Celebrating Dyslexic Diversity

Schools and society talk a lot about diversity in learning: but how often do we focus on celebrating learning differences, as well as merely accepting them? A recent article in the Times (8.10.20, Nicola Woolcock) is entitled ‘Dyslexia can be a blessing, teachers told in training drive.’ The article suggests that teachers should ‘promote the benefits of being dyslexic’ rather than treating the condition as a disability, and reports that ‘Made by Dyslexia’ plans to train every teacher in the world (really?) within five years about dyslexic strengths. The plan is supported by Richard Branson and Keira Knightley, both of whom are dyslexic.

Research suggests that dyslexic people are talented in some forms of communication, visualisation and reasoning, so the plan is to promote the business skills of curiosity, creativity and lateral thinking. So what might this mean for schools?
Dyslexia has often been associated with lack of spelling and writing skills – for example, confused letter formation or words written back to front. The article rightly points to the fact that as spelling and writing errors on the screen can now be put right at the touch of a button, why do schools allow such difficulties to mask other strengths that pupils may have?

Dyslexia is recognised as a specific learning difficulty: meaning that children identified with this condition do not have difficulties across the board, ie. there is no generalised cognitive impairment. This difference between dyslexia and some other forms of learning difficulty is important because it is far too easy to lump children with problems together and place them into the same box. Once in that same learning box – individualised differentiation is less likely to happen.

What is the difference between specific and cognitive learning difficulties? Children with cognitive learning difficulties are likely to learn at a much slower pace than the majority of their peers, and their difficulties are manifested across much of the curriculum. A child with cognitive learning difficulties does not reach understanding as easily as a child without such difficulties, and therefore needs to be taught in ways that allow for more repetition and practised reinforcement of skills and knowledge. Cognitive impairment is to do with limited intelligence.

Back to dyslexia. Dyslexic pupils often have excellent intelligence and may excel in thinking and reasoning skills, as well as creativity. They frequently have the capacity to think outside the box – hence there are many good reasons for not placing such learners in the same box as those with more generalised (cognitive) learning difficulties. Whilst expectations for all learners must be as high as possible, it is easy to underestimate the capabilities of dyslexic children and smother their alternative strengths.

Given the importance of writing and spelling as assessments of overall ability, dyslexic pupils have often not been given opportunities to demonstrate their other strengths. So I welcome the ‘Made by Dyslexia’ plan to educate teachers in understanding the alternative skills of dyslexic learners. What a pity that it has taken so long. This is hardly new information.

Whilst dyslexia is hardly a ‘blessing’ as suggested in the title of Woolcock’s article, there needs to be a fresh approach to society’s way of thinking about disability. The word (disability) does carry a very negative connotation and often leads teachers and other educators to grossly underestimate what many disabled learners are capable of – for example, those with autism, sensory impairments and physical disabilities.

Here is the important thing – unless a child has severe cognitive learning difficulties, and has therefore demonstrated well-below-average achievement, in spite of additional support, curriculum expectations for all children should be equally high. What matters is that the barriers that prevent children from achieving are removed to allow all learners to reach their potential.

So, let’s all celebrate the alternative strengths of diversity, including those of dyslexia. Most children can fly – given the chance.

My educational books for parents support the aim of high expectations. Start by finding out WHAT your child learns and HOW. My books will help – Support Your Child with SEND (Book 1) and at successive Key Stages (Books 2 to 4), by Sylvia Edwards, are available from Lulu in printed and ebook form, and from Amazon. Visit my website: www.sylviaedwardsauthor.co.uk

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