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My daughter has been diagnosed as being dyslexic. She is struggling with reading (about 2-3 years behind). The trouble is that she hates reading at home. The school are great about sending books back with her, but she really finds them hard and we both land up dreading our daily reading session. I know it’s important to read with your children. What do you advise?
Jill R, parent

Hi Jill,

Thanks for your question. This touches on an issue which I think is crucial for parents and teachers to understand. The difficulty with reading is that a child who struggles is having to actively ‘decode’ words. In other words, they are having to work them out from the letter pattern/s. Decoding is a crucial stage in reading and children certainly need to learn how to decode. However, they can easily become ‘stuck’ in this level. If you look at how literacy develops, there are three very clear phases.

The first is what is known as the ‘logographic phase’. This is the very early stage, where a child may be able to recognise/read a few very high frequency words (including probably their name), but have just learned those words ‘by heart’ and recognise them from their overall shape. They have no understanding of the sound/letter correspondence involved and are therefore not able to decode unfamiliar words for themselves. As far as writing is concerned, the same thing happens. Many young children can write their name, but don’t yet understand sound/letter correspondence.

The next phase is the alphabetic phase. This is where learners are learning to apply sound/letter correspondence to decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling). The main strategy used for reading is decoding at this stage.

The third and most crucial phase is the orthographic phase. This is when learners are developing an understanding of the more sophisticated spelling patterns (-ough, etc). As far as reading goes, they are starting to recognise words holistically again (from their overall visual pattern). When you think about it, how often do you decode words? Not very often! So it’s a full circle in many ways and the strategies used at this level for reading are mainly visual memory and pattern recognition.

The danger is that most remedial methods and materials concentrate almost exclusively on the ‘decoding’ phase, so learners don’t do enough activities which develop the ‘rapid whole-word recognition’ skills needed for reading fluency. Hence the inclusion of the ‘speed-reading’ exercise in Steps to Literacy.

If a learner is decoding, they have no ‘processing power’ left for following meaning or developing a feel for the patterns and syntax of language. It’s also a killingly boring and sterile exercise, which pupils understandably often hate.

My opinion is that the skills and knowledge involved in ‘decoding’ and ‘encoding’ can and should be most effectively taught through your spelling tuition. Reading activities should focus on developing reading fluency, language skills, comprehension and - most importantly – enjoyment of books. You can do this by letting your child choose their own books according to their interests and you doing most (or even all) of the reading. If they are reading something for themselves, don’t let them struggle with an unfamiliar word – just give it to them. Comprehension and language awareness are the crucial aspects for parents to develop. Read, discuss and enjoy together –even if your child is not reading for themselves, but simply following the text as you read to them.

Interestingly, when you assess children with SLD, you often find that at a young age (around 6-7), you can see the difficulties which affect their literacy abilities, but their comprehension and vocabulary are often age-appropriate. If you assess them again after 2-3 years, you will often find that their vocabulary and verbal reasoning skills have slipped well below chronological age. This is because they are not getting sufficient exposure to the language and content of books of the right intellectual level.

So home reading should concentrate on content and enjoyment. Listening to taped books and stories is just as good in many ways. The most important thing a parent can do is talk, discuss things and enjoy books together. There are loads of enjoyable games you can use to develop the spelling skills.

Are your resources and methods only suitable for learners with ‘dyslexic-type’ difficulties or can they be used with low-ability pupils. I really struggle to find resources I can use with this category.
Sam L, Adult Literacy Tutor, Auckland

Hi Sam,

Thanks for your query. The main focus for designing our range of resources was to cater for the needs of Specific Learning Disability/dyslexic pupils, but they are equally applicable to ‘low-ability’ learners who just need a more structured approach and extra reinforcement.

Actually, when you test learners in both categories, you find considerable similarities as far as some of the individual processing skills are concerned. If you look at the profiles below, which are obtained from LASS Secondary (software assessment programme), you will see that both pupils are well below average on Reading and Spelling (2nd and 3rd from right). Both have very inconsistent processing skills (bits on the left). Both, for example, have very poor phonological skills (4th from left). But when you look at the column on the far right (Reasoning), you will see a crucial difference. The first profile shows that this learner is in the Average range for non-verbal reasoning ability, which is a reasonable indicator of intellectual potential. The second one, though, is very low, which is a good indicator that this learner is in the low-ability category.

Basically, a low-ability learner may well have many of the same weaknesses in processing ability, but those levels are consistent with his/her overall intellectual potential. A dyslexic learner has processing difficulties, but may have average or even above average intellectual potential. Consequently, with a dyslexic learner, there is typically a discrepancy between intellectual potential and current attainment.

What software would you recommend for pre-school ages? My son is 5 years old and I am keen for him to get a good start to learning.
Sue, home-schooling parent

Hi Sue,

Thanks for your question. It’s a fairly hot topic at present. Parents and schools are becoming much more aware of how well-chosen software can contribute to learning.

However, the answer to your question about what software I would recommend for a five-year-old is simple – none!

I don’t actually recommend using educational software for under 6’s at all, although a brief ‘play’ once or twice a week will do no harm. Developmentally, a very young child needs practical and ‘hands-on’ activity. Children at this age are still developing their perceptual systems and computer use (and too much television) at this age have been shown to delay the development of perceptual skills. Bear in mind that a screen is two-dimensional and, among other things, a child is still developing the ability to perceive depth, dimension and distance.

From a practical point of view, motor development is actually the corner stone of all learning. This is because motor development and manipulation of objects at this stage actively develops the neurological networks needed to process information of all types.

A young child is better runnning around outside, climbing steps, crawling around, building sandcastles and so on. ‘Educational activities’ are best done with a person, not a machine. Teach the alphabet, letter names and sounds and numbers through games, songs and rhymes with your child. Working and playing with your child develops all of the language and social interaction skills which are crucial at this age. Sitting in front of a two-dimensional screen is a very sterile environment in comparison.

In my opinion, the best thing a parent or caregiver can do for a pre-schooler is talk to them, play with them, read to them and include them in family conversations and activities which will develop an awareness and understanding of the world around them.

Your materials seem to put more emphasis on spelling and far less on reading. I’ve always thought that reading should be the priority. It’s easier for learners to cope with at lower levels. Could you explain?
Jane, Speld Teacher

Hi Jane,

Thanks for your query. It is a common misconception that reading should be the main emphasis because it is ‘easier’. Children with no learning disability tend to learn through reading. Often, they develop a good visual memory for words simply through exposure (i.e. reading), which means that they find it relatively easy to become fluent readers, often without necessarily understanding spelling rules or word structure as such. And then, of course, because they find reading easy and enjoyable, they do more of it, so they automatically get more exposure to words anyway.....

Actually, most people with learning disabilities learn more effectively through spelling, rather than reading. Most dyslexic learners have some difficulty with visual memory, as well as weaknesses in other aspects of processing, such as phonological awareness. They need a much more explicit understanding of text and word structure and that is more easily achieved through a structured spelling approach.

If spelling is taught correctly, there is a huge amount of incidental reading. All words taught as spelling words should be read in isolation, read in context, written in isolation and written in context. So there is actually a strong emphasis on actively using (and reading!) the word in context.

Reading strategies such as decoding and whole word recognition should be included in the skills taught in the spelling process. Provided that all the important steps are followed, you should find that a correct spelling approach develops all the processing skills involved in reading, but reading alone cannot develop all the processing skills involved in spelling.

It is important, of course, to incorporate reading as much as possible. I said above that there is a lot of incidental reading involved in a correct spelling approach. In addition, there should be plenty of ‘mileage reading’, which should be at well below the pupil’s actual reading level. Mileage reading needs to be at a level at which the pupil can cope confidently and fluently, which enables the pupil to attend to meaning and develop comprehension skills (and enjoyment of books!). All the decoding skills needed for that pupil to tackle higher level texts are better developed in the spelling programme. Over-emphasis on developing decoding skills through reading at a higher level can lead to a pupil becoming ‘stuck’ in the alphabetic stage of literacy and not developing key skills such as rapid whole-word recognition, which are needed for reading fluency.

My son often reverses ‘b’s and ‘d’s. A friend of mine, whose son is dyslexic, says that this is a sign of dyslexia and I should get him checked. What should I do?
Alison, Parent

Hi Alison,

Thanks for your question. Your friend is right – reversing b’s and d’s is often an indicator of dyslexia, but it depends a lot on how old the pupil is. You don’t say how old your son is, but if he is below 6 ½ and is not experiencing any other problems, don’t worry.

It is perfectly normal in children up to around 6 ½ years of age to confuse b/d, but should be disappearing by this stage. If a child is continuing to have difficulty beyond this age, it is worth considering some kind of assessment, although there would normally be other indicators if he/she has a specific learning disability. Indicators can include:

  • difficulty with written language (reading and writing) despite reasonable intellectual level
  • slow to carry out tasks/gets easily confused
  • finds it difficult to follow verbal instructions
  • unusual clumsiness or distractibility
  • difficulty planning work

One ‘give-away’ with older children is seeing inappropriate capital B’s and D’s appearing in their work. It’s because they’re aware of confusion with the lower-case letters and use the upper-case letters instead.

I am becoming more and more aware of learning difficulties and find it a fascinating area. I wish there was more training in NZ schools. I am confused, though about terminology. I see references to dyslexia and to specific learning disability – are they the same, or is there a difference?
Julie B , High School English Teacher

Hi Julie,

Thanks for your query. I do agree with you about training, although in my experience, schools are becoming much more aware, which is great.

Dyslexia and Specific Learning Disabilty are, for all practical purposes, the same thing. It is a bit of a difficult area in that different countries and different organisations tend to have slightly different definitions, but most people would consider the two terms to be reasonably interchangeable.

I actually think of SLD as being a slightly broader term. In the UK, one key requirement for a diagnosis of dyslexia is phonological weakness. It’s true that the vast majority of people with SLD have some weaknesses (or residual weaknesses) in phonological awareness, but in my experience, that doesn’t apply to all. In addition, in this field, people often think of SLD as being an overall category which includes dyspraxia, ADHD, dyscalculia, etc as well as dyslexia). Actually, I tend not to get too hung up on labels. There are huge variations in individual processing difficulties between different learners and it’s more important to be able to analyse an individual’s difficulties. There has been a proliferation of ‘labels’ over the last 10-15 years and I don’t find the majority terribly helpful, but that’s just a personal view.

Interestingly, the term ‘dyslexia’ tends to be the main term in the UK, USA and most European countries. In New Zealand, ‘Specific Learning Disability’ is more usual, but I think that’s mainly because there is an element of paranoia about ‘dyslexia’. As I understand it, some time ago (about 20 years ago, I think) the NZ government of the day sent a working party to the States to look into dyslexia. Some bright spark in the States helpfully said something along the lines of: “For heaven’s sake, don’t recognise dyslexia or you’ll have to fund it”. So they didn’t and don’t (if you see what I mean). No-one seems to count the long-term cost of dealing with illiterate and alienated young adults (internationally 60-80% of prison populations are dyslexic). Talk about ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.....

I've come across the term 'rime', but I'm not sure if this is just another way of spelling 'rhyme'. Can you explain?
Lisa, Primary Teacher, Auckland area

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for your query. There is quite a lot of confusion about this term since the principles of ‘onset and rime’ don’t appear to be taught in New Zealand teacher training. ‘Rime’ is indeed a different term to ‘rhyme’:

Rhyme refers to the sound pattern only. Hence ‘bed’, ‘said’ and ‘head’ are rhymes.

Rime refers to the spelling pattern as well as the sound. Hence ‘cat’, ‘bat, and ‘hat’ are rimes.

In other words, using ‘rimes’ is the same as teaching in word families. Instead of teaching a list of words linked with a common phonic pattern, i.e. ‘ea’ words, you are teaching a family of words which all have the same ‘rime’.

The onset is simply the beginning chunk. It can be one letter (w-ing), two letters (br-ing) or three letters (str-ing).

Basing your early or remedial literacy teaching on onset + rime is important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, in terms of phonological awareness, the ability to break words down into onset + rime is much, much easier than breaking the word into individual phonemes (sounds). In fact, breaking words into individual phonemes has been shown by research to be not a natural stage of phonological development at all. It only develops as a result of literacy teaching, whereas the ability to break words into two chunks (onset + rime) is a natural stage of phonological development.

Secondly, it simplifies the learning process considerably. Take the word ‘string’ for example. It has 5 sounds to identify, remember and sequence – a difficult task for most early or SLD learners. Breaking down a word into two chunks means that there are only two elements to remember. Also, since the rime will be the same for all the words in that word family, the task is simplified still further. Remember, a non-SLD learner takes between 4-10 exposures to a word to fix it in long-term memory, but an SLD learner may need 400-500 exposures to the same word. So using the onset + rime principle makes it far more likely that that word family is retained.

Thirdly (and most importantly!), using onset + rime means that you are developing an awareness of patterns in written language. If your learner has a reasonable awareness of rhyme (sound patterns), they will develop the ability to apply their awareness of sound patterns to their growing knowledge of spelling patterns. They will be able to work out many words for themselves. This is known as ‘analogical transfer’ and is one of the most important spelling skills to develop. Onset + rime and analogical transfer are explained in much more detail in the Step by Step Teaching Manual, which is currently being reprinted.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that all early literacy and most remedial literacy teaching in most other countries is based on the onset + rime principle!"


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