Dyslexia and its challenges discussed

KARACHI, Oct 14: The concluding day of the 28th SPELT International Conference-2012 — Rainbows of ELT — at the Habib Public School on Sunday had so many wonderful workshops on offer that it became difficult to choose which ones to attend as they were running simultaneously.

The English language teachers attending the conference faced this dilemma right from the morning’s plenary sessions to the closing sessions in the afternoon. Still one workshop that deserved special mention was the one conducted by Orton-Gillingham practitioners Fehmina Khan and Faiza Faisal called ‘Dyslexia — A Bridge Some Have to Cross’.

Both the teachers used the Orton-Gillingham approach with their dyslexic students at the Centre for Assessment and Remedial Education (CARE).

The approach itself is thus named due to the joint study contributions of Samuel T. Orton (1879-1948), a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist and Anna Gillingham (1878-1963), an educator and psychologist. “Dyslexia is just one kind of learning disability. It is not that dyslexics are below average students. In fact they are highly intelligent people. But since everyone is unique, they happen to have their own different ways of learning,” explained the specialist teachers during the workshop.

“Children with dyslexia have no problem in gaining knowledge but they need to break the code of reading and writing, which may take them a while,” said Fehmina Khan.

“There are several things that can help a teacher identify a child with dyslexia. Preschool signs include delayed speech, difficulty in memorising nursery rhymes, challenges in recognising different colours and shapes, having trouble in learning the days of week and mixing up syllables in long words. And if all that goes unchecked, a child is usually diagnosed between the age of eight and 11 years when the learning challenges increase in elementary school, or even in high school sometimes when along with the previous symptoms the student will be getting poor grades, have short attention spans or have trouble with spellings and even expressing themselves”.

She said with dyslexics it was very obvious that they were smart, but they were still not achieving much with all that intelligence and no real physical problem.

Ms Khan shared a few myths about dyslexia such as more boys than girls were dyslexic; dyslexia only existed when working with the English language and that it was a lifelong disorder.

About its causes the teacher said that it was not very clear as to what exactly caused dyslexia but it did run in families.

“Fifteen to 20 per cent of the world population has reading difficulty and 85 per cent of this 15 to 20 per cent are dyslexics,” she said.

Looking at dyslexia scientifically, Ms Khan displayed through illustrations in her presentation normal brain activity where the work was broken down into three parts with one portion of the brain concentrating on reading, other working on discriminating sounds while the other one taking in visual details. “In contrast there is only one part of the brain of a dyslexic person doing all these three things. And when one area is doing everything, there is major confusion,” Ms Khan explained. “And with famous people and high achievers such as John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise, Richard Branson, etc, all suffering from dyslexia, you cannot say that dyslexics are dumb or stupid as the ones mentioned were and are extremely bright individuals,” the other expert teacher, Faiza Faisal, said.

“The good news is that dyslexics can be taught how to read and write, though in a different way of specialised teaching which includes phoneme and phonological awareness, sound-symbol awareness, syllable instruction, morphology and syntax,” she said.

“Meanwhile, when parents are told that their child has this condition: It is no good to go into denial. Some schools with remedial classes can help, but basically the parents, teachers and schools together can bring about a positive change in a dyslexic student”.

The final day of the conference also included the launching ceremony of SPELT founder Zakia Sarwar’s book, English Language Education in South Asia: From Policy to Pedagogy and a dramatic performance on stage by students from the University of Karachi.