Addressing the challenges of dyslexia

The Dyslexia Awareness conference hosted by the Mail & Guardian in association with Strive International, The Teacher and Shanduka, took place in Midrand on September 12.

A panel of local and international experts discussed the issues about dyslexia and the appropriate interventions that need to happen to help address it.

Christine Asiko, chief executive of non-profit Strive International that seeks to improve the educational experience of learners with dyslexia in Africa, says the conference aims to increase awareness of the challenges of dyslexics, to identify the appropriate interventions to take in South Africa and to agree on policy recommendations.

“In South Africa, one in ten people are dyslexic. This means that approximately 5-million South Africans are struggling with literacy problems in school or at the workplace.

“Unfortunately, the schools are ill-equipped to deal with this.”

Adding to this, she says, Africa continues to grow economically, but many people on the continent still remain trapped in poverty.

“Africans must strive for more inclusive growth. But our education systems are not nurturing young people to keep pace with the latest developments happening in the world.

"I believe that the persistently high levels of unemployment among young people highlight the lack in education.

“The marginalisation that school systems create for the dyslexic mind is one of the worst things currently happening in the education system.”

She says that one of the reasons for this is the lack of a clear definition in the African context of what dyslexia is.

“In contrast, the UK and US have a working definition of dyslexia that is used to identify people and put the appropriate actions in place to assist them.

“Some of these actions include having the latest information readily available around learning disabilities, offering courses to enable schools to develop expertise to improve their outcomes in learning disabilities, and providing children with access to specialised teachers.

“Africa does not have to reinvent the wheel. By using international experts and looking at the work already done locally, there are opportunities to collaborate and bring this insight to light.

“It is vital that we come up with strategies to solve this predicament that the continent is faced with. There needs to be policies that are able to effectively integrate the dyslexic mind into schools and the workplace.

“At this moment, we can only learn from the west because Africa still needs to get the basics right.”

An important element for Asiko is to differentiate between language and learning difficulties.

This is more so given that South Africa has 11 official languages, which ultimately impacts the child.

“Many learners have home languages that are different to the ones they get schooled in. Often this only confuses them more. South Africa needs to improve both the quality of teacher training as well as that of literacy training.”

Defining dyslexia
Bernadette McLean, principal of the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre, says there are many barriers to learning caused by learning difficulties.

“When one looks at dyslexia, one needs to consider that there might be other factors at play. If people cannot read easily then they could be denied access to a curriculum. Over the past 30 years, defining dyslexia has been problematic. And if people cannot even decide on a definition, how can those who suffer from it be identified?”

She says that dyslexia is different in every person. The latest research provides professionals with different tests to what was used in the past, which has helped greatly.

However, McLean says that they know that it is likely if a person has dyslexia then there is a co-existing learning difficulty.

The widely held Sir Jim Rose definition of dyslexia states it is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.

It occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. Characteristics features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness (distinguishing the sounds in words), verbal memory (remembering the words a person hears like listening to a teacher), and verbal processing speed (how quickly a person can recognise words and access them from long-term memory).

“Dyslexia should best be thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category with clear cut-off points. A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well founded intervention,” adds McLean.

A practical discussion
The panel discussion looked at the challenge for students, families, and the community and was moderated by Milton Nkosi, BBC Africa bureau analyst and correspondent.

The panellists were Joby Craven, a high school student who is dyslexic, his mother Tracy, Edna Freinkel, who is a reading expert and educator, and Tshepiso Matentjie, an educational psychologist.

“I was diagnosed with severe dyslexia when I was eight years old. But because I was involved in sports and had a good circle of friends. I was also open about talking about my dyslexia.

“I was lucky in the sense that I could also talk to my teachers and discuss my condition with them. Having teachers who were on my side was a great confidence booster. “Attitude is half the battle,” says Joby. His mother agrees.

“It was quite daunting to hear when Joby was diagnosed. But we agreed as a family that it was not going to be a stigma and we were not going to hide the fact from anyone. You need to take little steps and address any challenges one bit at a time.

“It has not been easy navigating the education system when you are the parent of a dyslexic child. But working with the school as a team you can make a difference for your child,” Tracy says.

It is this education that has to be an essential part of addressing the challenges of dyslexia.

“What are we doing as educators to make sure that the gaps are addressed when a child does not perform?

"The first hurdle is getting the teacher to identify what the problem is.

"More often than not, the problem is related to being taught in English for the first time. As psychologists we need to collaborate with other people to help children who have dyslexia. We need to work with parents and teachers to help identify solutions,” says Matentjie.

Freinkel echoes this point.

“To teach anybody successfully, a combination of all available methods should be used. In my experience, the Rebecca Ostrowiak Reading Animal does a great job of breaking this down into six legs — Alphabet, Spelling, Comprehension, Writing and Communication, Memory Training, and Study Skills,” says Freinkel.

If the conference showed delegates anything, then it would be that a partnership between students, parents, educators, and psychologists will be key in increasing awareness of dyslexia, especially in Africa.

Taking a personal interest
Trevor Ncube, chairman of Alpha Media Holdings and the executive deputy chairman of the Mail & Guardian Media Group in South Africa, related his personal experiences as a dyslexic to delegates at the conference.

“Dyslexia teaches you humility because of the nature of the condition. I was the worst student in all my classes during primary school. In fact, my grade one teacher beat me frequently because I could not read or write. Even to this day, spelling is a nightmare for me. It just does not make sense.

“My teachers did not even know that this condition existed. It became impossible for me to enjoy school during my primary school years. How teachers treated me affected how other pupils viewed me and interacted with me.”

He says he had to push himself to do things three or four times that other pupils could understand at the first attempt.

“Thanks to technology I can now spell. We have things like spell check, auto-correct, and all sorts of other innovations.”

So what lessons did Ncube learn while growing up?

“The words we say to others can build or destroy a person. The words my teachers used to insult me stayed with me for a long time.

“Words such as ‘you are ugly’ or ‘you will never amount to anything’ still affect my self esteem. A sound education is the bedrock of successful people and societies. But in Africa there is no particular investment in teachers especially when it comes to dyslexia.”

“My life turned when I went to grade 6. I met this teacher who told me I was amazing. Nobody had ever told me that before. Until then I was told to shut up or that I was dumb.

"That was a turning point in my life. I never looked back. From being last in class, I started to improve. Grade 7 examinations I was one of the few who passed and went to high school.

"By the end of high school I was head boy in school. I went to university and passed first class but it took hard work.”

For him, the top priority should be on education.

“The passion of educating children needs to be focused on and invested in. We simply have to make more people aware of what dyslexia is and the impact it has.”

This article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G’s supplements editorial team

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