Even though it underlies all my work and my approach to education, I have written little about my personal experience of dyslexia. I was very lucky to be diagnosed, at the age of eleven, in 1975 when few had heard of, and even fewer understood, dyslexia. I was even luckier that my school was immensely supportive. The support included a one-to-one intervention to support my spelling – timed so I missed gym and athletics. The timing was almost as supportive as the intervention. I really struggled in PE and the PE staff had no understanding of my difficulties. I have gone on to receive further focused support and timely interventions, particularly at university. However, in many ways this was too late: the damage had been done.
I was a shy, awkward and clumsy child. I was late to read – I was between eight and nine years old before I achieved any kind of fluency – and my spelling rendered my writing almost unreadable. I (and my parents) spent my primary schooling being told that I was thick or lazy or both.
The diagnosis gave me a ‘word’ to describe and explain my difficulties. It provided reassurance that I was not thick or lazy. That when I thought that I was trying and working hard, that was indeed what I was doing, even though there was little evidence of my efforts. Further, the diagnosis was empirical evidence that I was not stupid.
Over the years, things improved. I am now a fluent and voracious reader. I read entirely using my sight vocabulary. There are many dyslexics who are dependent on phonics for reading. I am not one of them. I am unable to use them at all. This disability means in the current educational climate, with its focus on phonics, I would not be able to become a primary school teacher as I would not be able to teach effectively (or even pass) the Year 1 phonics screening. Further, it means that I struggle to pronounce many unfamiliar words. I was in my late thirties before I realised the word ‘gaol’ was pronounced ‘jail’. I knew the word from books, I understood its meaning, but not how to say it. I struggle to read any book in dialect because I cannot sound out the words. It is only recently that I have finally managed to ‘read’ Wuthering Heights on audiobook.
To my amazement, I now earn part of my living by writing. However, writing remains a difficulty. I am lucky that my handwriting, though I use it less and less, is clear if tiring to produce. My spelling has improved, though it is still weak and gets notably worse when I am tired or stressed. The real issue is that I miss out words or parts of words and get the word order confused. I find it extremely difficult to copy, particularly over a distance, for example from a board. I cannot really use a dictionary as I can’t identify the first sound in a word. I use a thesaurus instead as I have a good vocabulary, so can often think of a synonym, look it up and then find the word I want.
Though I coped at school and university, it was immensely hard work. I had to write all essays out multiple times in an attempt to spot and iron out these issues before handing in work that was still littered with errors. In the early years of my teaching career when we handwrote school reports, I would write them in pencil, then get them proofread and corrected, then write over in pen. Each report would take over an hour to complete.
The real change for me has been the advent of computer technology. I am completely dependent on the spell check and thesaurus. I have been hugely helped, and only managed to write The Inclusive Classroom (my book co-authored with Daniel Sobel), by using read-aloud technology on my computer. This means that I can hear what I write in a different voice and so can attempt to identify the missing words and word endings. Writing remains an extremely slow and laborious process. I am incredibly grateful to anyone who is willing to proofread my work and to the participants who tolerate the regular typos when I deliver training.
In many ways, I am a dyslexic success story – I have a successful teaching career and some success as a writer. However, the impact of eleven years of being told that I was thick or lazy remains. Throughout my life this has impacted my self-confidence. My default internal monologue is still that I am thick or lazy and it becomes louder when things are not going well. I become easily overwhelmed, stressed and emotional. Despite what many see, I lack confidence.
In many ways, the reason I went into teaching was to ensure that children did not experience things like the spelling tests I endured at primary school. The teacher used to point at us and make us spell the words aloud. If we spelled the word wrong, we had to stand up, then stand on the chair if we spelled another word wrong, and then on the desk. I couldn’t spell and certainly couldn’t spell aloud. The more I failed to spell the words, the more the teacher pointed at me and demanded that I did. I got to the point where I was ‘lapping’ people – standing on the desk for the third or fourth time while the other children shifted uncomfortably in their seats, witnessing my distress and humiliation at the teacher’s bullying. I want to ensure that children are supported with their difficulties and that teachers understand how to support them appropriately.
What really made the difference for me was not my diagnosis, but the response to it – the support I received. I suspect that I benefited from the fact so little was known about dyslexia when I was at school that my teachers and my mother, who went on to become a dyslexia specialist, could only respond to my individual needs and difficulties, not a more fixed picture of what a dyslexic may need.
I believe deeply, and one of the key messages of The Inclusive Classroom is, that the support for children with special needs should be led by their needs, not their diagnosis. Too often a focus on a diagnosis can lead to a single one-size-fits-all approach to children’s difficulties, obscuring their individual needs. A phonic approach that makes a huge difference to many dyslexics would have failed with me. Also, this often leads to a focus on what they can’t do and ignores their strengths.
There is still too much focus on what people with special needs cannot do and too little on their strengths or the long-lasting impact on self-esteem. I can manage my difficulties with reading and spelling (most of the time), I can deal with my difficulties with putting things in alphabetical order (electronic filing is a godsend) and I can work around not knowing my left from right (I get lost regularly). But the main impact remains the emotional cost. The default voice that I am lazy or stupid. Although it has given me a huge capacity for hard work!
This article was originally written for the staff website at Bloomsbury, publisher of The Inclusive Classroom.