Evidence Check 1: Early Literacy Interventions - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Ruth Allen (LI 15)

  1.  Statement of Interest. I work for The Dyslexia Association, a charity serving a large area of the East Midlands. We give free advice to parents about dyslexia identification and support for children at school, and we also offer private screening, assessment and tuition for children. I submit a personal opinion because the early deadline has not given me the time I would normally take to discuss the subject with my colleagues.

2.  Summary. I am concerned that we encounter many enquiries from parents whose children are repeatedly denied any proper diagnostic investigation through school of their potential dyslexic difficulties. These children are at severe risk of lifetime problems because of the lack of a timely intervention to meet their needs. They would be helped by a government policy based on a clear description of dyslexia that signposts the neurological difficulties involved and links dyslexia to learning need.

  3.  There is no single, universally accepted definition of dyslexia. Many different statements have been formulated. Most are not strictly definitions, but attempts to describe dyslexia. This does not mean that the condition is non-existent or trivial. Rather, it indicates that dyslexia is complex and multi-faceted. Dyslexic individuals are all different, though all show facets of a common pattern.

  4.  The British Psychological Society (1999) proposed a superficially clear "definition": "Dyslexia is evident when accurate and fluent word reading and/or spelling develops very incompletely or with great difficulty."

  However, the BPS report acknowledges (DECP 6.2) that this "definition" was made purely for narrow academic research purposes. Crucially, the BPS also acknowledge that "formulation in the matter of learning difficulty is essentially a separate and more extensive endeavour". In other words, the BPS researchers never intended their "definition" to be used to influence SEN provision, and do not consider it suitable for that purpose.

  Sadly, their caveat has been widely overlooked amongst local authorities and teachers making day-to-day provision in schools. To an authority struggling with a tight budget, the restrictiveness of the BPS definition may be attractive in providing criteria to "justify" arbitrary restrictions on where funding should be placed. However, the "definition" is not at all helpful to teachers or parents looking for ways to help a child who is failing to progress.

  5.  An extension which looks at causation, such as "Dyslexia is a difficulty in the acquisition of accurate and/or fluent word reading, spelling and writing that is neurological in origin" (I Smythe) is rather more helpful, particularly when it is fleshed out with a list of difficulties, such as phonological perception, auditory and visual memory and speed of information processing, which are all factors which may be relevant. This leads towards tools for identifying and making provision for the learning needs of children with difficulties in acquiring literacy. Dyslexia screens based on investigation of typically dyslexic neurological difficulty (eg Lucid or NfER) provide an accessible means for the non-specialist teacher to sketch out an individual profile of strengths and difficulties. More detailed assessment may follow as necessary.

  6.  Longer and more descriptive "definitions" tend to include causal hypotheses and/or lists of "indicator" characteristics that are commonly present alongside the core literacy difficulty. An example is the British Dyslexia Association "definition". Such "definitions" are inherently imprecise and full of "maybe"s, but they match the multi-dimensional nature of dyslexia and provide the pointers for identifying individual needs and learning patterns.

  7.  The Scottish Parliament has recently (2009) developed a descriptive "working definition" of dyslexia, which lists a range of difficulties commonly associated with dyslexia, and highlights the specific nature of the difficulty. In a rider, it encourages early identification and well targeted teaching, and contrasts the frustration and underachievement associated with unaddressed dyslexia with the desirable educational and social outcomes that can be achieved with appropriate teaching. I feel that this is a helpful basis for an educational policy.

  8.  Dyslexic pupils have needs which go beyond learning to read and write at the word level. There is good evidence to show that most dyslexic children can acquire literacy with the right support (see Singleton and the No to Failure report), but many will never reach the degree of competence and automaticity expected for their overall ability. Well targeted early intervention pays huge dividends, but there is also a need for ongoing vigilance, for example when supporting older students in structuring information or working with complex text. This should be noted in any official description of dyslexia.

  9.  Government policy on dyslexia should obviously be based on a clear understanding of what is meant by dyslexia, but this does not necessarily mean that there is a need for a definition in a precise logical sense. The term "definition" may suggest that we are looking for a precise "yes or no" test to determine whether or not an individual has dyslexia. Such a simplistic test would be profoundly unhelpful and indeed damaging. Teachers will be better guided by a descriptive statement which enables children to be identified with a range of different neurological profiles that may pose barriers to their acquisition of literacy.



British Psychological Society: Report by a Working Party of DECP (1999). Dyslexia, Literacy and Psychological Assessment:

    6.2 (extract)

    "The working definition adopted in this report has implications for educational provision. There is, however, no ready formula to link a particular pattern or level of dyslexic difficulty to a particular formulation of learning difficulty or provision. The Code of Practice does not specify definitional features of dyslexia, but catalogues possible causal factors, aspects of curriculum difficulty, and emotional/motivation al consequences, all under the umbrella of `the child's learning difficulty'. Formulation on the matter of a learning difficulty, then, is essentially a separate, and more extensive, endeavour than formulation in the matter of dyslexia."

British Dyslexia Association definition of dyslexia:

    "Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills.

    It is likely to be present at birth and to be lifelong in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual's other cognitive abilities.

    It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effects can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counselling."

Scottish Parliament working definition of dyslexia:

    "Dyslexia can be described as a continuum of difficulties in learning to read, write and/or spell, which persist despite the provision of appropriate learning opportunities. These difficulties often do not reflect an individual's cognitive abilities and may not be typical of performance in other areas.

    The impact of dyslexia as a barrier to learning varies in degree according to the learning and teaching environment, as there are often associated difficulties such as:

    — auditory and/or visual processing of language-based information;

    — phonological awareness;

    — oral language skills and reading fluency;

    — short-term and working memory;

    — sequencing and directionality;

    — number skills; and

    — organisational ability.

    Motor skills and co-ordination may also be affected.

    Dyslexia exists in all cultures and across the range of abilities and socio-economic backgrounds. It is a hereditary, life-long, neurodevelopmental condition. Unidentified, dyslexia is likely to result in low self esteem, high stress, atypical behaviour, and low achievement.

    Learners with dyslexia will benefit from early identification, appropriate intervention and targeted effective teaching, enabling them to become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens."

October 2009

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