It may be safe to say that dyslexia effects one-in-five Australians when including the continuum of mild to severe dyslexia, according to the Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA).
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In psycho-educational assessments, the terms SLD (Specific/Significant Learning Difficulty/Disability) or LD (Learning Difficulty) are commonly used interchangeably in Australia, as an umbrella term for reading difficulties, which may or may not be dyslexia.
When diagnosed, there are widely believed to be six types of dyslexia: phonological, surface, visual, primary, secondary/developmental and trauma dyslexia, also referred to as acquired dyslexia. The disorder is recognised in Australia under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and by the Human Rights Commission.
Dyslexia often becomes apparent during the early years of schooling, when a child shows an unexplained difficulty in reading despite having the capabilities to learn, according to the ADA. A child whose dyslexia has not been identified may show frustration, low self-esteem, have a loss of motivation for learning and social and emotional issues, including attention difficulties.
Before they are diagnosed, many children develop coping strategies to try to disguise their dyslexia. Negative coping mechanisms include students pretending to be less capable than they are, in order to hide this gap in their otherwise strong abilities. Or they may channel their efforts into other pursuits, often in artistic or sporting areas, which do not require any reading – a positive coping mechanism.
Research carried out by the Dyslexia Research Trust (DRT) in the UK found 52 percent of teachers reported having had no dyslexia training at all. And nine out of 10 of those that said they did receive any training say it lasted for less than an hour. Figures on dyslexia training among Australia-based teachers are hard to find.
In his 2019 article, Dyslexia in the Classroom published by ADA, Daniel Patterson asks whether schools are doing enough to support dyslexic students in the classroom. He quotes ADA President Jodi Clements as saying the research that has been gathered surrounding dyslexia should inform universities on how to train teachers better and believes there’s still a fair way to go. It would appear the answer to Patterson’s question is no, there is work to be done.
What, then, should teachers do if they feel a child in their class may be dyslexic?
The ADA recommends: “Learn[ing] about the common characteristics of dyslexia, trust your gut feelings and do something about it. Effective screening for dyslexia will tell you a lot about the type of teaching [a] child requires.”
Teachers should, of course, discuss any difficulties with the child’s parents or guardians and could recommend an assessment. The ADA offers a thorough pre-assessment service for students of all ages. This can assist the school and assess the relevant needs of the individual student, providing a report containing information for personalised understanding and support.
Once a diagnosis has been received, teachers and aides can take several steps to help a dyslexic child. The DRT says that “it is important to make sure that the student is exposed to written material as frequently as possible, as practice is the most important thing.
“Providing written information in a simple ‘sans serif’ font (without flicks and tails on the letters) such as Arial or Calibri helps the letters to be recognisable and using a larger font size than normal is also helpful. If possible, print in black onto light beige paper to reduce visual glare, and avoid using colours that could reduce contrast.
“When students are slower at writing than typical, there is an increasing trend to provide them with a laptop and excuse them from physical writing. We strongly advise against avoiding writing with a pen or pencil. Studies show that the actual physical process of forming letters is extremely important in learning to read. This also applies to the increasing trend in education to use digital screens for learning, instead of pen and paper.”
It is clear that if a child is struggling to read, they will have difficulty progressing in many of the school curriculum subjects and the wider implications can be far reaching. The Australian National Institute of Child Health and Human Development research found, “When intervention is delayed, it takes four times as long to intervene in fourth grade as it did in late kindergarten, because of the increase in content for children to learn as they grow older.”
The ADA urges swift action by teachers to reduce the impact of delayed diagnosis. “If you feel that a child is displaying indicators of dyslexia, do not listen if someone says, ‘They’ll grow out of it” or “All children progress at their own rate”. No one grows out of dyslexia and time is valuable when it comes to dyslexia and a child’s positive self-esteem.”