Why can't my child read?
If Albert Einstein had been a nineties child, his dyslexia may have been picked up earlier. And if Mrs Einstein had stayed back to talk to other mums after dropping her young genius at school, she may have realised her son was well behind the others in reading and writing.
Mrs Einstein may have then approached her son’s teacher and requested an assessment by an educational psychologist who would have referred Einstein to a specialist teacher or therapist. Instead, the brilliant mathematician and physicist did not read until he was nine.
Specific Learning Difficulties Association (SPELD) state president Lorraine Graham said the informal conversations between groups of mums in the playground at the drop-off or collection time was often when, for some mums, the alarm bells started ringing. “How come Johnny is still struggling with his alphabet while every other child in the class seems ready to tackle Shakespeare?”
O.K, a bit of an emotional over-reaction, but a child’s learning is surprisingly emotional ground for many parents, says Graham. “When a child starts school, parents rightfully have an expectation their child will learn quite easily,” she says. “So they are taken by surprise while chatting to other mothers when they observe their child is not starting to read like the other children, or at the first parent-teacher interview when the teacher expresses some concern about the child’s progress.”
Some parents are told by teachers their child’s failure to read at the rate of the other children in the class is a matter of maturation – that like learning to walk, all children develop at different rates and their child will catch on. And in a lot of cases this is true, says Graham. But if a child continues to appear to be behind, then trust your instincts and have your child assessed, she advises.
So what is dyslexia and is it the same as a Specific Learning Difficulty?
Dyslexia means difficulty learning to read or write and comes from the Greek: dys – “difficulty with” and lexis – “words”. Unlike measles or chicken pox, dyslexia has no one set of symptoms, explains Graham.
In Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom specific learning difficulty is also used to describe dyslexia because it’s seen as a border term which covers a range of learning problems. “It’s an umbrella term, so one dyslexic child may have a different set of dyslexic characteristic to another, but will share with all dyslexics the specific difficulty of learning to read write and spell,” says Graham.
How do you recognise dyslexia – have you got all night?
A dyslexic child may have a poor visual memory, a poor auditory memory or both. Or it may be a short-term memory problem; an inability for the child to transfer important information that crops up regularly into the long term memory.
Dyslexia may be caused by a spatial difficulty – a difficulty judging left from right, front from back or the distance between objects or people. “A really common spatial problem is when a child looks to the right hand side of the page rather than the left to begin reading or writing and the good old persistent use of back-to-front letters,” Graham says.
Dyslexic children may have difficulty identifying the sounds within words and then linking them to the letter symbols; for example, if a child can’t commit the word cat to memory they need to identify the three sounds involved and link those sounds to the letter shapes to be able to write the word.
Other dyslexics may have visual perception problems, difficulty seeing the difference between the letters “u” and “n” and the words “beard” or “bread” or confusing the order of letters – a common one is mixing up words which look similar like “stop” and “tops”.
Is dyslexia common and is it related to intelligence?
Clearly it’s not related to intelligence, says Graham who can roll off a lengthy list of famous dyslexics including Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Hans Christian Andersen. And today actors Tom Cruise and Susan Hampshire head a long list.
Graham says a recent Victorian study showed 15-16 per cent of children in schools had failed to gain appropriate reading skills by year 3. Within that group it was found that two-to-four per cent were dyslexic.
And seeing teenagers who have just been diagnosed with dyslexia is not unknown. Graham recently saw a 15-year-old boy who only knew his alphabet if he sang it and had the reading age of an eight-year-old. “That boy was very angry and wanted to know why he wasn’t helped earlier. I guess some parents get tired of the fighting to be believed that there is something wrong and they end up letting it go. And some parents feel intimidated speaking to the teaching staff.”
What about self-esteem?
You don’t have to have a degree in psychology to work out how a child who is significantly behind the rest of the class in reading and writing feels. They will have feelings of inadequacy and “feeling dumb” and some will be socially isolated and teased by other children.
Some children will play the class clown to “cover up” their learning difficulty, while others will become withdrawn or disruptive. But once the learning difficulty is picked up and something is done about it, children improve and their confidence and self-esteem levels rise quickly.
So what to do?
Graham says approaching teachers the right way is a critical part of the process. “Parents can feel frustrated and start to question themselves if they feel they are not being listened to – and that doesn’t get anybody, especially the child, anywhere,” she says.
“Some parents discuss it at the classroom door instead of making an appointment to voice their concerns, yet they wouldn’t talk to their medical specialist in the car park. Teachers will listen much better and be able to provide quality feedback if a meeting is arranged.”
It is also helpful if both parents attended any teaching meeting. Two sets of ears are always better than one, says Graham. “Some parents get emotional because it’s to do with their child and they are fearful that if there’s a problem, then how ever will their child cope in the world if he or she can’t read,” she says.
Where to go?
If you are worried you child has a specific learning difficulty, don’t wait. If you child does not know the alphabet by the end of the first year or is not reading by grade 2, that’s when to get help. Make an appointment with your child’s teacher and ask for your child to be assessed. If you have no luck then have you child assessed by an educational psychologist who specialises in specific learning difficulties, suggests Graham.
The Specific Learning Difficulties Association (SPELD) has educational psychologists who assess children or you can ring the Australian Psychological Society and ask for a list of educational psychologists who specialise in specific learning difficulties.
Children can also be assessed at the Children’s Hospital and some other public hospitals. SPELD has more information on which hospitals. A SPELD assessment costs $300, concession $250. In the state school system, an educational psychological assessment can be arranged through the child’s school.
Depending on the problem the child may go on to see an audiologist who specialises in auditory perception, a behavioural optometrist who specialises in visual perception, a speech pathologist, an occupational therapist for spatial problems or a specific learning difficulties tutor.
By Anna Malbon
Useful websites and books
Auspeld - The Australian Federation of SPELD Associations responds to the needs of children and adults with Specific Learning Difficulties/Disabilities. SPELD diagnostic assessments provide explanations for a person’s struggle with reading, writing, spelling or maths. Once these issues are identified appropriate strategies can then be put into place to address and manage these issues. Assessments are carried out by SPELD’s experienced, highly-qualified Educational Psychologists.
Dyslexia: a complete guide for parents, Gavin Reid
The first guide written expressly for parents provides the insights of an educational psychologist on what sort of supportive role parents can play in the life of their dyslexic child. The book includes a description of dyslexia, how it’s identified and assessed, examples of different approaches parents can adopt, and a range of useful resource.
Available at the People Making bookstore.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 1999. Updated in July 2009.