Memorandum submitted by Derrie Clark (LI 29)



What is dyslexia?

I have been an Educational Psychologist for 15 years working at the school/classroom level within a Local Authority and I still do not know what dyslexia is.  I have attended SEN tribunals where the 'definition' of 'dyslexia' has changed according to the presenting 'symptoms' in the pupil.  I also see discriminatory allocation of resources as a result of the 'dyslexia' label.

In every document / report I have read on the subject, the term 'dyslexia' is peppered throughout as if there is shared understanding of what 'dyslexia' is.  Some documents provide a 'description' of presenting 'symptoms' but then use the term as if it is a 'given'.

As far as I can see, 'dyslexia'(dis - word) is difficulty learning literacy at the printed word level (ie where the pupil has gaps in conceptual and factual knowledge relating to the English alphabet code and/or the three skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation) as a result of teaching methods together with insufficient opportunity to practice the skills to a level of proficiency and generalise conceptual knowledge to a consistent level of understanding.  Therefore, this must cover ALL children with literacy delays.  As mentioned above, such difficulties are, in my experience, far more dependent on teaching methods / learning opportunities rather than within child factors or being fixed over time.  The English Alphabet Code is 'man-made' and we do not have a 'natural' predisposition to acquire it as we do our spoken language (and, incidentally, as assumed by Reading Recovery, see below).  Children have to be taught and need opportunities to practice the phonological and visual sequencing skills required to be automatic in the reading and spelling process, particularly those from homes that do not share the same school/education culture, eg, working class.  It is essential we move out of the mindset that assumes parents will teach their children to read.  This must be the job of our schools.  We cannot go on having young people go through eleven years of statutory education not having been taught to read and write to a proficient level.  At this point, I have to say it is interesting how those previously labelled 'dyslexic' often go on to get their degrees, doctorates and professional qualifications - what definition of dyslexia is theirs?

Data collecting for evidence base:  Reading and spelling test scores should be carried out on all pupils leaving Secondary Schooling (including NEETs).

Literacy teaching and interventions in primary school

Here is a typical scenario from my day to day work as an Educational Psychologist linked to a group of schools.  (The information and letters I have received in response to my correspondence to the Government Departments reflect no understanding whatsoever of what is really happening in schools at the chalk face.  Much is assumed at the policy making level this is not actually the case):

A boy in Year 4 (aged approx 9 years) with a reading age of less than six is referred to me because of concerns about his slow progress across the curriculum.  He cannot read or write a sentence.  The Year 4 National Curriculum demands that his class covers such things as similes, persuasive writing, putting words/names in alphabetical order etc (and now, of course, French).

During my assessment I ask the pupil to bring his writing book and reading book to show me.  Neither he nor I can read what he has written in his book.  I can though read the Learning Intention which he has copied neatly off the board into his book.  When I attempt to elicit his understanding of the concept he has no understanding of it.  (I wonder how this lad spends much of his time in school?)  When I ask him to read his book, he makes up the text as he goes along and remembers some of it from the pictures.


Assessment at word level shows gaps in skills and alphabet code knowledge.  The boy needs at least one hour daily systematic linguistic phonics input to develop his word level skills and understanding that there has not been time to teach him through KS1.  If he had one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon of systematic linguistic-phonics (in a group with the other pupils in the class also at his level) then he would be able to catch up with his reading in one term.  Instead he has continued at this literacy level through Years 5 and 6 and has just recently transferred to secondary school with a reading age of less than six years.


So why does this intervention not happen?

-  No one is trained to provide the pupil with what he needs so he (the most needy of pupils) is left with a TA (the least trained of adults) who thumbs through boxes of worksheets or who attempts to delivery Letters and Sounds (which is not an intervention programme) as advised by the Advisors, at Stage 1 where he listens to and discriminates sounds in his environment (despite being in Year 4).


-  The teachers are trained by their colleges to focus on delivering the curriculum rather than to focus on ensuring that every child leaves their class with at least the basic skills in literacy and numeracy.  By Year 2 (sometimes Year 1) the assumption  is that these basic skills are in place.  PLEASE we don't need to go down the route of trained 'specialist dyslexia' teachers.  No one knows what this means!  ALL teachers should know how to teach reading and writing.  They should not be made to feel disempowered or de-skilled.


-  The school argue they do not have the resources (to teach literacy???)


-  The school believe literacy difficulties/delays are due to within child problems rather than something that can be changed through teaching.  This is perpetuated by the use of the term 'dyslexia' in government documents and training.  (You can almost hear the sigh of relief when responsibility is placed once again with the child and outside of their powers.)


-  The child's parents are not articulate and cannot find a way through or to understand the system.


-  The parent is unable to teach the child to read as she has poor literacy skills herself.


For every boy like the one in this referral there are often as many as six others in the same year group/class with the same levels of literacy.  The teachers do their best to differentiate the presentation of the curriculum, leaving the TA's to help these pupils as best they can.


Evidence base:  All secondary schools carry out reading and spelling tests on all pupils in Year 7.  I recommend this data is collected to inform literacy levels rather than the SATs.


A further anecdote:


A boy in Year 11 in secondary school.  He is taught to read through a systematic linguistic phonic approach.  He asks his teacher:  Why didn't they teach me this in Junior School Miss?




Ruth Kelly, partly in response to the concern of CBI and Universities around literacy levels of young people, decided to go down the route of Reading Recovery.  Unfortunately she did not wait for the outcome of the Rose Review which was taking place at the same time.  By the time Rose's findings were published, public funding had already been injected into rolling out Reading Recovery.  Now it seems to be assumed that Reading Recovery and synthetic phonics are compatible when they are not.


Through Reading Recovery there is an underlying assumption that children acquire 'reading' naturally as they do spoken language.  Only limited use is made of phonics as there is an emphasis on pre-teaching vocabulary that comprises the text of the RR readers.  When children come across a word that they have not previously been taught they try to guess at it from the picture, or from reading on in the sentence (even though they may not be able to read the following words).  Eventually the adult tells them the word.  This leaves the pupil with a learned helplessness that they don't have when they are taught to decode systematically.


Many children plateau as their visual memories become 'full' and they have no other word attack/decoding strategies.  This also happens for children across the school who have been brought up on a diet of whole language/ whole word and multi cuing approaches (through such things as the Search Lights Model and the cascading through Better Reading Partnership BRP).  There is typically a dip in Year 3 and then in Year 7 as children do not have the strategies to access the demands of the printed vocabulary in the curriculum.


The evidence base for RR is collected through the Institute of Education which has a huge amount of resources to collect data.  There are however no controlled comparison studies or peer reviewed research papers.  Many children are discontinued and not included in the data.  Also any gains are not maintained over time.


I have been working with two schools who are happy with the systematic and cumulative linguistic phonic approach which they are using across the school.  These schools though have just been offered extra resources through RR which they feel they cannot turn down.  They have not been offered the choice to use the money to continue to build on the interventions for their chosen linguistic phonic approach.  This leads to the issue of mixed messages where Central Government a promotion conflicting strategies for the teaching of reading resulting in confused children and confused teaching practitioners.  This is despite the Rose Review which recommends consistency and fidelity to the chosen phonic programme.


Derrie Clark

October 2009