying it isn’t necessary. But for older kids, such as Tom Gregory, it’s little consolation. Now in the final weeks of primary school, Tom says he’s written off academic success. Instead, he is focusing on what he knows he’s good at: cooking. “I want to open my own restaurant one day,” he tells me with a smile. The school system has let him down, but his determination is shining through.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2017 as "Between the lines".

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Cat Rodie is a Sydney-based journalist.

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