llustration: Jo Gay
Take any classroom in the ACT and you are likely to find at least one child with dyslexia – a neurological condition that adversely affects a person’s ability to read, write, spell and sometimes speak. Unfortunately for them, many dyslexic children are not diagnosed and, even when they are, obtaining appropriate help can be difficult and stressful, both for the child and their family.
The stress experienced by carers stems partly from the fact that dyslexic children often have problems with self-esteem and anxiety. Lagging behind their classmates in the acquisition of essential learning skills such as reading and writing, they too often wrongly judge themselves to be stupid. Behavioural problems, and withdrawal from school and social situations, sometimes follow.
In addition to these pressures, many schools and teachers do not understand dyslexia and the particular needs of dyslexic students. This forces carers to become researchers and advocates. They scramble to find out more about dyslexia and the sorts of interventions that are going to help the child. Next, they try to persuade the child’s school to adopt them – a task that can be time consuming and exasperating. Improving outcomes for dyslexic students and their carers requires the implementation of a three-pronged strategy.
First, there needs to be system-wide changes to the way literacy is taught in the ACT. Improved literacy teaching can help all students and in particular those with learning difficulties such as dyslexia. Second, the government needs to invest in additional high quality teacher training to ensure teachers are able to identify and respond to the needs of dyslexic students. Third, there needs to be a professional body independent of government that can advocate on behalf of dyslexic students and liaise with schools about effective evidence-based interventions.
This three-pronged approach is consistent with the recommendations of the ACT Taskforce on Students with Learning Difficulties, which handed its final report to the government a year ago. The government agreed to all of the taskforce’s recommendations, raising hopes it would move swiftly to improve processes and teaching practices. But to date, the government’s response has been underwhelming. It has focused on the easy-to-implement recommendations and bypassed those requiring substantive reform to literacy instruction and learning assistance. To make matters worse, in April, the ACT government informed Dyslexia SPELD ACT (DSA) that it will not fund their advocacy, referral and training services.
DSA launched in September last year with the express purpose of helping dyslexic people of all ages and their families. Since its establishment, the charity has fielded an average of 70 phone calls a month predominantly from parents of children struggling with learning difficulties, established a low-cost dyslexia screener with the University of Canberra, and held several professional-development training sessions for teachers and parents. In addition, it has attracted renowned international and domestic experts in the field of learning difficulties to come and speak to educators in Canberra.
There are sister SPELD (specific learning difficulties) organisations in all Australian states, and all state governments fund their advocacy, support and training services. The state governments recognise the essential role SPELDs can play in improving the education system and assisting families.