An easy way out?

August 20, 2010

She stares at the word. She is concentrating very hard. I glance at the clock on the kitchen wall and begin to count the seconds in my head. Surely she’ll get this one? Fifteen seconds tick by before she is ready to say the word aloud. The word she is trying to read is ‘asked’. She gets it wrong.

My daughter is eight years old, and she has been diagnosed with ‘specific learning difficulties’. The most well known specific learning difficulty is dyslexia.

Almost every day for the last eighteen months, including weekends and school holidays, either myself or her dad has sat down with her to work on her reading manual – Toe by Toe. As its name suggests, it helps children learn to read in tiny increments. Very tiny increments.

It starts with single letter sounds then moves on to two and three letter syllables. Next up, blending two letters to form new sounds (like pl, cr, dw). We have ploughed our way through loads of exercises to help distinguish b from d, and p from q. Weeks, if not months, have been spent working on how vowel sounds change if an ‘e’ is added to the end of a word (the ‘o’ in ‘mop’ sounds different to the ‘o’ in ‘mope’).

With dyslexia, learning to read is all about rules, repetition and revision. Both of my children found ‘sight’ reading extremely difficult (my older child also has learning difficulties). They relied on sounding out the individual letter sounds of even short simple words like ‘it’, ‘for’ and ‘had’ long after their peers learned to recognise them instantly. In other words, they cannot read without the rules.

In the manual, no word is considered ‘learned’ until it has been read correctly on three consecutive days. Even when a new rule or skill has apparently been mastered, it must be dragged back into focus repeatedly until it eventually becomes subliminal. Of course, the manual is merely a complement to her daily sessions with the learning support teacher at school, who also gives her nightly reading exercises.

As you can imagine, this is all incredibly tedious for everyone concerned. The parent of a dyslexic child needs to draw on endless stores of patience (not something that has come easily to me). But we stick with it, because not learning to read is just not an option. We are encouraged by her slow but steady progress and the small triumphs along the way – I’ll never forget the day she finally mastered the word ‘before’. We still read aloud to her every night, so she doesn’t forget that reading is also a huge source of pleasure. It saddens me that she cannot do this for herself yet. At her age I was to be found surreptitiously reading by torchlight most nights. But, she’ll get there.

There is a potential cloud on the horizon. Because my daughter is being educated in Ireland, she is also learning Irish, a compulsory subject. Before she becomes an independent and fluent reader of English, she will be required to start reading and spelling words like this:

Bhfuil – pronounced ‘will’

Mhaith – pronounced ‘wai’

Briste – pronounced ‘brish-ta’

Gloine – Pronounced ‘glinna’

Suddenly, the rulebook is thrown out the window. The alphabet is different, the sentence structure is different, the pronunciation is alien and phonics, which she relies on so heavily, are useless.

Literacy in Irish is introduced at a time when many children with learning difficulties are still getting to grips with English reading and comprehension. In order to allow them to focus on core literacy skills in their main language, some children are granted an exemption from learning Irish.

My older child has already been granted an exemption. This came at the end of several months of severe stress for him at school when he found himself completely unable to cope with the demands of the Irish curriculum. He began, uncharacteristically, hiding homework from me and getting into trouble at school. His very understanding teacher called a meeting and suggested we get a psychological assessment, which led to the exemption being granted.

His teacher (who incidentally runs the school’s Irish club) was “delighted”, as an exemption would enable him to focus on his English comprehension and other problem areas. She also stressed that it would help his self esteem – not helped by regularly achieving 5%-10% in Irish tests, compared to 80%-90% for his classmates.

The compulsory learning of Irish is a fraught subject, loaded with emotional and cultural baggage. Many people regard being able to speak the language, which almost died out under British rule, as a badge of national pride. For this reason, many take a dim view of children being granted exemptions. The popular view, echoed by the media, is that they are some sort of scam perpetrated by middle class parents and educational psychologists in order to give children an unfair advantage over others.

Having dropped Irish, my son’s score on the standardised Drumcondra reading test has gone up by 12 points in a year. We have no regrets.

I don’t know yet whether my daughter will require an Irish exemption. But I suspect she might. If I am told by an expert that she could benefit from dropping Irish, I will have no hesitation in applying. I’m not about to see her fail to reach her potential for the sake of national pride.

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3 Responses to “An easy way out?”

  1. Shirt'n'Tie said

    Outstanding, honest post. My admiration for you and your family continues to grow Catherine.

    Paul.

  2. Fair play you on in being so patient. As someone lacking in patience I can empathise.

    Regards the exemption, if it can help her even slightly, grab for it with both hands. And the begrudgers bedamned 🙂

    Dyslexia does sometimes have a silver lining. I’ve worked with several programmers with dsylexia who have difficulty writing in English, but who are incredibly talented coders. And don’t make mistakes writing code. I don’t claim to understand it, but it’s a real and interesting phenomenon.

    Best of luck with it.
    Alastair.

  3. lisa said

    Oh God, that brought back so many memories, my mum spent hours, upon hours helping me. Didn’t have the choice of dropping Irish, and found it a minefield! Much better to concentrete on the language most used. Wishing you all the best of luck, She will be great in time!

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