I never planned to write a post about dyslexia: I’ve no very direct experience or personal knowledge, and there seemed to be so many better-qualified organisations and people in the world. Then I met the inspiring Sally Gardner, severely dyslexic and acclaimed author, who fully deserves and will get a post of her own in the New Year, and she had so many wise and encouraging things to say that I thought they were well worth sharing.
Here’s an eye-opener, for anyone who has ever wondered what dyslexia feels like: Sally’s latest, compelling and troubling novel for young adults has a dyslexic hero. The brilliant Hotkey books have produced an enhanced e-edition in which the start of a chapter in print behaves as it does for various forms of dyslexia, with the text bunching and waving, words skipping and letters surreptitiously rearranging. See it here:
There are no definite figures for the number of people in the UK with some degree of dyslexia, but it’s generally thought to be around 5-15% of the population. For parents of struggling readers, it’s a frightening prospect: we’re well aware, these days, how much success at school, at work and even socially (think Facebook and Twitter) depends on reading skills. There is huge pressure to succeed with reading at a very early age, and difficulties are sometimes misread as warning signs. English is a horrendous language to learn how to read: the variations in spelling and pronunciation in written English put it far beyond Italian or Spanish, even German or Russian, and not far behind Korean, Japanese or Chinese. Little wonder that children ‘get’ reading at different stages: those who struggle, when their contemporaries seem well ahead, may yet have the capacity to catch up and surge when they are ready and given the chance.
The good news is that dyslexia is probably better understood and accepted these days than ever before – certainly better than during the many generations in which the condition wasn’t recognised, and struggling readers were condemned as stubborn or stupid, to be punished and all too easily written off. Schools now identify and support struggling readers, whether dyslexic or for other reasons, rather than shaming and caning them. Publishers, too, recognise and reach out to dyslexic or reluctant readers as never before. Head and shoulders above the rest, to my mind, is specialist Barrington Stoke, who have some 20 years’ experience in producing books specifically for struggling readers, and who make a point of commissioning short books from well-known authors (so that nobody can say “You can’t possibly read Eoin Colfer – Anthony Horowitz – Michael Morpurgo, he’s far too difficult for you”). They produce well-written, snappy, accessible books, printed in a highly readable font, well-spaced on cream paper (not white – the high contrast can aggravate reading problems), and have an excellent range of reading levels, interest levels and topics. Any library worth its salt should have a good selection.
Given my recent involvement in the school library, I asked Sally Gardner how to make sure we didn’t freeze out struggling readers. Her answer was “why-didn’t-we-think-of-that” obvious: audiobooks. Read Sally’s own books and you’ll soon see that this is someone with a rare ear for language: she is passionate about the plain fact that a struggling reader can hear and be inspired bygreat children’s literature just as well as anyone else. Again, most local libraries have a reasonable audiobook collection (although Hammersmith and Fulham, to their shame, now charge for audio loans to children; Kensington and Westminster don’t). As it happens, the day after meeting Sally I found myself at the NASEN Special Needs London resources exhibition where I discovered the brilliant Calibre audio library, a free postal library with a choice of over 1,400 audiobooks (CD or MP3) for children and young people with visual impairment or dyslexia. There is a one-off joining fee of £20, for which you get access to a huge range of books, a friendly, personal service – and responses like Will (8): “I can read the same books as my friends, so now I don’t miss out any more”, or Jamila (15): “Now I know what fun books can be, I work harder at reading print”. Find out more at www.youngcalibre.org.uk. AudioGo (formerly Chivers audiobooks and BBC Audio) also have a fantastic range including “Read and listen” titles with book and CD (Westminster libraries have a selection); closer to home, the Usborne Reading Programme includes a range of titles with listen-along and read-along CD.
There are many good sources of help and advice for parents and children with dyslexia or with broader concerns about difficulties with reading. The British Dyslexia Association is an effective campaigning organisation with a helpful FAQ page. http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about-dyslexia/faq/parents.html. for parents. The Helen Arkell Centre http://www.arkellcentre.org.uk in Farnham, Surrey is another good source of advice and support, as well as tutoring and training. Book club Red House has some excellent advice for supporting both dyslexia and reluctant readers, http://my.redhouse.co.uk/learn/supporting-dyslexic-readers/9-years and http://my.redhouse.co.uk/learn/how-help-children-aged-9-who-are-struggling-reading/9-years.
The last and best word goes to Sally Gardner: “Dyslexia is a terrible word – most dyslexics can’t even spell it. I don’t feel it describes who I am or what I am at all… To all of you with dyslexia – don’t let it get you down. You were given a parcel wrapped together with masses of sticky Sellotape and many layers. By the time you’ve left school, most of your friends have managed to unwrap their parcels with ease, while you are still struggling with the Sellotape. It is a lucky dyslexic person who manages to unwrap their parcel before leaving school. But when you finally do, what’s in your parcel is priceless and worth more than you could ever imagine. Don’t give up.”