A colleague and I were recently discussing my twin daughters’ development and I mentioned how fascinating it was to watch them grow and learn. I explained that they had very different learning styles. Kimaya likes to use her hands to explore and often sits quietly trying to fit puzzles or building blocks together. She likes to take things apart to put them together again and finds it a real accomplishment when she succeeds. She is very visual too and learns by watching intently before she tries something herself. Kina on the other hand likes to listen and repeat. As a result, her vocabulary is advanced for a two and a half year old. She enjoys talking a lot and is able to learn languages quite easily. Both girls really enjoy books. They love being read to and they like to read along too. This got me thinking about my own learning style and how I was taught at school.
I learnt by doing so I excelled in practical lessons likes music, sports and wood work. I found learning languages easier than learning maths or science. I also found it difficult to read and write at the speed that was expected. It wasn’t until I was 21 years old that I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
This diagnosis explained a lot. It explained why I had struggled with any form of learning where we were expected to sit in silence to work through text books. It also explained why I felt anxious when I was required to read out loud.
My ability to read and write effectively differed immensely from my peers, which left me feeling inadequate a lot of the time. At school I was often told that I was stupid or lazy, so this is what I started to believe. I realise now that my teachers hadn’t thought about adapting their teaching style to meet the needs of learners like me.
I suspect that when I was at school many of my teachers had not come across theories such as metacognition, active learning or assessment for learning. They also didn’t have access to the resources available to many today. Although they adjusted their lesson plans each year to match the new curriculum, were they really considering how to make the classroom an engaging and stimulating environment for every child?
Being diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia didn’t change me as a person. However, I did feel reassured that I was neither stupid nor lazy. I simply needed to learn things in a different way from my peers.
You’ll find that a great many dyslexics have excelled in later life, for example Albert Einstein. His teachers said that he was, ‘’mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift in his foolish dreams”. However, people with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD and autism have other strengths. Often they are good at lateral thinking, strategising, problem-solving and thinking creatively.
Traditional learning environments may be suitable for students who can learn through reading, writing and recitation. However, these environments run the risk of discriminating against students who need a more differentiated approach to meet their learning needs.
I would argue that children with dyslexia or dyspraxia shouldn’t be labelled as having a “learning difficulty”. It’s not that they are struggling to learn, it’s more a case that the pedagogical approach in many mainstream education systems is inappropriate for them.
The experience of being labelled as having a ‘learning difficulty’ can send a learner’s confidence spiralling in the wrong direction. As a child I know it hindered my enthusiasm for reading and writing. I also knew that I had no choice but to learn to read quickly and write effectively, so I persevered.
It wasn’t easy and still isn’t. The world remains focused on written text, so reading and writing skills have to be learned in order to succeed at school and in the working world. Learners need assistance with developing these skills and should be encouraged to choose a path that works for them. Dyslexia isn’t something that goes away, so we need to modify our teaching to fit our learners’ needs and encourage them to unlock and meet their full potential.