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One of my primary focuses was to find out how different literatures dealt with Dyslexia and how best to support the child. Dyslexia can be described from a number of different perspectives as we see in Ball et al (2007) who explain that it can be "how one learns (Cognition), what parts of the brain are involved (neurology), what genes are involved (genetics) and behaviour (p14). Their book entitled 'Dyslexia: An Irish perspective' is very relevant to my research as it gives a great insight into the history of the special education sector in Ireland. It also looks into some of the key debates that are facing the educational sector today.
Perhaps most importantly this book dedicates a full chapter to Dyslexia in the primary school system which is the area where I want to focus my research. Ball et al (2007) explains that at this stage there is a certain level of development expected from a child in the early stages of primary school and that it is here that we begin to see the first signs of struggle with children suffering from Dyslexia. Children will find it hard to understand or grasp "letter-sound matching, phonological analysis, handwriting, spelling, sequencing and others..." (p102). The support that can be shown by parents and teachers is also a vital aspect to the child's development at this stage.
Therefore it is crucial that if the child is indeed struggling from Dyslexia there should be additional support provided for the child in order to allow him to catch up with the rest of the class. Children with dyslexia can avail of learning support. This could be on an in-class basis or small group withdrawal from class. The school might be able to offer more than this, but this is down to whatever resources and demands on those resources that the school have.
In Ball et al(2007) we see that the issues that arise in children throughout the primary school years as they point out that " as the primary school child moves away from junior to senior classes, issues around self-esteem and motivation may arise" (p105). This may lead to the child using avoidance techniques when asked to read-aloud or complete oral tasks which would just contribute to the child's poor-self-image. An important aspect which seems to come up in various literatures is that when Dyslexic children produce homework or assignments it should not be compared with the work of others in the class.
A negative approach to mistakes will just lower the child's self-esteem and make them become frustrated with other homework assignments. I feel that the main teacher should never become over dependant on the special needs assistant, as building a trustworthy relationship between child and teacher will greatly benefit both. The Dyslexic Association of Ireland states on its official website that teachers should "not correct every error, but instead concentrate on a small number of errors and set manageable targets, take time to correct the work and focus on content rather than presentation".
The next book that has proven very useful in my research has been 'Understanding Dyslexia: a guide for Teachers and Parents' by Lawrence (2009). He explains how dyslexia has always been seen as a lack of cognitive and neurological skills but we should be looking at Dyslexia as a "difference and not a deficit at all" (p16). While Dyslexic children find it hard to read without making mistakes or to follow instructions this should not mean that teachers should ignore their struggles against the mainstream approaches to teaching. Lawrence feels that the solution is to find a suitable way to engage the student and follow a teaching style that the student to learn at their pace. Before a lesson begins with a dyslexic student it is a good idea to briefly go through what areas will be covered and "break down the lesson into smaller units so that the child does not feel overwhelmed with what has to be done (p56).
Lawrence further explains some important exercises that can be done at home in order to help the child's memory capabilities, for example, " ask their children to recall a previous event, such as what they did the previous weekend"(P60). Since all Dyslexic children differ from each other and learn differently it is crucial that parents and teachers incorporate all of their senses into the learning process as their visual or auditory processing may be impaired. Lawrence states that a child may pass a hearing or vision test quite easily, yet they may not be able to process this information into their memory. This shows how simple exercises can have a long lasting positive effect on the child in these early school years.
Reinforcement is a key practise when dealing with children who suffer with dyslexia and in Townend and Turner (2000) they explain that "children with Dyslexia need many opportunities to practise the skills they have learned and to preserve them in long-term memory and Practise work must be presented in a variety of ways to maintain interest" (p19). Note taking can be difficult for Dyslexic children so a slow pace should be taken or better still to arrange for notes to be photocopied. Tasks also need to be concentrated on things like worksheets and not just the blackboard where students may become inattentive or inactive. When arranging work assignments it is also a good idea to care to have clear presentation, with large text, bold heading and as many visual aids as possible.
Herold(2003) describes ways in which teachers can adapt their teaching methods in order to accommodate the dyslexic children in their classes. She feels that the most effective teaching method for all children, particularly those exhibiting signs of a learning difficulty, is a "multi-sensory approach". Herold also explains this is imperative for dyslexic students as using a multi-sensory approach to teaching would not only alleviate anxiety from the classroom situation, but also help their brains absorb the information being conveyed to them. Some teachers express reluctance to change their ways of teaching, but just making a few changes in the classroom can be so beneficial to the students.
The Inclusive School Debate
Probably the most important and controversial topic in the educational sector is whether students who have learning difficulties be taught within mainstream schooling or should their education take place in special education schools. Overall it seems that there has been a shift in emphasis in regards to special education from "treating it as a marginal and problematic aspect of state-maintained, to a more central component in the wider 'inclusion' project" as explained in Thomas and Loxley (2007, p95). This situation is also present In Ireland today but with the recent tough budget cuts the way forward for special education is suffering from financial withdrawal. The debate on inclusion for children with learning disabilities is still at an early stage in its lifecycle yet that hasn't stopped the clash of ideals throughout the country.
Lipsky(1997) gives her insights on the inclusive school debate and is in support of keeping the children among their peers. She feels that although separate classes, with lower student to teacher ratios, controlled environments, and specially trained staff would seem to offer benefits to a child with a disability, research fails to demonstrate the effectiveness of such programs. She continues to say that there is mounting evidence that, other than smaller class size, there is little that is special about the special education system, and that the negative effects of separating children with disabilities from their peers far outweigh any benefit to smaller classes (p 96-100).
The report made for the National Council for Special Education in 2009 was a very interesting read as it gave the teachers perspectives on the inclusive schooling debate. The title of the report was 'creating inclusive learning environments in Irish schools: Teacher perspectives' and the study aimed to "gather information on teachers' perceptions about inclusion, current practice in creating inclusive learning environments and current constraints to inclusive practice" (p1). According to the report "all interviewees reported that support teams were central to effective inclusion in schools" (p5). Primary schools seemed to offer a more team-based approach to supporting inclusion whereas at post-primary support roles seemed to be more delineated. The majority of interviewees reported that mixed models of support involving combinations of group and individual withdrawal and in-class support or team teaching were used.
The report also states what are the barriers currently stopping the implementation of an inclusive schooling system are in Ireland. These include "Inadequacies in training at undergraduate, postgraduate and on-the-job training" and on the whole-school approach it was felt that "limited dedicated time for developing inclusive practice through training days, staff meetings and in service"(p6). On the whole, interviewees believed that greater access to psychological services for assessment and support/advice on interventions would assist them in creating more inclusive learning environments in the longer term.
The debate on inclusion for children with disability has just begun in this country and there is still a very long way to go. The rapid pace of development and change in special education has been problematic. Students with special educational needs may not necessarily have their needs met by appropriately qualified staff. Resource teaching time may not be sufficient, new curricula need to be developed and the physical environment of the school may present a barrier to access.
The Current Situation
Although many of the books concerning Dyslexia have relevant knowledge on Dyslexia in the current era I felt that an important resource would be the national newspapers as the data would be accurate and up to date. The Irish Times published an article on Wednesday, October 19, 2011 which gave an insight into the parent's feelings about the budget cuts that have affected children with Dyslexia and other learning disabilities, while also showing the government's response. Many parents were confused about the role of special needs assistants (SNAs) resulting in misguided fears over cuts to services and Jim Mulkerrins, principal officer of the department's special education unit, said while he recognised parents had real fears, he believed the role of SNAs "had drifted over the years" to a situation where they are too often seen as the solution to all problems.
Mr Mulkerrins also commented "â€¦that assistants retained too long can be counterproductive and the child can become dependent on the care" and added that this year was the first time special services in the department had operated under a spending cap but that some â‚¬1.3 billion was still being spent on children with special educational needs. He said 10,575 full-time SNA posts were being provided for schools this year. The department has come under some criticism for its delay in assigning 475 of these posts, which were strategically retained in order to allocate them over the school year in cases such as emergency, appeals or new school entrants (The Irish Times, October 19, 2011).
There are currently four designated 'reading' schools for students with specific learning disabilities nationwide. The special reading schools are full-time national schools, provided by the Dept. of Education and Science and so are free of charge. The regular school curriculum is followed, with the exception of Irish. The current Pupil-Teacher ratio is 11:1 in these classes, though it is to be reduced to 9:1 shortly. Children usually attend for one to two years only and then return to their own school. It can be difficult to secure a place in these schools (Schooldays.ie)
Schooldays.ie further explains the application that must be made by the psychologist who assessed the child, supported by a recommendation from the child's own school. The usual criterion for admission to a special reading school is average/above average intelligence, and a significant discrepancy between intellectual ability and literacy levels. The pupil should have completed 2nd class or be at least 8 years old and not more than 12 years old. These schools include Catherine McAuley N.S., Oliver Plunkett School and St. Rose's N.S. which are all in Dublin with the only school outside the capital being St. Killian's School in Cork.
A national survey by 'Public Agenda, When it's Your Child: A Report on Special Education from the Families Who Use It', revealed that a large majority (70 %) of the parents say that too many children with special needs lose out because their parents don't know what's available to them. More than half (55%) said that parents don't know what's available to them. More than half (55%) said that parents have to find out on their own what service and supports are available. This finding underscores the need to provide more training and information to parents on how the special education process works and their rights. Surveys like also show how little people take advantage of Special reading schools, or special reading units within mainstream schools, which are provided by the Department of Education and Science free of charge to students with severe dyslexic symptoms. The regular school curriculum is followed, with the exception of Irish and the pupil-teacher ratio of these schools and units has recently, according to the Department, been reduced from 11:1 to 9:1. If suitable informatiom was available nationally we would see a great uptake in parents using them.
Only recently there was reports in England that Ministers have been accused of discriminating against dyslexic pupils by announcing plans to award 5% of marks in GCSE exams for spelling, punctuation and grammar as part of a drive to improve communication skills( Guardian: 4th February 2012). Hopefully this I not a sign of things to come from our own government which is currently very fair to dyslexic students by allowing them extra time on exams and where necessary, scribe to help those Dyslexic students who cannot write quickly.
The literature available regarding Dyslexia fails to get into the heat of the debate on such issues as inclusive education and many of the books felt dated and did not provide the statistics that I was looking for. The lack of interest on the inclusion debate thus far is a representation of where the government is at the moment in regards to implementing their plans. Perhaps in a few years' time as we see more special education schools being developed around the country we will begin to see more surveys, statistics and books that can fully explain the situation we are experiencing now. At the moment it seems as though Dyslexia and specific learning difficulties are just in their infancy.