A report into the range of teaching approaches used for dyslexic children in Scotland and their effectiveness recommends early intervention and a tailored approach, with an emphasis on the power of appropriate teaching techniques to help children to become normal learners

A recent report* finds that dyslexia is the result of an ‘instructional dysfunction’ rather than a ‘constitutional disability’. This, it says, is both disheartening and encouraging: disheartening because learners fall victim to ineffective educational provision, but encouraging because appropriate teaching techniques can restore them to becoming normal learners.

The researchers were asked to look at the background to dyslexia, the range of teaching approaches used and their effectiveness. A definition of dyslexia is given in the report as ‘evident when accurate and fluent word reading and/or spelling develops very incompletely or with great difficulty. This focuses on literacy learning at the word level and implies that the problem is severe and persistent despite appropriate learning opportunities.’ The report also looks at causes and diagnosis and examples of best practice.

The report is based on a literature review of current approaches to the provision of education for children with dyslexia. The report gives a brief overview of educational, psychological and biological evidence relating to dyslexia, and also looks at research and evaluation reviews and web-based materials among other reference material. It reveals that a large body of research over the years supports the idea that specific instruction in aspects of phonological awareness can effectively assist students in the acquisition of reading skills. The proponents of such evidence have strongly advocated that the ‘central problem of dyslexia’, ie learning to read, can both be solved and prevented by using the right teaching methods and tools.

Some key findings

  • Early identification and intervention of dyslexia help programmes for dyslexic learners to be more successful. Factors such as family history of dyslexia, delay in speech and poor spelling can assist in identifying children at risk of dyslexia.
  • Since ‘low self-esteem is often cited as a side effect of dyslexia’ it seems likely that programmes will be more successful if, alongside practical support, they emphasise activities and tasks that allow dyslexic learners to see not only their weaknesses but also their strengths and areas of competence (eg athletic or artistic competence). Recognising what they are capable of doing is likely to lead to an enhanced confidence in performing other school tasks.
  • Dyslexic learners benefit from a long-term synchronised effort between teachers and parents in identification and treatment of dyslexia, and provision of continuous support. A very practical example given is when a prescribed programme for dyslexia intervention used by the teachers is repeated or supplemented by similar activities at home to reinforce the practical assistance received at school.
  • The severity of the condition varies between dyslexic learners and research suggests that accurate diagnosis is essential for ascertaining the best intervention. A ‘horses for courses’ concept can help ensure that dyslexic learners are given learning support that is appropriate, and can make a difference to their learning development.

The report praises a number of out-of-school courses organised for dyslexic learners. The positive aspects of these programmes are, firstly, that they were carried out in a relaxed environment and the tasks were both enjoyable and educational. Both the tasks and the way they were presented enabled pupils to realise that despite being dyslexic, they could still be creative and productive individuals. Secondly, knowing that other children were in similar circumstances created a sense of belonging. Realising that they were not alone in their struggle is also a form of support. Thirdly, organised activities for small groups of pupils are more focused and, therefore, more effective in bringing about changes in attitude and behaviour. The report accepts that transforming an ordinary school into a dyslexia-friendly one presents a big challenge. Where a dyslexia-friendly policy has been adopted, all teachers adopt various techniques ranging from the most simple (eg displaying key words, giving photocopied notes) to a specific teaching technique (eg multisensory teaching). This may be a ‘difficult package to sell’ because of the changes it entails. However, benefits encompass all the learners and are not exclusive to those with specific learning difficulties. A common factor shared by the three techniques (ie the multisensory method, auditory discrimination in depth and embedded phonics) shown to be effective in helping dyslexic learners is based on improving phonological processing skills, and phonological processes were found to play a key role in learning to read, as the vast majority of the most commonly used words in English are phonetically regular.

Key recommendations

  • Dyslexic learners need support tailored to their individual needs as the severity of the disorder varies.
  • As in many cases dyslexia is the result of instructional dysfunction, appropriate techniques can be used to restore those with the condition to becoming normal learners. Effective reading techniques are recommended, and instruction used in teacher education on how best to teach children to read should be considered further.
  • It is suggested that the role of ICT in overcoming dyslexia should be considered in the Scottish context.

Note: The first year of the government’s new Inclusion Development Programme (IDP) has prioritised support to mainstream teachers in the areas of dyslexia and speech, language and communication difficulties.

* Literature Review of Current Approaches to the Provision of Education for Children with Dyslexia by Dely L Elliot, Julia K Davidson and Jon Lewin (2007) is available from the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE)