Sarah Prestidge, RTLB Service / AUT – Auckland University of Technology
“The single most important implication of research in dyslexia is not ensuring that we don’t derail the development of a future Leonardo or Edison; it is making sure that we do not miss the potential of any child. Not all children with dyslexia have extraordinary talents, but every one of them has a unique potential that all too often goes unrealized because we don’t know how to tap it”Wolf & Stoodley, 2008, p. 209
Dyslexia is a multifaceted condition that causes the brain to think and process in a distinct and unique way from non-dyslexic thinkers. This results in aspects of learning such as reading and spelling being more difficult for dyslexic students to grasp. On the other hand, skills such as creativity, problem-solving and thinking outside the box are often areas of strengths for dyslexic thinkers.
Unfortunately, this combination of strengths and weaknesses does not fit neatly into our school system and can often result in dyslexic thinkers struggling through the school and being made to feel ‘stupid’. To help teachers and other educators create a culture of success for dyslexic students, this blog post first provides some up-to-date information about dyslexia and then summarises the findings of my Masters research into how principals can shape a school culture that empowers dyslexic students.
Dyslexia affects between three to twenty percent of the population, making it a sizable portion of society. On average this means that in every classroom, a teacher would expect to have one to four dyslexic students. This figure highlights the importance of teachers needing to have a strong understanding of dyslexia. Beliefs about dyslexia – including what it is, how it is identified and what strategies work best for dyslexic thinkers – vary widely between educators (see here and here), with a number of researchers expressing concern about the gap between research and teacher understanding around dyslexia.
Current researchers in the field define dyslexia as “an unexpected difficulty in reading in individuals who otherwise possess the intelligence and motivation considered necessary for fluent reading, and who also have had reasonable reading instruction” (Ferrer et al., 2010, p. 93). The challenges faced by dyslexic thinkers vary in size and scope depending on severity. Dyslexia is often referred to as a “multiple-deficit” disorder because there is no one main cause or factor attributed to how dyslexic thinkers think or present. Delayed speech or difficulties in rhyming, sounding out words, segmenting and/or manipulating words all lead to dyslexic students primarily struggling to read and spell. For some dyslexic students, mathematics also proves to be difficult, with struggles initially in number identification and then in rote learning of times tables and solving rule-based problems such as calculating the square root of a number (see here and here).
While dyslexia presents challenges, there are also unique strengths that dyslexic thinkers tend to exhibit such as creativity, visual-spatial skills and ability to think ‘outside the box’. Shaywitz (2005) has argued that change is needed in the way we treat and work with dyslexic students, stating that we need to allow a child’s strengths to shine rather than their weaknesses.
The current situation
Recent studies in New Zealand have concluded that our current education system is not adequately catering to neuro-diverse learners. Experts have proposed that educators lack the tools to know how to best teach dyslexic students, leaving both parents and students feeling frustrated that children’s needs are not being catered for (see here, here, and here).
The New Zealand Ministry of Education recently published two reports, both attempting to rectify how neuro-diverse students are supported in the school system: the Learning Support Action Plan (2019) and About Dyslexia: Supporting Literacy in the Classroom (2020). One of the major shifts that both these reports highlighted was the need to change from a deficit focus to a strength focus. Historically, research and practice has concentrated on mitigating dyslexic students’ areas of weakness. While no one argues that supporting students in areas of need is a bad thing, this deficit view should not be our sole focus – we also need to recognise the unique strengths that dyslexic students may have.
My research: The importance of school leadership and culture
Every school has its own unique culture, and principals play a significant role in setting the tone and direction in their school. My Masters research project (2020) proposed that dyslexic thinkers would benefit from a cultural shift in the way schools teach and approach dyslexic thinkers. The autonomy of New Zealand schools gives school leaders the freedom to make these cultural changes at their school and to address challenges that dyslexic thinkers face.
My research specifically explored the key aspects of how principals can shift to a strength-focused school culture for the purpose of empowering dyslexic students. Four principals of schools that were identified as being successful with dyslexic students, or were deemed to be doing something out of the ordinary for dyslexic students, were interviewed as part of this research.
My findings: What effective leaders can do
Firstly, educators need to recognise that dyslexia is complex, yet understanding it is vitally important. The role of education is to equip and prepare students for adulthood. To do this, we need to know students as individuals, believing that every person is unique and has distinctive abilities and strengths that should be identified and valued. Early identification of dyslexia is essential in valuing students and vital for the general wellbeing of dyslexic thinkers. Waiting for students to fail before identifying them as dyslexic is detrimental to both their self-concept and self-esteem.
Secondly, professional development is a key aspect in developing a culture of success for dyslexic students. It is important that school leaders have a solid understanding of dyslexia and the science of teaching reading, since they are entrusted with the task of leading pedagogy and curriculum development in their schools. Arming teachers with the tools to support dyslexic students so that they feel equipped to teach dyslexic students is also essential.
Finally, becoming a strength-focused school is a journey, and this process should reflect the community of learners that the particular school caters for. West (2017, p. 191) challenges education leaders, arguing that
“the time has come to be serious about trying to understand the talents of dyslexics and other different thinkers. I propose that it is time to build a bold and ambitious program that will focus primarily on talent.”
Developing a strength-focussed culture is about recognising that all students have strengths but, in this case, particularly dyslexic students whose weaknesses can often be the focus in schools. This culture shift requires both time and intentionality by the school leadership. Each school needs to go on its own journey to create such a culture that is reflective of both their community and their learners.
Sarah Prestidge is an educator who has worked in school leadership roles in both New Zealand and Fiji. She has recently completed a Masters in Education Leadership through AUT with a focus on creating a culture of success for dyslexic students in New Zealand primary schools. Her complete Masters dissertation is available here.