One in 10 children has dyslexia, a specific learning difficulty (SLD) affecting the acquisition of fluent and accurate reading and spelling skills. Research shows that early identification and supports lead to the best outcomes for these children. Yet, there are significant barriers to both in Ireland today.
The majority of parents are forced to seek private assessments as the education system isn’t resourced to meet demand. In a recent Dyslexia Association survey, just 26pc of children received a public assessment. And what about the countless children whose parents cannot afford private assessment?
Many resource allocation systems require diagnostic assessment (educational psychology report); without assessment, many students are effectively denied access to such supports.
The NCSE has proposed a new model for delivery of supports for students with special educational needs, which promotes a needs-based model — rather than resources being linked to diagnostic assessment. While this should ensure fairer, more equitable access to supports, the need to appropriately identify a student’s learning needs remains.
Traditionally, a discrepancy model, measuring the gap between IQ and literacy skills was used to diagnose dyslexia, however this model is outdated. Specialist teachers could carry out evidence-based assessment of dyslexia in schools.
A notable advance is the Trinity Early Screening Test in Reading and Writing (TEST2R)., designed to help teachers identify five- and six-year-olds who may experience literacy difficulties. It is hoped that this will be introduced in all primary schools in the new school year.
The lack of mandatory teacher training on dyslexia identification and support strategies is also worrying. Only 30pc of teachers report getting any pre-service training on dyslexia/SLD, and 92pc report that it did not adequately prepare them for the classroom.
The NCSE’s new model relies heavily on teachers being able to identify and support students. Without a significant commitment to improve teacher training on dyslexia/SLD, there is a real risk that dyslexic children’s needs will continue to be unidentified and unmet.
Investment in teacher training at all levels is required. Every class teacher needs some knowledge on dyslexia identification and support strategies. Specialist teachers need advanced training to enable them to assess for dyslexia (and provide evidence-based specialist tuition). This would reduce the current mandatory requirement for students with dyslexia to be assessed by an educational psychologist. An added advantage is that teachers can assess using a staged, continuous assessment model, which includes regular monitoring of progress. The new Masters in SLD (Dyslexia), at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, is welcome, but more is needed.
While people with dyslexia can have accompanying learning strengths, they often experience great frustration and anxiety with learning. If their needs are not identified and supported early in their education, the relative gap between them and their peers grows over time (the Matthew effect). While support at any age can help, its impact is greatest in the early years of schooling.
* Rosie Bissett is CEO of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, which is hosting its 2015 European Conference – Innovation in Assessment and Teaching, in UCD on Saturday