Today, I want to touch on intervention programmes. This is one area that parents find mind boggling.
The key to helping a child struggling with dyslexia is early identification and intervention. Very often, I see the identification process being delayed because of lack of knowledge or parents did not pick up the red flags.
I went with my gut feel even when educators and doctors I consulted dismissed my concerns. These are people we deem as professionals and I fully respect them. But I have learnt that they may not necessarily be the best person to dispense advice. With persistency, I eventually spoke to a psychologist friend who pointed me in the direction of dyslexia and as a result, my daughter was diagnosed early and received intervention at 6 years old.
As far as intervention goes, different theories create different approaches. We should get it by now that dyslexics have an alternative way of thinking and learning. If we continue to look at dyslexia as a deficit instead of working with a dyslexic’s strengths, we are adding yet another obstacle to the child’s remediation journey.
To give you an example, because people still think the only way to decode a word is through phonics and if the child finds it difficult to process the sounds of letters or blending, they see it as a deficit and therefore, with all good intention, try to equip the child through drilling and repetitions.
Many intervention programmes target the symptoms and not the root cause. You may take the position that if a particular programme helps with a certain issue, such as the ability to recall and retain a spelling word learnt, why not? To me, the bigger question is, how about the child’s challenges in other areas such as decoding ability, reading fluency or comprehension? All these are necessary components of learning. Without a holistic approach, the child may seem to have made some progress in a certain area, but making progress is not the same as closing the gap. If a child is making progress, he or she may still be falling behind.
Therefore when evaluating any intervention programmes, keep in mind what we have learnt about how dyslexia develops. Find out if the programme works with a dyslexic’s strengths or is the focus still on what the child can’t do? How does the programme help the child resolve his confusion with common sight words? What is the approach to reading fluency and comprehension?
Many parents have the misconception that their child is dealing with some complex learning difficulties that will need long term intervention and that they will not perform as well as their peers. This need not be the case.
Dyslexia is a learning difference, not a limitation. It is a gift, not a disability. Approach correctly, your child can be remediated successfully. Of course, the child has to have the motivation to want to correct the problem and is able and willing to take responsibility for doing so.
"The key to reducing the struggles a child with dyslexia experiences is early identification and intervention."
In Singapore’s context where parents started sending their children for English enrichment classes around the age of 4, they should be able to decode words phonetically, transition to read with whole words and have comprehension of what they’re reading by the time they enter primary school.
However, if they are still struggling towards the end of their preschool education, then there’s more to this than meets the eyes. Think about it. If phonics was all they needed, then they should be on the road to reading, right? If not, then it warrants further investigations.
So assuming the parents then had their child tested and intervention is given. How do we evaluate whether a programme is working for the child? Firstly, set a time frame for yourself and then assess the effectiveness of a programme by considering the following:
1) in the area of phonics, evaluate the child’s ability to associate a sound to a letter and his ability to blend (any word and not just 1 or 2 syllabus words only)
2) in the area of common sight words, observe if the child can consistently recognise the sight words learnt or does he still “trip up” whenever he encounters a certain common sight word and mistake is made immediately thereafter, be it omission, substitution or reversal
3) in the area of spelling, assess if the child can consistently retain what is learnt and not forget the next day or a week later
4) to assess whether a child is truly reading and has comprehension (or is he merely giving the impression that he’s reading but is actually guessing by looking at the pictures or he has memorized the passage), take a book the child has read before, type out the passage and get him to read from the typed passage. Thereafter, get him to retell the story and then you can ask some explicit and implicit questions to see if he can answer them.
Be honest with your evaluation. Remember, dyslexia has to do with how the brain works, and does not affect intelligence. If a programme is working for the child, it is possible to close the learning gap within a reasonable period of time. In my daughter’s case, progress was rapid and she was able to read with ease 6 months after intervention.
The end objective of reading is to have comprehension. In the case of dyslexia, most children could not even read, let alone have any comprehension. And so, we continue drilling them in phonics, hoping that they will eventually get it and is able to decode.
I am not about to invalidate the merits of phonics. It has its place in the process of acquiring literacy for most people. But we need to acknowledge that while it works for some, it may not work for others, dyslexics being one such group. My daughter struggled with phonics and many parents have shared the same observations. If that’s the case, giving them more phonics programme isn’t going to work for them.
What do you need to consider before you buy into any phonics programmes?