independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Dyslexia does not always spell failure

Turning over a new leaf: more help is now available for school pupils taking exams

The number of Irish students receiving special waivers in the Junior and Leaving Cert exams for poor written spelling and grammar has soared, according to the latest government figures.

Under the controversial exam clause, students with dyslexia can seek waivers in exams so that their spelling and grammar are not taken into account.

Figures from the State Examination Commission for 2007 show that the number of students receiving the exemption is five times what it was in 2001.

The number using the waiver during last year's Junior and Leaving cert exams has shot up to over 6,000.

Last year 1,841 pupils received waivers for the Leaving cert, compared to 1,458 in 2006.

It is one of the most controversial areas of education. Should people with dyslexia be allowed to have the waivers? And if their spelling and grammar mistakes are disregarded should it be noted on their Junior and Leaving certificates?

Dyslexia, as it is generally understood, is defined as an abnormal difficulty in reading and spelling.

According to the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, it is a specific condition that is not related to intelligence.

The association estimates that more than 50,000 Irish children are affected. Some 8pc to 10pc of the population are reckoned to have some form of the condition.

Whereas before, pupils with dyslexia might have had little or no chance of getting through public exams and going on to third level, now allowances are made for them.

In order to receive the waiver for the Leaving cert pupils have to apply through their school and a report from a psychologist is usually required. At Junior cert level, a recommendation from school authorities is sufficient.

Anne Hughes, director of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, says the growth in the number of pupils availing of the waiver has been caused by growing awareness of dyslexia rather than any abuse of the system.

"Just a few years ago, many people did not know about dyslexia. Many people with dyslexia are highly intelligent. In years gone by, it was assumed they were stupid, and the condition was missed. In the worst cases they were even beaten.'' The waivers for people with dyslexia and other disabilities are now an accepted part of the exam system.

But one aspect of this exemption continues to be the subject of intense dispute.

In English and language subjects, the actual exam certificates issued to dyslexic pupils carries an explanatory note.

For English the note reads, "All parts of the examination were assessed except spelling and written punctuation elements.''

In non-English language subjects the accompanying note says, "All parts of the examination in this subject were assessed except spelling.''

Dyslexics claim the asterisk on exam certs stigmatise them unfairly, and are currently fighting a legal battle to have the asterisk and note removed.

The comedian Brendan O'Carroll, himself a dyslexic, even claimed recently that the notes were comparable to the labelling of children as "bastards'' on birth certs.

Two students with dyslexia last year won a case at an Equality Tribunal when they claimed that the asterisk discriminated against them on the grounds of disability.

They were awarded €6,000 each and the Department was ordered to re-issue their Leaving Certs without the notes. But a judge at the Circuit overturned the ruling, and the Equality Authority is currently appealing the case to the High Court.

Dyslexia has often been the subject of controversy, with some education experts even claiming that the condition is a myth.

Julian Elliott, professor of Education at Durham University, caused uproar three years ago when he argued that there was no agreed definition, no sure way of diagnosing it, and no clear way of treating it.Kerrywoman Ann Fitzgerald is seeking Department of Education backing for a system of computer-aided learning, which aims to help children with dyslexia.

Ann assists 30 children out of school hours using the IDL (Indirect Dyslexia Learning) from a centre in Dingle.

There are two further IDL centres in Mallow and Dublin. Pupils, who are taught individually or in pairs, attend two one-hour sessions every week.

They learn through a "multi-sensory'' programme.

This mean that they not only see words. They hear them, speak them, and type them on computer screens.

Each word is presented individually on the computer, orally and visually, and the pupil repeats it, before it is eventually placed in a script.

The script is read by the student, recorded on the computer and then played back.

"I first came across this system in London a few years ago," says Ann. "I used it with a child of a close friend of mine and I found it worked extremely well. We are not presenting this as a cure for dyslexia, but I believe that it can complement the work that teachers are doing in schools, and it is also fun for children."

Although some British academic research on the IDL system shows that it brings benefits to students, there has been no independent research on it in Ireland.

Ann says: "Our results show at least 6 months of improvement in reading and spelling, for 3 months attendance, and often more than 12 months improvement.

"The system also gives social benefits, such as improved concentration and self-confidence."

Ann says she has a made a submission to the Department of Education for the scheme to be used in Irish schools, but she says she has not received a response.

The IDL system, which is run as a business, is not the only option for parents seeking help for dyslexic pupils out of school hours.

The Dyslexia Association of Ireland also runs regular out-of-school workshops for children at 30 locations across the country. and Tom Cruise, Winston Churchill and Anthony Hopkins

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