Wednesday 17 January 2018

Sometimes it's just not quite as simple as ABC

Elisha McCann Hunt is one of a quarter of million children with dyslexia, but thanks to a tailor-made online literacy programme she is now within the normal reading range.

Elisha McCann Hunt learning to read the words ‘bear’ and ‘ear’. Photo: Jeff Harvey
Elisha McCann Hunt learning to read the words ‘bear’ and ‘ear’. Photo: Jeff Harvey
Elisha practising her reading with mum Sheelagh. Photo: Jeff Harvey

Edel Coffey

Over a quarter of a million school-age children and half a million adults have some form of dyslexia or reading and spelling disorder. Sheelagh McCann Hunt, from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, knew things were not right with her 10-year-old daughter Elisha's reading and writing skills. "I knew instinctively that she wasn't picking things up. You'd do the same word 100 times and she still didn't get it."

As Elisha got older, she was becoming more and more anxious about her literacy skills. "She was so worried about it. She missed 22 days of school because of it. The teachers were fantastic but she couldn't read or write and when you're in a class and everyone else can do it, it was just horrible."

When Elisha was 8, she tested in the 1st and 2nd percentile for spelling and reading respectively. A year later, Sheelagh discovered an independent literacy programme called WordsWorth. The woman behind the programme is Rita Treacy, a speech and language therapist who went through dyslexia herself and has put the last18 years of her clinical practice experience as a therapist into developing the programme, which aims to resolve the difficulties of both children and adults who struggle with reading and literacy.

"From personal experience, both as someone who is dyslexic and as a therapist with 27 years experience, the journey to solving literacy issues is a fragmented and frustrating one," says Rita.

"Parents, teachers and those affected by 'poor' literacy often struggle to find a solution, despite their best efforts."

Sheelagh brought Elisha to Rita to be assessed. "Rita reassessed the child fully," says Sheelagh. "The way the standardised testing is done means it is a general test. They're looking for an intellectual disability and global development delay."

After her assessment, Sheelagh signed Elisha signed up for the WordsWorth programme.

The course is made up of streamed video tutorials and graphics with interactive exercises that can be carried out at school and at home. Elisha did the online WordsWorth programme for 15 minutes in school every day and 15 minutes at home.

The online nature of the programme meant that Elisha could do her exercises in her classroom and didn't have to be seen to be taken out of class for 'special' tuition. Sheelagh found the programme particularly good because of its friendly, patient tone.

As well as the online course, Elisha visited Rita for a weekly session for seven months. "It's like Rita has a sense of expectation that that child won't fail," says Sheelagh.

"It's all about trying to get it right and trying to learn the rules and from day one Rita expected Elisha to succeed. She was always good enough for Rita. The language she uses around the child is great. Slowly but surely, you could see the progression.

"The experience Elisha had with Rita was incredible. Normally, when a child walks in to a situation like that, they're stressed and nervous because they feel they're going to fail. Elisha walked out of that room with Rita thinking she was the most intelligent child."

With four children, including an eight-year-old son with autism, Sheelagh has a busy family life and one-on-one time with children is not always possible. One of the unexpected benefits of Elisha's weekly visits to Rita was that mother and daughter got to spend quality time together.

"We would have a donut or a slush puppy on the way. Elisha's mouth was usually blue from the Slush Puppy by the time we got to the session with Rita. I was forever trying to encourage her to get a red Slush Puppy!"

After seven months of doing the programme, Sheelagh had Elisha reassessed in October. "She had moved from the 2nd percentile to the 22nd percentile in her reading ability and there was a significant increase in her spelling ability too."

What about the expense? The online programme costs €99. But Sheelagh points out that Elisha's treatment never cost more than her children's allowance. "And there is no cost in doing the things Rita recommended, like going to the library and getting audiobooks, reading road signs, teletext, and the ingredients on a packet of sweets."

One of the happiest outcomes of Elisha doing the programme was that, this year, she was able to write her own letter to Santa. "We sat down and she wrote her Santa letter. She wouldn't have had the confidence to do that before. It was this whole thing of thinking 'I'm stupid in school and now Santa will know I'm stupid too'. This year she told me 'mammy, rollerblades is a compound word'."

Sheelagh herself understands better than most what it is like to suffer from dyslexia. "I went back to college as a mature student to do a degree in Trinity in psychology. I was diagnosed with mild dyslexia when I was 30 and you're labelled as having a disability rather than it being something that is part of your make-up as a person."

Elisha, like many people with literacy difficulties, has strong talents in areas outside of reading, writing and spelling. "She is so great at drawing," says Sheelagh. "When you grow up with that kind of brain connection you see people in a different way, you don't judge them the same way as non-dyslexics do. We live in an academic world but if dyslexics are allowed to flourish they're incredibly intuitive people. If you ask a dyslexic and non-dyslexic for directions, the person with dyslexia will tell you go by the pink hospital, and turn left where the leaves are falling from the trees."

Sheelagh says going through the standardised academic system can be difficult for those with dyslexia. "I think it kind of batters you as a person because you're constantly failing and getting poor scores. I failed miserably at Irish and that constant sense of failure is hard because you're not appreciated as you."

While Elisha can now read and write, Sheelagh concedes she will always have some problems around reading but she is now within the normal reading range. "I know and she knows that she can now read and spell."

Unlike most school children of her age, Elisha is actively encouraged to use electronic gadgets like iPods and mobile phones. "It's because she has to read instructions to play the games on the iPod and it's good for her to have to write text messages."

Sheelagh is convinced about the benefits of the WordsWorth programme and says the cost is worth every cent.

"Think of what people spend on toys and presents. This is going to change Elisha's life. Before, she couldn't even remember how to spell her password and email addresses were so complicated. Now she keeps changing her password – which I'm not happy about it!"

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  • 10pc of the general population is dyslexic
  • 25pc of the general population is functionally illiterate
  • 41pc of the unemployed population is dyslexic
  • 50pc of the prison population is dyslexic
  • 70pc of the young offenders are dyslexic
  • 80pc of the school truants are dyslexic

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