When she found her two sons were dyslexic

Ever since Kate Currawalla learnt that her two sons were dyslexic she wanted to do something to help children with learning disabilities. In 1996 she founded the Maharashtra Dyslexia Association, of which she is also the President, with the aim of promoting the rights of children with learning disabilities. The Association trains teachers in administering a multisensory, structured language programme to a child with problems in the area of language development. It also runs several short courses and workshops throughout the year across the country to help more teachers and parents understand their children with learning disabilities better. In Hyderabad, to conduct a workshop for teachers, Teacher Plus caught up with her briefly. Here are a few excerpts from an interview with Ms. Currawalla.

Currawalla

What is Dyslexia and what are the early signs?
Dyslexia is a neurological disorder characterised by difficulties in reading, writing, spelling and short-term memory, despite adequate intelligence and appropriate instruction. This means that a young person with dyslexia struggles to pick up these skills although he or she has normal (and sometimes above-normal) intelligence. In the pre-primary years, these children often display a marked lack of bilateral coordination. They have difficulty in the normal Montessori activities like lacing, threading beads or drawing and colouring within a specified space. They may seem to be clumsy, always tripping over themselves. Speech development may be slow, and accurate pronunciation is often affected. Children with dyslexia may also have poor social skills, and often display a lack of understanding where rules and social norms are concerned.

In primary school, these difficulties rapidly escalate as the demands on mastering print – both reading and writing – increase. Poor reading and writing skills lead to difficulties in comprehension, acquisition of vocabulary, in written mathematics and abstract reasoning skills as the student moves through the school.

What is it like to have dyslexia?
Because of the difficulties they face in the classroom, young children with dyslexia show signs of distress. They may complain of headaches and stomach-aches, become quiet and withdrawn or aggressive. The sensory-motor deficits that underlie this disorder often lead to anxiety and maybe even depression. Poor social skills, combined with their abject class performance often lead to bullying and peer rejection. To make matters worse, few adults seem to understand what the child is going through, that he/she is genuinely struggling with day-to-day tasks. Even students with relatively mild problems face a daily struggle that impacts their personality.

How can parents or teachers tell that a child is dyslexic?
Children with dyslexia often seem “different” from others of the same age. They may show no interest in being read to, colouring and activities that others their age seem to enjoy. They usually have difficulty with activities requiring fine motor skills, such as using the scissors, holding a crayon or buttoning up. While these are not necessarily red flags at an early age, parents faced by a child who is reluctant to go to school, or shows sudden changes in behaviour after starting school should take these seriously and speak to the class teacher to find out what is happening at school.

Pre-primary teachers should be alert for the child whose motor and language development are not at par with others their age, especially if the child appears bright and capable in some areas, but lagging markedly in others. At any age, a teacher or parent who feels that a child’s academic performance does not seem to match his/her perceived intelligence should observe the child more closely or ask for an evaluation.

Is dyslexia genetic/hereditary?
Dyslexia does appear to run in families, and recent research on the human genome has isolated what seem to be genetic markers for dyslexia. However, there may be other reasons – for example, birth trauma. Although there is a common belief that it is more prevalent among males, recent studies do not bear this out. The important thing to remember is that, with early and appropriate intervention, people with dyslexia can build on their considerable talents and lessons in resilience to become productive and successful adults.

What kind of medical tests does the child have to undergo?
While early intervention is very advantageous, a diagnosis of dyslexia is only given after the age of seven. A battery of psycho-educational tests needs to be administered to confirm that the child’s IQ falls within the normal range (it could be in the above-normal or even in the gifted range, as is seen among high-functioning people with dyslexia). Ophthalmic, auditory and neurological problems also need to be ruled out. A full-scale assessment would also involve an analysis of the child’s performance in reading, written expression, Mathematics, reasoning and short-term memory, and normally takes several sessions.

What strategies can a teacher adopt?
Traditionally, a remedial programme that uses a multi-sensory approach to the teaching of language, with a stress on phonics has been recognised as the best approach to teaching children with dyslexia. This methodology addresses the underlying deficits in the language area such as phonemic awareness and sound-symbol recognition, gradually building the language skills in a systematic and structured manner. Such a programme should be administered by a trained remedial teacher or special educator to ensure that all areas of this “hidden disability” are adequately addressed. Activities that develop auditory and visual perception are also built into the programme. Occupational therapy is helpful in overcoming sensory-motor difficulties, and some children may need speech therapy as well.

Interestingly, recent research in the area of neurology has shown that this kind of multi-sensory, structured language programme can actually result in changes in the functioning of the language areas of the brain.

What teaching aids can a teacher use to make it easier for the child?
A trained Montessori teacher is well equipped to handle a child with problems in language development and motor coordination, as experiential learning is best suited for these children. At the primary school level flashcards, word games, puzzles and manipulatives are useful in presenting lessons through appropriate and accessible media, rather than the written word. Above all, the classroom teacher needs to be sensitive to the stress that the child experiences in the classroom.

Do dyslexic children need to be taught for longer periods?
Children with dyslexia have problems with learning anything that is new. As the student moves through the school from the Primary to the Secondary years and beyond, the pattern of difficulties evolves and the challenges multiply. Remedial education and training in language, social skills and study skills at various stages definitely prepare a young person better for the challenges of adulthood. At the same time, it is also important to keep in mind that dyslexic children have a multitude of talents – some excel in the fine arts, some at sports, etc. It is important for them to develop hobbies and interests that may boost their self-esteem and could guide them into a career as they reach adulthood.

In a regular classroom, if there is a dyslexic child, what should a teacher’s approach be?
A teacher who combines several methods of teaching, addressing visual, auditory and kinaesthetic modalities in the course of a lesson, will always serve her students well. Using different modes of demonstration, discussion, computers, etc., to deliver information caters to the learning styles of all the students, but certainly benefits those with learning problems. Similarly, allowing students to present assignments through different media and in different ways not only nurtures creativity, but also allows those with writing problems to demonstrate how much they have understood a topic. Above all, a little sensitivity in recognising the student’s struggle to cope can go a long way towards making the child comfortable in class, reducing stress, and leaving the mind free to focus on the task at hand.

Zeba Raziunissa is a freelancer based in Hyderabad. She can be reached at zeba_117@yahoo.co.in.


This is an excerpt from a larger article first published in Teacher Plus in August 2009.

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