Children's Health / 27 December, 2021 / Leo Bamford
They say that you can’t diagnose a child with dyslexia until they’re 7 years old but I knew that something wasn’t quite right much earlier. I remember my mother taking me to the dyslexic assessment so vividly. It looked more like a lawyer’s office and we were the only people there. I was asked question after question and remember thinking how fun it was and that I must have aced the test but what I remember most clearly is waiting on my own after the test for what seemed like hours while my mother went to talk to the assessor. I sat in the waiting room with a piece of A4 paper and some colouring pencils, drawing a picture of my family.
My parents caught my dyslexia early and got me all the help that they could. I remember most days after class, at boarding school, I would sit with Matron who made me read from a thick book with big writing, the outside was almost like a wetsuit material, ‘THE CAT SAT ON THE MAT, THE BAT WAS FAT, THE HEN IN A PEN…’ We never spent long but it was a daily tongue twister.
My mother also took me out of school once a week to see Mrs. Ott who lived close to the school and was a dyslexic specialist. What she taught me stayed with me, things like using capitals for seasons or months of the year. My parents kept their finger on the pulse and there was a follow-up assessment with someone who gave me glasses with blue-tinted lenses. This definitely helped and I know that colour overlays do still help lots of children with dyslexia.
I worked hard but never found academic subjects at school easy. Art and drama, yes but English no. I remember hating circle time when everyone in the class read out loud. I would never listen to what anyone before me was saying but would race ahead in my mind and try to pinpoint which bit I would have to read out loud by counting how many people were before me and working out, on average, how many lines everyone had to read. I realised that if I could pre-read my segment just once, I would be OK, I might stumble on the long words but not the easy ones. I would be more prepared.
By the time I took my 11+ and got into Heathfield, I stopped having dyslexic support but Victoria Page, another dyslexic specialist helped cram the previous terms syllabus to get me up to date in the holidays. I remember her giving me the starter sentence for a story and I had to follow it on. It was about a girl getting lost in the woods and remember thinking that my story was so brilliant that in the actual exam I managed to weave my way around it and bring the story back to that same tale, the one I had made up in Victoria’s Parson’s Green flat, months before.
I somehow managed to jump up a year when I was 12 and got a place at Marlborough College where my brother was. I certainly don’t remember any extra support there or even talk of dyslexia, but I do remember starting in all the top sets and being dropped to the bottom by the end of my first term. I put it down to being a year younger than anyone else and it never bothered me.
I did cram again at DLD College London during the holidays who offered a week’s intensive course on all exam subjects which basically re-learned the whole syllabus but with a smaller class. I remember thinking how cool it was staying in London and how I wanted to move to DLD full time, we could go out to Notting Hill Gate for lunch and smoke on the steps outside.
Fast forward to falling in love with my husband to be, who was even more dyslexic than me, we knew that having children together would inevitably result in children who would be dyslexic, and we were half right.
My eldest has been a great talker since he began to speak. Always chatty and extravert and using grown-up vocabulary. But at school, he struggled with the foundation stages. Maths and English were not easy. What I realise now, is that even though you can’t diagnose a child with dyslexia until they’re 7, that’s just too late! A child with low processing speed, which goes hand in hand with dyslexia, has already lost out on so much by the time they’re 7. The foundations, the building blocks of those High Frequency Words, the sight words, number bonds in maths… the list goes on. What I realise now is that teachers teach and then they move on. For children with dyslexia or dyscalculia, or any other SEN, they need to consolidate the information before moving on. I think if we spot signs and do what we can to help children with low processing speeds earlier, we can get them to relearn and relearn until the foundations sink in. That way they have something to build on.
Catherine Leroy, Head at Emerson House agrees that early intervention is key. She believes that dyslexic signs can often be seen at nursery and that there is a myth surrounding boys; that they’re just boys – uninterested in the alphabet! She says that children with speech development difficulties can be a sign, although it wasn’t for mine. She says, ‘Look out for letter reversals that persist and difficulty with blending letters. Also, look out for maths difficulties as dyscalculia often goes hand in hand with dyslexia.’ She believes that bypassing muscle memory is the worst thing one can do so we still need to learn how to read and write. Touch Typing is essential for anyone with dyslexia. Emerson House uses a programme that helps teach children with dyslexia how to spell using muscle memory in their fingers!
My daughter then came along and like an identical twin, her dyslexia was a carbon copy of my son’s. Their processing speeds are both very low but their verbal comprehension is in the 92%. It’s fascinating.
My youngest came along a good few years later and although he’s only just learning to read, it’s so different. One thing that still amazes me is when I’m reading with him, his books often have repetition, ‘The boy had an egg…..TAP, TAP, TAP.’ My son spells out the words and when he comes to the word TAP, he spells it out once and then realises that it’s the same word and says TAP, TAP without spelling it out again. With my older two if I rewind back to when we were reading the same books, they would have spelled out each letter without realising that they had just said TAP; they wouldn’t have made the connection.
Today things should be easier for children with dyslexia and I want to make a difference, to help make it a level playing field.
My older two are at the age where they must take exams whether it be CAT, 11 plus, Commen Entrance, the list goes on. I want to do all that I can to help.
My daughter sat an English comprehension exam at school with the use of a reader. She got 96%, top of her class and was overwhelmed and surprised. She normally gets around 40%. So right there, you can see that with the use of a reader, she’s taking the test on the same playing field as her schoolmates and aced it! The teachers came back later that day and said they were sorry; she shouldn’t have had a reader for a comprehension exam as it assesses reading and that she would need to re sit the exam without a reader.
I called on Dr Gavin Reid independent educational psychologist and a leading expert on Dyslexia. He said, ‘That’s the whole point of a reader! A comprehension test shows how much you comprehend, not how well you can read.’
Many children who are diagnosed with dyslexia are allowed a reader, sometimes a scribe and extra time. I always think extra time is a waste of time. As someone who suffers from dyslexia, I was always finished in time and was desperate to get out of the room. Having said that I think that exams that have a countdown clock on the screen, like a ticking time bomb can cause anxiety and should be avoided.
The ISEB is the Independent Schools Examinations Board and they produce Common Entrance exams and say they are widely regarded as the gold standard for assessments at 11 and 13. They also produce the ISEB online exam that many schools recognise and demand in addition to Common Entrance.
It was like hitting my head against a brick wall talking to them. They say that students should familiarise themselves with the types of questions before sitting the ISEB exam, nothing more, yet so many schools coach the children and spend months preparing. On top of that, parents, especially in London, spend fortunes tutoring their children for these ISEB exams and there are companies like Atom Learning and Pretest Plus that make a killing out of example papers and tuition. Senior schools believe what they’re being told but it’s not true.
Pretest Plus say on their home page, ‘Highly effective online practice tests and video courses to prepare students for CAT, ISEB Pretest, CEM Select and UKiset competitive examinations at schools in the UK and abroad. I’d like to point out that the governing body who write the CAT assessments say:
“We strongly advise against any kind of practice ahead of a CAT4 test as this will alter the reliability of test scores. The point of CAT4 is that it is not a test of learnt knowledge and it needs to be as unaffected as possible by any external factors, such as practice. Think of it as an eye test; if you practice ahead of an eye test and memorise the card, your diagnosis may not be correct and valuable information may be missed.”
So, when I ask the question: can my child prepare or revise before CAT tests the answer is: “Officially, no. The tests are designed to be taken without any revision or preparation so they can assess a child’s potential in his or her ability to reason.”
So my question is, why are companies charging people to tutor their children for a test that should not have any revision or preparation?
My eldest two are allowed a reader in exams but the ISEB don’t allow it, ‘because you might pick up nuances in the reader’s voice.’
The JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) allows a computer reader in GCSE Language and Literature on all aspects of their papers so we are making headway.
Julia Martin has recently taken over as CEO of ISEB and has been incredibly helpful. She says that even though the JCQ guidelines say you can use a computer reader in exams, ISEB does not have audio reading digital functionality available. She said that they are currently developing tests that do have computer readers as standard. It’s so refreshing to have someone like Julia in charge of the ISEB now and although it’s not going to change overnight I know she has a lot planned for September 2022 and is pioneering to become the gold standard in SEN across her sector.
My kids have just started using a computer text-to-speech program (computer reader). I want to see if it has a positive impact on them. Like anything, it will take getting used to, but I think it could have an incredible result, not just for them but for other children with SEN. What I’m most interested in is seeing if it helps with revision and also on comprehension papers.
That brings me onto which computer programs to use. There are so many but I’m working my way through them.
I had a very informative meeting with Alan, from the Education Division of TextHelp and after speaking with him I feel this would be a fantastic programme for any school’s SEN department. It is quite a clunky-looking system but I was blown away by what was on offer. In essence their Read Write application is a bolt-on floating toolbar and can be used on Chromebooks which is what many schools use.
The beauty of it is that the ‘computer text to speech system’ works on ANY google document even images and pdfs. It has the ability to let a student write, type or speak directly onto a document and share back to the teacher. I think this would be amazing for homework and stop the need for printing. There is no end to helpful resources for children with SEN, for example, colour overlays at the touch of a button on any document!
This application is an absolute dream for those students who are allowed a reader and/or scribe and I can imagine it could be used in any subject.
Text Help is recognised by exam boards as a computer reader/scribe.
Click HERE for an interactive guide as to the products available for Google Chrome users.
A good friend of mine introduced me to Speechify. She said all actors use it for learning lines and I am totally blown away with this app! It is also compatible with Chrome books.
I recorded a podcast with founder/CEO Cliff Weitzman to understand more about the platform and if it’s allowed in Exams. He’s 27 and his story blew me away. He said that they don’t sell to schools because it’s a free and very easy-to-use app. Anyone can download the software and start using it. So it’s up to parents to get children familiar with apps like Speechify to see how it can work for them personally. I’m trying to find out if there’s an easy way for exam boards to allow the use of the app for their papers. What I love most about his platform is how incredibly slick it is. I’ve been using it and my computer reader is Gwyneth Paltrow (which I chose from a list of many).
His story https://speechify.com/story
This is the system used by Emerson House.
They say, ‘learn how to type, read and spell at the same time. Harness muscle memory in the fingers to help with spelling.’
These are the most wonderful dyslexia friendly books. Development of reading and reading comprehension is a priority area for children with dyslexia but when oral language comprehension is at a very high level but reading is hard you find children don’t get the right books. They often get given baby books that aren’t suitable and embarrass them. Barrington Stoke has a great range of age-appropriate books for SEN.
Dyslexic training and shop https://dyslexiaaction.org.uk/why-study-with-us/
Children with dyslexia often find making mind maps for school work helps. Apps are forever changing but I find the below help:
To help with sight words and reading (2-8 years) I find the following helpful:
Squeebles also have lots of apps for Maths and English early stage.
A new and one-of-a-kind online literacy tool has been launched that can be used to highlight dyslexic type difficulties in children – and it’s available for all UK schools to use for free. This free dyslexia screener tool is called the IDL Literacy Screener. Designed by the International Dyslexia Learning Solutions Limited, the screener is a simple online test that can be taken in around 30 minutes to screen pupils aged 8 and over for dyslexia. It can be used with individuals and groups and can ultimately be an instrumental means of supporting the literacy and development of young children.
Patoss is the professional association of teachers of students with special learning difficulties. It’s a great resource for 1-2-1 tutor
Aimed at parents or guardians of a child or young person from the age of 7 years to 16 years of age. Providing you with a picture of the child’s strengths and challenges overall, and (where appropriate) how these relate to neurodiverse conditions.
An instant personalised report with practical support and guidance is provided, ensuring you can start supporting your child to maximise their strengths and minimise their challenges right away.
The ADHD Foundation Neurodiversity Charity helps the 1 in 5 people who live with ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxiam Dyscalculia and Tourette’s syndrome.
https://www.dyscalculianetwork.com Children with dyslexia often have maths learning difficulties.
Sam Barclay is a graphic designer, photographer and author of the book ‘I Wonder What it’s Like to be Dyslexic’.
The British Dyselxic Association https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk
Finally, I’ll leave you with some notes from my children’s latest EP reports which might help:
If you have things to add to this piece please do share as I would like it to become a hub of information for parents trying to navigate their child’s neo diverse journey
I hope it helps. X