Significant changes to how the education system helps children with dyslexia and dyscalculia in the classroom are coming and not a moment too soon, says Associate Minister of Education Tracey Martin.
“Parents and children have been mucked around for years around this – I’m not going to muck them around anymore.
“For too long, kids in schools at most would get an assessment when they were young, then possibly a reader and writer to help them with their NCEA when they were 15 if they were lucky. In the meantime, they’ve spent all that time thinking they’re stupid. They’re not stupid. It’s just a processing issue.”
In 2016 the Education and Science Select Committee issued its report from its inquiry into the identification and support for students with the significant challenges of dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in primary and secondary schools. NZ First, Labour and the Green Party said National did not go far enough and subsequently released 29 recommendations in a Minority report.
Martin was a member of the select committee. The planned changes from that report include:
- Parents will no longer have to pay for a diagnosis.
- Widening the entry level screening at five and six to include children’s formative tests at the age of seven and eight. Students need a certain level of oral language to be accurately assessed for dyslexia.
- Help for all students to be the best they can be by providing support such as texts with a blue background rather than white, and a black border; and reading pens for those who need them.
The Ministry is to find out how many students have dyslexia, said Martin.
“We don’t expect teachers to be experts on dyslexia, but we will be upskilling teaching staff to be able to spot if a child might need some extra assessment. They will then highlight that to a Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) who can then refer the child to another expert.
“There has not been enough resourcing of dyslexia and dyscalculia across the board in schools. Too much of the responsibility to have their child assessed, and then how to help them, fell on parents. That is not to be the case anymore. I will be asking the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins to work out how many SENCOs we have in our schools; if they’re overworked, if we need more SENCOs and how they can best act as liaisons for students with processing issues.
“I am working on the assumption that we need more SENCOs. We need to know if there is a shortage and if so, how do we get more in.”
The changes are being welcomed by many of the organisations who have been supporting those with dyslexia and their families including the New Zealand Dyslexia Foundation and the not-for-profit organisation SPELD NZ that provides information assessment and tuition to families, whānau, businesses and other individuals living with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities (SLDs).
SPELD NZ has been at the coal face helping those with dyslexia for more than 40 years now, says executive officer Jeremy Drummond.
“SPELD NZ has long held that investment by the government in the education of people with SLD is a social investment.
“Often learning difficulties become behavioural difficulties, and some of those who are never helped with their dyslexia may end up on a benefit and or have mental health issues.
One dollar spent today could save a million dollars in 15 or 16 years’ time.”
Currently there are very few places a parent can turn to help children with their dyslexia. Many whānau are referred to SPELD NZ by their respective schools, or families come to SPELD NZ directly.
“As a non-profit it has been a desperate situation. We have parents coming to us in tears, not knowing how to help their children. WINZ might help with a loan towards an assessment, which via SPELD NZ costs up to $540 + GST. SPELD NZ itself fundraises to help subsidise the cost for those on low incomes. Meanwhile other organisations stepping into the gap left by the ministry are charging up to $2,000 for an evaluation.”
“Once a child is referred, SPELD NZ assessors do a cognitive and educational diagnostic assessment. SPELD NZ teachers then set up a remedial plan for that child based on the diagnosis and recommendations in the assessment report.”
Dyslexia was only acknowledged by the Ministry of Education as an actual condition in 2007, Drummond said.
“So, our teachers still encounter resistance from some schools. We had an irate principal call us and say, ‘Stop encouraging people to believe in something that doesn’t exist!’”
Drummond herself overheard a SENCO, syndicate leader and a principal in a school staff room saying dyslexia doesn’t exist – it’s just a case of ‘over-achieving mothers compensating for underachieving kids’.
She said kids with dyslexia develop strategies to cope with their inability to process information in the classroom.
“They may end up with anxiety or act as the class clown or opt out when they’re being mocked and ridiculed because people make fun of them because they can’t read.”
Drummond explains that, fundamentally, dyslexics have very poor phonological awareness. If they can’t identify the 40 basic sounds in our language, they can’t link those sounds to appropriate letters of the alphabet. SPELD NZ teachers address these issues through a sequential phonological awareness and phonics programme as a basis for learning to read.
“A student with dyscalculia struggles in another way. For example, when we see five dots on a page you or I automatically see five dots. Somebody with dyscalculia must count them individually to know there are five dots.”
Drummond explains that SPELD NZ regularly receives calls from employers who want help for their employees who seem very bright but are struggling with reading and writing. Or they’ll have employees who are fabulous at what they do but are hitting a glass ceiling because of their processing skills which prevent them from going beyond manual or menial work.
“We do get a number of queries from schools because they are struggling to cope with students who have dyslexia. It’s been a crazy situation where parents have to pay for the assessment once referred by the school. It is an educational right of ALL children to graduate with core literacy. Their needs are not being met so we as charity are expected to provide that support.”
Often, as Drummond points out, dyslexia runs in families, so a single parent could get a loan from WINZ that they must then pay back out of their benefit, to help go towards one child’s assessment – but not be able to afford the cost of her other children to get assessed.
Wellington student Matthew Strawbridge hated being called dumb, stupid and lazy when he was struggling in primary school. Now aged 18, after getting A pluses at Victoria University in his philosophy paper, he is putting his studies on hold to run his business Dyslexia Potential, which, among other things, runs workshops for children with dyslexia.
“I couldn’t believe that when I announced my workshop for kids with dyslexia it sold out – only 20 spaces were available, and one woman flew her grandson up from Gore to attend.”
His story is a testament to why awareness, acceptance and support are so essential for children living with a learning difference.
“When my parents and teacher first noticed I was struggling with reading and writing I had my eyes tested. I could talk well but when it came to written work I had no idea. There was a teacher who had the capacity to engage with me and realised that I understood when taught verbally. When my sight and hearing tests came back fine, we were told I was probably dyslexic.”
Strawbridge was around eight years old when he took the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities, which confirmed his dyslexia.
He explains that every dyslexic is a bit different, and that in his case deciphering each letter was like a word-find puzzle.
“When I was reading or writing, it wasn’t that every word was blurry, it was every letter within the word. I had to distinguish every letter one letter at a time, then figure out what word that might spell.
“In your early school years, the focus is on reading, writing and maths for six hours a day, which is a long time when you’re young. As a result, I couldn’t do anything right, day after day. I began to say, ‘I’m stupid, I can’t read’. I had no self-belief. When I was seven I began to get stomach problems and my personality changed. My parents were shocked when the doctor said your son is most likely depressed.”
Strawbridge’s parents told him about his uncle who was a veterinarian and had opened seven veterinary clinics.
“Their encouragement was great. They’d say to me ‘you’re actually too smart -– your brain is going too fast’. And they told me ‘when school gets harder, you’ll get better because the work will have caught up to your brain”. In year 9 I used to get 30 per cent in business studies, then later on I topped the class.”
He says it was a matter of recognising his strengths and using them to overcome his weaknesses.
“I’m really good at asking for help, and I really struggle with filling out forms manually. At university I get pre-readings of lectures. When I’m writing an essay, I use Grammarly and spell checkers. I can’t hear the mistakes when I read out my work, so I have a programme which reads out my essay to me and then I can hear the difference.”
When Strawbridge began Dyslexia Potential, he was inundated.
“I had no idea there was almost no support for dyslexics out there. As well as the workshops, I’ve put together an online programme of 23 different lessons to help kids with their reading and writing.
“The website also shares the stories of inventors and entrepreneurs who have dyslexia. When kids hear that the likes of Richard Branson and Einstein have dyslexia, they feel great. I know that feeling of growing up with dyslexia – you feel stupid the whole time – and I vowed when I was 13 that not one more kid with dyslexia would feel like that.”
He sees kids transformed in his workshops.
“Kids come in holding their mum and dad’s legs, are very shy and don’t want to be there. Being with other kids with dyslexia, they realise they are not the only one. When I first said, ‘Now let’s do spelling’, I was nearly booed out of my own workshop! But we worked in teams and taught them how to spell in fun ways and they loved it.
“People with dyslexia have superpowers because we are superb problem solvers. We’re faced with a white board with words floating around on it for example. So we must solve that problem by getting a teacher to email the notes to us. Adaptability is a key strength in the new economy and dyslexics have spent years problem solving day in, day out. We are an asset.”