I’m a progressive teacher and always looking for solutions to enable learners with dyslexia to access an education system which is predominantly text-based. But even I, Ms ‘remove barriers’ Daulby was challenged recently by a 19-year-old, dyslexic student. Archie Driver was in his first year at Manchester University studying Economics and Politics. He cannot decode (read print) or encode (write down text) therefore relying on knowledge, ability, technology, hard work and a lot of listening to learn.
I first challenged Archie when he told me he couldn’t read. I reminded him that he wouldn’t be at university if he couldn’t, and that he reads with his ears. The Simple View of Reading helped me to explain the difference between decoding and comprehension and by referring to the Scarborough reading knot, the relationship and many skills required for reading..
These explanations come naturally to me as I have advocated assistive technology for those with literacy difficulties for several years.
My answer for Archie regarding writing however was to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking (speech to text software). Archie questioned this as he told me it wasn’t the writing he couldn’t do per se, speech recognition could do this, it was putting the essay together. He then questioned me on why he needed to do this. My answers included: needing to write for publications, structuring an argument, completing the course criteria. But, Archie argued, ‘you’ve just persuaded me that I can read despite being unable to decode, why can’t I write without constructing an essay? Where is the Simple View of Writing?’. He was right, my solutions, while aiding encoding did not fully solve the issue of structuring, sequencing and writing a fluent essay.
Archie has friends to do the ‘writing stuff’ for him while he helps them with the economics. Listening to podcasts, making copious notes using artwork, Archie knows his subject better than most first year graduates. Through viva style feedback sessions, displaying notes and oral language, Archie can craft this style of assessment and show exactly what he knows. His lecturers have been extremely impressed when this opportunity is available to him. The problem however is then he’s told to ‘put it down on paper’. While I may be philosophically further along than his lecturers might be, my solution is still writing based.
Until those learners with SEND who can learn in higher education have an alternative forum with which to assess them by, I fear we will never see the dismal figure of 14% SEND learners at University, rise. If anything, we’ll see this fall as schools, being the stepping stone to ‘A’ levels and university, are now making it far harder for anyone with literacy difficulties to pass GCSEs. Introducing spelling, punctuation and grammar marks, terminal exams only and getting rid of any coursework or alternative systems, have we gone backwards in being open minded about ways to learn and varying how students can achieve? Rather than embracing talents without reading and writing, we are telling these young people that they will fail until they’ve learned traditional reading and writing skills like their peers. And this is just not true. The answer currently is to cure dyslexia rather than enabling students who have literacy difficulties to learn and show what they know in ways which play to their strengths. Literacy is not just talking, not just decoding, not just encoding or structuring essays. Literacy is a multi-modal channel for learning and if someone cannot ‘do’ literacy then we need to find ways for them to gain knowledge and show what they know in other ways. This should not preclude the idea that young people with dyslexia or any disability affecting their literacy skills can study in higher education and beyond.
Archie has decided to leave university; the system had not prepared him well enough. Another dyslexic student I used to teach however, who uses speech recognition to write, has just graduated and is now applying to study for a PhD. It can be done, and we need to stop telling students that without traditional literacy, they are failures.
Drive for Literacy (DfL) is a programme to support schools, teaching school alliances, colleges and universities. We are a bridge between SEND and literacy and aim to build regional expertise with the purpose of enabling learners with emerging literacy and SEND to access a broad and balanced curriculum and achieve their potential. The full DfL programme is a year’s cycle which includes an audit, action plan, nine days consultancy, 6 CPD workshops and ongoing support free DfL toolkit. We also offer keynotes, training, regional events and bespoke sessions. If you would like to know more, please contact our Marketing and Network Executive Elinor Rhys at firstname.lastname@example.org