Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dyslexia experiences in primary school

Following yesterday's discussion regarding Sir Jim Rose's report on dyslexia, I have been thinking again about my own experiences in primary school. What follows is an extract from the book I have been writing about dyslexia. I don't usually post extracts of my work in progress on here, but in this case it seems relevant.

When I entered school, at the age of five, my teachers discovered that on the scale of ability with which they measured all pupils, I defined the lowest point.

‘You’ve had two bright children,’ they told my surprised parents. ‘You were lucky in that. But this one will never achieve anything.’

My primary school was a solemn looking building of grey stone and Welsh slate. Carved into the lintel of one of the two doorways onto the street was the word ‘BOYS’. The word ‘GIRLS’ adorned the other. But by the 1960s we all jostled through the same entrance in a co-educational scrum. There were thirty of us sitting on our small chairs behind small desks. Fresh faced and, to a greater or lesser degree, innocent.

The teachers must have clicked that something was wrong the first time they laid eyes on my exercise book. I was not the same as the others. My attempts to form letters on the page were no more than scribbles along a line. Every week that passed reinforced the initial impression. Other children wrote words then sentences. I wrote nothing that was legible.

I was inferior to the other children in almost every respect. I couldn’t read or write. I lacked that bad-boy charisma worn so effectively by the other under-achievers. Coming from an academically inclined family, I knew nothing of football or rugby. The least disastrous lesson for me was art, in which I achieved mediocrity and a blissful, if temporary, invisibility.

Not that I started out trying to be invisible. I toddled through the doors of that stone building and across the squeaky wooden floor with an innocent positivity and a belief that all children were more or less like me.

There was no single moment when I realised my mistake. Understanding grew in two phases. First was my dawning awareness that I was different from my classmates because of my stupidity.

I remember sitting, bent low over a comprehension exercise, my left arm forming an L shaped screen around the paper. I was seven and could string letters together by that stage, though I didn’t want anyone to see my clumsy scrawl.

I could also read some of the words on the printed page, my mouth miming the vowels as my finger hovered next to them. But to read a sentence was a challenge. I had to decode the words one by one. I had to keep them all in my mind, remembering the beginning of the sentence by the time I eventually arrived at the end of it. That took ferocious concentration. Enough to set up a tightness across my forehead, as if I was being gripped there by a vice. If at first the meaning didn’t come, I could always tighten the vice a little more. I was good at concentrating. I was getting lots of practice.

By the time I’d struggled through two of the ten questions, other children were finishing the whole activity. One by one, they trotted up to the teacher’s desk, books in hand, hopeful expressions on their faces. One by one she invited them round to stand next to her as she marked their work. A line of ticks down the side of the page. A smile. A word about something they could do better. One by one she released them to play or draw pictures.

Finally the allotted time had passed. I approach her desk, last in the line of stragglers, having attempted only eight out of the ten questions, exhausted from the effort. There was no time for marking. She had to move us on to a new activity. The bright kids were rested and now they were and starting to get bored.

It was the following day before I could collect my work. My scrawl of pencil shot through with red biro corrections. A line of crosses down the side of the page. ‘Three out of ten See me!’
I approached her desk with dread, wanting the world to disappear into blackness.
How, she wanted to know, could I be getting the spelling of words wrong, when they were there in the printed text on the opposite page? It could only be carelessness. I should take more pride in my work.

‘See me.’

I was seeing her. That concerned expression. How could she get through to me? I may have struggled to read the words on the page, but I could read her clearly enough. I’d always been able to know what people were feeling, to feel the echoes of their emotions in myself. That over-active empathetic sense.

Such a nice boy I seemed. An enigma though. I looked to be trying. But the evidence was clear. I must be lazy. Or stupid. Although neither description seemed quite to fit. If there was only more time, perhaps she could have taken me aside and worked out what was wrong. But time only for an admonition. You must try harder. Try harder. Try harder. I don’t know what you were thinking of - handing in a piece of work like this. Were you day dreaming again? Next time, try harder.

So I did. Always harder. Sharpening and compressing my focus. There had to be a way of doing it. Everyone else was doing it. Just a little harder.

There is a point when an instrument has been strained so far beyond its tolerance that it snaps. But the brain it seems is not like that. There is always more concentration to be extracted. I just had to try a little bit harder...


Paul Lamb said...

Thank you for sharing this. At first as I was reading it, I doubted that you could truly remember such incidents after so long, but then I realized that they were burned into your memory because of the confusion, frustration, and shame you must have felt.

I will buy and read your book when it comes out even though I don't have the condition or even know anyone with it.

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks Paul.

To some extent these are composite memories. Similar incidents repeated so many times that, as you say, they were burned into the brain.

As for the specific comment of the teacher to my parents - this was revealed to me many years later.

It is surprising what the memory will serve up to you when you start to write things down. I had forgotten a fair bit of this until I put myself into the scene.

It probably helps not having accessed these memories for so many years. It wasn't somewhere I wanted to go. So they remain untouched and when I did open the jar they flowed out fairly easily.

Geraint said...

As I have said before i was in the same age group there but not the same class. i must admit i knew nothing of your class issues and you hardly came over as stupid at break. I feel great sadness that it was a situation that must have caused you great pain, but your school friends were too young and ignorant to notice.

Rod Duncan said...

Hi Geraint,

Thanks for the comment. All those things have gone now, thankfully. My reason for sharing this stuff is not to look back and claim to have been badly done by.

Rather I want to help people understand the issues facing children right now as they work through the school system. Keeping that in the front of our minds can perhaps help to put into perspective the present debate about identifying dyslexia in children and young people and the best ways to approach teaching them.

Alan Gurbutt said...

Hi Rod,

I wanted to reply to your post yesterday, unfortunately I was too tired from my studies.

I strongly identify with your school experience, however, my memories of school are fragmented and difficult to reconstruct. I think I must have done a pretty good job at suppressing them. The fragments I do remember are from the first few weeks/months of starting secondary school. It's funny, I cannot discuss these even now, except to say, shortly after commencing secondary school I very quickly felt out of my depth. I did not put my hand up a “third” time to ask a question and spent the remainder of my school years avoiding the radar.

Ironically, I had to face up to my dyslexia in order to help our daughter receive equal opportunity within the English education system; not because of dyslexia, but something very similar.

The reason I refer to the “English” education system is because we are the only country in the United Kingdom to continue to implement the 11-plus, which actively discriminates against “late bloomers”, the disabled and children whose families cannot afford coaching. It is a high-stakes test that provides no second chances.

The National Foundation of Educational Research, charge authorities millions for setting the 11-plus. They also issue guidelines for the arrangement of tests for children with special education needs and disabilities, however, they provide no moderation for them. To cut a long story short, authorities (grammar schools) ignore the rules and only allow children with statements of special education needs to have extra time when taking the 11-plus (generally, disabled children who do not have statements do not get additional assistance).

The reason I have raised the 11-pus is because I have witnessed the effects of failing this test first hand. How failing it made our daughter feel. And also, how a dyslexic pupil felt when she was not given her overlays for completing this test. Her parents felt it was a waste of time complaining.

What I am trying to say is, because of my school experiences my daughters are in very safe hands. I will not allow them to suffer the same fate. I have the benefit of hind-sight and I am not intimidated by officialdom or bureaucracy. Education, in the past, has destroyed lives through mismanagement, lack of empathy and teacher training. I think (hope) that the dark-ages are behind us, and parents, teachers and authorities can work together to provide a child centred learning environment, which also provides a level playing field for all children to fulfil their true potential, no matter what their learning difference might be.

As mentioned before, my daughter has inspired me by overcoming the effects of disability through sheer determination (I will write a book some day). What I forgot to say was, you also inspire me. I think it is marvellous that you want to help others in similar circumstances to yourself.

Finally. I don't blame people for making mistakes as long as they learn from them and try their best to put matters right. I think we can help them to do this?


Rod Duncan said...

Many thanks for this Alan.

I entered secondary school the year after my district abandoned the 11 plus and went comprehensive. However much I detested secondary school, I feel sure the other system would have been worse for me.

When I was finally 'diagnosed' with dyslexia the local authority said it could offer no provision for my difficulties and kindly paid for me to go to a private school specialising in dyslexia. This took me out of the state system for 5 terms, after which I went back to the comprehensive.

Pam said...


There is an interesting article on dyslexia in this weeks magazine for speech pathology. Thought I'd pass it along.


Alan Gurbutt said...

When we talk about grammar schools, we are actually referring to non fee-paying selective schools; there's no wonder groups of 'middle-class' parents support them. Apparently it was parents who voted to keep grammar schools. I can't help wondering, how many parents considered the ethics of selective post-primary testing at 11, or Ofsted's statistics for the percentage of, non-statemented, disabled pupils on grammar school registers. I suspect, if asked, parents would base their views on selective education as to whether or not, they themselves, went to grammar schools, they would not understand the implications.

In Lincolnshire, under the present 11-plus system, grammar schools are a destructive force within education. Children who 'fail' to make the grade are made to feel like failures at 11. Some primary feeder schools openly coach the 11-plus and some do not.

Selection based on ability occurs throughout society and in education, it is unavoidable. What makes the 11-plus discriminatory is it does not take into account disabled children taking the test unless they have a statement of special needs. Dyslexic children might not have a statement, but they would almost certainly need to have a needs assessment prior to taking the 11-plus. Because the NFER issue 11-plus testing guidelines for admissions authorities to follow they are essentially absolving themselves of any blame should things go wrong. What happened in the case of our daughter was all parties concerned played down her disability to avoid prosecution under the DDA. It was so obvious that it was embarrassing. However, finally, in December 2008, after a two year battle, the Local Government Ombudsman ruled two counts of maladministration against the grammar school, sadly the ruling fell short of disability discrimination because, we were told, much of our case was outside her jurisdiction.

In retrospect, I think, as a father, I should have known better than to think a selective school system would have taken our daughter's needs into account - to be able to think outside the box. We fell into the parental mindset trap, that selective education must be best. We were wrong. Our daughter's 'second choice' state-maintained school has provided support over and beyond what we expected. She is now on the gifted and able register for, wait for it, literacy, science and history.

If selective post-primary education is to stay there should be a fairer means of selection. After all, I would have thought a system of 'excellence' would want to be part of a twenty-first century inclusive society, not set apart from it.

We should raise the aspirations of all children, not just a select few.

All the best,

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks Pam, I'll follow that one up later. Just on my way out to Leicester Writers' Club for my weekly treat of excellent work in progress.


I really hear what you are saying.

These things I don't like:

One-size fits all educational schemes.

The assumption that people fit neatly into academic or technical catagories.

The assumption that the academic is better than the technical.

All the systems I have known have had significant amounts of one or other of these disastrous ideas.

Now, I really must run.

siobsi said...

I look forward to reading this book when you finish it Rod. I tend to think of dyslexia in terms of difference rather than deficit - because I understand it to be a different wiring of the brain, a different way of processing information etc. Although as there are so many ways of doing that, it maybe sets up a false sense of 'norm'. So strategies you might use to assist dyslexic students in the classroom will nearly always be helping quite a few others too.

In education it seems to be about identifying 'clusters of difficulties' - along with often striking ability. If I think of a student in my class this year - no-one else would have chosen to do an adaptation of a Browning poem in the style of Bronte's Jane Eyre for her coursework - it was so ambitious and brilliantly conceived and insightful - when she got it all unravelled. Or another student who used colour overlays - had arrived only a few years earlier fluent in a half-dozen languages other than English and yet manages to get an A in English Language A'Level. It's this seeking out of the challenge that is so striking.

Anway I'm rambling after a long day poring over workschemes. But found your piece moving and insightful.

Rod Duncan said...

Thank you Siobhan,

I think it is really inspiring to think that there are teachers/lecturers like you with the level of awareness that you have.

I will press on with the book - just as soon as I finish this screenplay and the book about penguins.


Brian Keaney said...

This is a beautiful piece of writing

Rod Duncan said...

Thank you Brian. That means a lot to me.

Universal health care said...

Thanks a lot for sharing this. I like your blog. Dyslexia is now a days is common problem. And whoever suffering from it, should not face it in a good spirit, in a positive way.