How much do you remember about your own phonics education?
To be honest, I don’t remember my school teaching me phonics, or how to read at all. My most vivid recollections about school were with Maths. They gave us these books called Hey Maths and told us to work our way through them. That method of teaching never worked for me, and it wasn’t until I became a teacher that I realised there is a better way to teach than this.
I do know now that phonics wasn’t part of teaching methods when I was at school. In fact, when I started teaching in the late 1990s, there was still no Phonics Scheme as such. Schools made their own strategies. There was even a political decision to stop phonics teaching altogether for a while, so there is now an adult cohort of 10 years who have never been taught phonics. And these are the adults that still crop up as potentially dyslexic when for most it’s simply a lack of proper training in phonics at school.
When did you first become interested in Dyslexia?
When I started teaching, dyslexia wasn’t really known then. I became a SENCO in my second year of teaching and that gave me access to some courses where Dyslexia came up and I decided to research this more. I quickly realised that if I could get this introduced in my Reception, year 1 and 2 teaching, we could irradicate some of the problems by year 3.
But the teachers at my school didn’t believe in dyslexia. So, I found a different route to getting this introduced!
Firstly, I decided to get the children to start joined up handwriting from infants rather than in year two. I felt that children were having to relearn handwriting in years 2-3 as they moved from printing to joining up writing. Joined up handwriting doesn’t place as much demand on your working memory – it’s one action, one picture. If you are printing you have to split every element of each word into letters. The result was that joined up writing resulted in improved spelling by year 3.
Phonics came in around this time with Letters and Sounds, but this still didn’t suit all children who struggled with blending sounds. A word like BLACK, in Letters and Sounds is managed as b.l.a.c.k. Now, for dyslexic students this means five elements to process, so I introduced blending earlier so the word became bl.a.ck. That’s just three sounds, so easier to process.
These two approaches benefited all the children, not just dyslexics. But in my school at KS2, we had no deputy head teacher, and I was the only permanent staff member in Key Stage 2 at the time. Our rigid literacy strategy was too much for dyslexic students who couldn’t keep up with the pace. Then we had an Ofsted inspector who observed one of my Yr3 lessons and marked it as ‘outstanding’. He said to me that we were going to use this method to get all teachers working in a dyslexia-friendly way.
And that is how I got the new methods introduced!!
What made you choose education, and special education needs in particular?
I always wanted to be a teacher. My Nan wanted to be a teacher too, but didn’t get the opportunity. So, I was determined to make it. I was an avid reader from an early age. At my Nan’s, they’d find me sat on a windowsill with the curtain closed reading a book. My youngest niece is now doing the same. I would read Enid Blyton escapism books, later moving to Roald Dahl. After this I enjoyed non-fiction and was actually encouraged to make a nature diary by my grandparents, so I did and it won an award!
I’ve always been academic. I did my Batchelor of Education degree at Liverpool University. My first school I taught at was an old grammar school; it was like the secret garden, it looked horrible from the outside, but really beautiful inside and at the rear as it looked out on to a nature reserve. I said this at my interview and apparently that’s what got me the job.
It was inevitable that I would focus on special needs related education because I seem to attract those pupils! If I ate with the children in school, all the (so called) ‘naughty boys’ will gravitate towards me and start talking to me because I relate to them. I know how they tick.
Why is it so important to continue the focus on Dyslexia?
That first school was in a poor area, so literature difficulties were due to a lack of experience. When looking at improving those skills, I was working on raising self-esteem in circle time. Then other behaviours started to pop up that got my attention; they were familiar from my earlier training courses. I didn’t move towards dyslexia until I was managing literature support on a one-to-one basis and found myself recommending increasingly dyslexia-friendly methods. I’d say to schools I think this child’s dyslexic and needs referral to the Ed Psych (educational psychologist), but they didn’t believe in dyslexia at the time, so it was hard to get the diagnosis. Again, it needed the government to put in the funding so that the doors started to open.
In those early days, Ed Psych’s didn’t believe in dyslexia. They saw it as a middle-class disease, characterised by aspirational parents looking to use a diagnosis of dyslexia as an excuse for their child failing the grammar entrance exams. Because they paid for the diagnosis, there was an assumption that the assessor would confirm the child has dyslexia which removed its credibility. Whether or not the payment was determining the diagnosis is hard to say, but I know I never let it influence the correct diagnosis no matter who was paying my fees!
It’s much better now though. And it’s helped by a basic level of teacher training to help early diagnosis. Also, the fact that the disability living allowance protocols recognise dyslexia means diagnosis itself is more clearly defined; this is essential if your dyslexia is severe enough to affect your ability to live and interact with others and your surroundings.
What gives you satisfaction in your role?
Finding out what makes a child click. Why are they behaving as they are?
Consider a little boy who hates reading aloud and kicks off if made to do this in front of the class. The reason is because he finds it difficult to break down words and becomes embarrassed in front of the class. Once you realise this you can manage the situation. Don’t ask a child to read out loud if they don’t want to, whether they are dyslexic or not. When we start looking at the phonological processing assessments, it is often that the child is weak in this area, so it means he doesn’t have the phonological knowledge to break the words down. As a result, he would replace the words with something similar, or use the context to guess the word. But when an unfamiliar word comes along, with no prior knowledge or context, he’ll just miss it out.
Do you see the impact of your assessment?
Because I am now generally only involved in diagnosis and assessment, I rarely spend much time with the child or adult outside of that assessment consultation. However, sometimes, teachers will tell me how a certain child’s grades have gone up or someone will let me know how they managed to get an ‘A’ in English which they never thought was possible. That’s always great to know.
Even during the assessment itself, when the client says “that explains an awful lot” that’s when I know we’ve already started opening doors. I like to see body language, facial expressions as these tell me more than a score on a form. Also, I’ll often tell my clients that the ‘wrong’ answer can tell me a lot because I can see how they reached this answer and it tells me how their brain is processing information.