28 Feb 2020

Classroom kete for children with dyslexia not enough, advocates say

12:30 pm on 28 February 2020

Families and advocates of children with dyslexia say the government's long-awaited kit of classroom resources falls far short of what is needed.

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(File image). Photo: RNZ/ Dan Cook

They are calling for a complete overhaul of teacher training, which they claim would not just benefit children with learning disabilities, but all students.

Sharon Scurr has spent thousands of dollars on assessments, training courses, and resources for her nine-year-old dyslexic son, Ben.

But she said not every family could afford to do that, and that was why she was disappointed by the government's so-called "kete" of dyslexia resources.

People had waited years for action, and hundreds made submissions to a select committee in 2015, only to have their recommendations ignored, Scurr said.

"No teacher goes into a classroom and says 'I'm not going to help that kid because they've got dyslexia', they do the best that they can with the knowledge that they've been taught and been given, and that knowledge that they've been given is wrong."

The dyslexia kete includes a teaching resource called About Dyslexia, resources in Māori, videos, a copy of the New Zealand Dyslexia Handbook and an online directory of non-Ministry resources.

Scurr said some of the assessment tools and recommended programmes in the kete were not suitable for dyslexic learners.

The bigger problem was the Ministry of Education's refusal to ditch the "whole language" approach for teaching reading, which is based on the idea that children will pick up reading naturally, she said.

Dyslexia advocates point out 30 years of international research has discredited that approach - and for dyslexic learners, it has been a disaster.

Massey University research commissioned by the ministry found new entrants taught to read using phonics - explicitly linking letters and sounds - significantly outperformed children being taught using the "whole language" approach.

Scurr said when the report was published last year, many hoped it would change things - but the kete still treated phonics as an optional add-on.

"You had the information, you asked for information last year, you were given it from many parents and many specialists but you chose to ignore that."

Emeritus Professor James Chapman, who co-authored the Massey study, said critics were right be concerned that some of the assessment tools in the kete were not suitable for dyslexic learners - but even mentioning phonics was "a breakthrough".

"And the way they have conceptualised dyslexia and the recommended intervention approach is consistent with the latest research."

However, having the tools was not enough - teachers needed to be trained how to use it, he said.

As the former head of a teachers college, he said it would not be easy to move away from the whole language approach.

"I believe there is strong ideological stubbornness to holding on to a system because people have this sort of fairly nice white middle class view that it somehow works.

"Fifteen to 20 percent of children are going into Reading Recovery [or some other form of intervention] after a year at school.

"That figure has never declined.

"The fact we have that number of kids immersed in a 'print rich' environment and still not able to read, shows we have been failing for decades."

More than 600 learning support co-ordinators are being allocated to more than 1000 schools and kura.

Dyslexia Foundation managing trustee Esther Whitehead said it was unreasonable to expect 623 people to do everything that needed to be done.

"Essentially we've shifted the responsibility to them, but they're not equipped to do that so that is not going to lift mainstream teachers' capability."

All teachers needed to be educated in how to recognise dyslexia and teach dyslexic children, she said.

More importantly, the entire education system needed to be "turned on its head" to make it more responsive to the needs of neuro-diverse learners.

If children have trouble learning to read, they are taken out of class for more intensive one-on-one attention - and that was not helpful for many dyslexic children because it means they miss out on content, Whitehead said.

"Because what actually happens is they are focusing on the basic skills at the detriment to engaging with the curriculum.

"If they had been accommodated they could access the curriculum through speech detects or other accommodations that would support them in their learning."

Former school principal Carla McNeil runs education consultancy Learning Matters and is the mother of a dyslexic teenager.

She agreed all teachers should be trained on how to teach reading effectively, because even she struggled to help her own son.

"When I trained, I can truly say that I went into a classroom, I had no idea how to teach a child to read and that's not okay. So we definitely need an overhaul of some sort of what are our expectations, [and] what will teachers absolutely know and be able to deliver."

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said the government was looking at ways to make teacher training "more consistent" but it was not for the government to introduce mandatory guidelines on how to teach literacy.

"We've got 2500 independent entities, that's what our schools are, that's what Tomorrow's Schools is all about.

"But the New Zealand curriculum is there and the outcomes are there. So how do we professionally develop our workforce in schools to deliver the outcomes we want from the New Zealand curriculum? That's the question."

Martin said the 623 learning support co-ordinators would not be expected to do everything themselves but would be developing all teaching staff within their clusters.

"These 623 are going to be the pathfinders and the change agents for the whole way we deliver learning support for our kids."

There was no question that the system had been failing many students, she said.

"Those are the children who believe they're stupid by the time they're eight.

"Those are the children whose self-confidence drops to such a level that they disengage from their education, they hate going to school, they feel bad about themselves.

"My vision in a nutshell is this: whatever a child needs to be their best, that's what we will give them."

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