It is quite possible that there are students in my classroom of five- and six-year-olds that display learning behaviours resembling dyslexia. But I remain deliberately equivocal about my assessment of these children, for two reasons.
Firstly, I know that some education systems do not even start teaching literacy or numeracy in any formal way until the children start school at seven years old. That's because there is a lot of essential pre-academic learning to be done before then.
Secondly, I have spent many years as a teacher reading about dyslexia, trying to understand it, and applying that to all my other knowledge and understanding of how children best learn. As a result, I have grown to appreciate that teaching and learning is more about people and emotions than we often care to acknowledge. This has led me to conclude that it is our education system, not the dyslexic child, that needs to be the focus of our attention. There is a better way.
I'm still not sure about dyslexia. I'm not a scientist, but I know that this thing called dyslexia is not a new thing. It's always been around. It's just that we are now getting better at recognising it, and braver at advocating for the children who 'suffer' from it. For me, the biggest shift has been in the way we now acknowledge the condition without labelling dyslexic children as 'failures'. We have moved on. Thank goodness for that.
The next step in the journey is to help improve the learning experiences of all these children. My experience in the classroom tells me that there are some immediate, simple, and effective changes that could be made right now that would make a world of difference.
These children are not bad at learning. They just learn differently. The changes that need to be made are around how we approach teaching. I have discovered that a learning environment that gets it right for dyslexic learners, gets it right for all learners. We need an education system that is flexible; a system that fits around the needs of the children in the broadest emotional as well as academic sense.
A learning environment that works best for everyone contains particular physical and cultural traits. And those traits can be identified. For example, the ideal learning environment stimulates and celebrates thinking and creativity ahead of 'process'. And it may seem odd to need to point this out, but we as humans, are social creatures, and we seek out positive interactions and happiness. Therefore, a strong and trusting relationship between the teacher and the student, as well as between students, is essential. The research tells us that happy learners make great learners. Learning that is not forced, works best.
Social competence as well as academic competence is essential. For meaningful learning to flourish, there needs to be more dialogue, less monologue. More negotiation, less instruction. Listening seems to be an undervalued attribute. The educational culture that we have inherited carries the baggage of a low trust, pass/fail system. By catering to children's natural curiosity, to the widest range of skills, interests, abilities and all variances of learning styles, everyone will be a winner.
Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. How we teach and what content we teach, should always be up for negotiation. There are questions that we should be all asking ourselves and seeking genuine answers to. What's working well and what's not? Who is doing well and who is not? If we get it right for dyslexic learners, we'll get it right for all learners.
Perhaps one day, the word dyslexia can be deleted from the teaching and learning lexicon.
Mark Bracey is a primary school teacher. He writes about his experience at Ease Education.