Sunday, 31 July 2016

Dyslexia blog - The idiots guide to dyslexia

Dyslexic musings from a 9 year  old Rog T
For those of you who haven't read my dyslexia blogs before, here is a little preamble and introduction, so you know who I am and what I do and why I write this stuff. For those of you who know the story, skip to the end of the paragraph for todays installment. Let me give you a bit of Background so you know who I am and what I do. I was born in 1962. I didn't start talking until I was 4 years old (at all, not a single word). My parents thought I was deaf. My reading age at eleven was 5. When I was fifteen I started a rock and roll band called the False Dots, the band is still going strong. When I was 16 I started a business called Mill Hill Music Complex (although then it was simply called the studio), a rehearsal studio, as we had nowhere to rehearse. The business has grown into a very successful enterprise, one of Londons biggest and most well respected independent studios. We now have 16 studios and a music shop and also have a photography/video studio and a dance studio. I also have done IT work, mostly on a freelance basis since 1983. In 2012 I also moved into film production, producing two highly acclaimed documentary films, both of which had screenings at the House of Commons. When I was 31, a friend suggested I had a dyslexia test. To my surprise I was told I was moderately dyslexic. This made me interested in the subject. To my amazement, what I have learned over the years is that my lack of educational aptitude, my feelings of anger and injustice and the core of my personality have been formed by the fact I cannot read words in a linear fashion. In 2013, I have set one of my objectives to use this blog to let dyslexics know they are not alone, to suggest that people who think they may be dyslexic to get an assessment and toget people who have dyslexic children or siblings to understand the issues that they face.

 So today we address the issue of "dyslexia denial" . This is a cottage industry of people who are peddling the myth that dyslexia does not exist. Trying to explain dyslexia to a non dyslexic is like trying to describe colour to a blind man. People just don't get it.  I thought I'd start with the dictionary definition of what dyslexia is.

A general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.

 This is where the trouble starts. People who are unfamiliar with the condition think it is all to do with "ability to read". As far as I am concerned, ability to read has little to do with it. It is just a rather problematic side effect. If I was writing the definition, I'd say "A general term for disorders that affects an individuals ability to process information, which often degrades an individuals ability to read effectively. It does not affect general intelligence". Articles written by dyslexia deniers, such as Sunday Mail columnist Peter Hitchens claim that dyslexia is simply caused by bad teaching and that if people were taught properly in the first place, there would be no such thing as dyslexia. They further claim that the various techniques designed to help dyslexics should be dispensed with as unnecessary. Hitchens claims in a recent blog

"Most alleged dyslexics have simply never been taught to read properly, thanks to some of the worst schools in the rich world and the dogmatic refusal of many teachers to use the one tried, effective method – synthetic phonics."

I read such comments with incredulity. If there were any substance in Hitchens claims, it would be very easy to prove. I don't disagree that he has a point that some people labelled as dyslexic may not be and for some it is a convenient label to hide behind. But that is like saying that because someone in Utah conned a lot of gullible people into parting with cash for their cancer treatment, when they were perfectly healthy, all cancer sufferers are suspect. 

Lets start with his claim that dyslexia can be cured by proper teaching methods. This supposes that all with dyslexia have been poorly taught to read. This is so simplistic as to be ridiculous. I was one of a class of 40 children at St Vincents RC Primary Schoool.  My brothers and sisters, cousins and many friends had exactly the same teachers. If Hitchens claims were true, we'd all be dyslexic. My cousin Anita is two weeks younger than me. Why isn't she dyslexic? When I was  eight, the school idendtified that I had learning difficulties. I was taken out of class for "remedial reading" classes. This persisted for two years. The lessons were one on one, the assessment was that I had "issues with concentration". I found the whole thing humiliating and incedibly boring. My reading didn't really improve at all either. The issue wasn't that I couldn't read particular words. It was that the whole process of joining up all of the information didn't work properly. I don't read in a linear fashion. The teacher would give me a paragraph to read and the words would come out in random order. They would generally get crosss with me. When I read, my eye is drawn to the most interesting and difficult word in the sentence, so when I read things out, I find it incredibly difficult to read them as written. Hitchen claims that various reading techniques magically transform the ability to read. This is nonsense. For most dyslexics, they can read individual words, it is the joining up of the whole thing where it starts to go wrong. I find short sentences with straight forward words quite easy to read. If someone gives me a copy of The Sun, I can read it from cover to cover in minutes. I can easily retan the information. 

When it comes to people who use overly verbose writing techniques, I am often defeated. An example of this is Salman Rushdie. I was given a copy of The Satanic Verses at the time of the controversy. I managed three pages. Rushdie's whole style of writing seemed designed to thwart me. I found it very frustrating as the book was one I wanted to read, so I could intelligently discuss it. Another person who I find it almost impossible to read is Polly Toynbee, who writes for the Guardian. I generally agree with much of what she says, but it takes  a Herculean effort to finish one of her articles. Here is a paragraph I randomly selected from one of her recent articles.

What do her cabinet appointments tell us? Michael Gove gone suggests a vicar’s daughter echoing her party’s moral disgust at this double betrayer of his two best political friends. But if it were a moral matter, why is that arch-rotter and cad Boris Johnson her foreign secretary? Cameron’s shadowy thought tutor, Oliver Letwin, the Ayn Rand admirer and intellectual powerhouse behind anti-statism, must have known he would walk the plank from the cabinet office. But don’t assume his ideas walk with him.

I sort of get the drift of what shes saying but for me phrases like " intellectual powerhouse behind anti-statism" are simply meaningless gobbledygook and my brain says to me "stop wasting your time on this nonsense". I am not saying there is anything wrong with what Toynbee writes or her style, I am just saying that for me, as a dyslexic, it is unreadable. By the time I've got to the end of the paragraph, my brain is so overloaded that I've forgotten what it was saying at the start. There are no words that I can't read. There are no issues with the grammar or punctuation. It is just that the style overloads my brain. According to Hitchens, a bit of stiff, proper teaching would sort the problem out. I can think of no proposition that is more ridiculous. Whilst we were on holiday recently, I did one of those silly facebook quizzes. It was one to assess how large your vocabluary was. It comprised being asked 30 questions and given a multiple choice for Synonyms and Antinyms of various words. According to the test, I have a vocabulary of 30,000 words. Rather amusingly this was higher than my wife's score and she has a  langauge degree. So I have no problem remembering what words mean or how to use them. It is processing them when a lot of complex words are used in succession. 

I would guess that if you are not dyslexic, you may find this concept difficult to comprehend. Most conversations with Non Dyslexics start with "why don't you....". It isn't as simple as that. I don't want to spend my life reading The Sun. I'd rather read Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. But in some ways it is like my football skills. I'd love to be able to play like Lionel Messi. I'd love to score the winning goal in the Champions League, but the talents God gave me, meant that most of my football career was playing for the Hendon Old Boys 5th eleven as full back. 

I assume that the problem Hitchens has is that he assumes everyone is the same. We are not. We all learn things in slightly different ways. He also claims that the "dyslexia industry" are cheating "normal" people by giving dyslexics special treatment for exams at school. I find this to be ridiculous. In terms of reading speed, I read at approx 2/3rds the speed my wife does. This is a measurable fact. On several occasions we've both read the same book on a flight, using her kindle. She invariably turns the page when I am only 2/3rds down the page. She finds it incredibly frustrating and asks why I can't read faster. I believe the reason for this is due to the fact i can't read in a linear fashion, so I have to read paragraphs two or three times to assemble them in my head. I believe this is true of many dyslexics. I did public exams in 1978, 1979 and 1981. There were no special favours then. As a result, every public exam I did (apart from Maths ) I ran out of time. I ended up with nine O levels and three A levels. The O's were 2 B's (Building studies and General Studies) and a D in Physics and an E in Biology for A's and an O for Maths. These exams were meant to test my abilities in these subjects, but as far as I am concerned, the major factor in my grades was the fact that the main test was could I read the paper quickly enough. My technique for doing exam papers was to skip questions I thought were harder till the end. That way I'd hopefully clock up enough marks to get a basic pass. I can say that without doubt, I'd have got higher grades with more time. Did these exams really give a fair assessment of my skills in the subject? Hitchens would doubtless counter that "normal" students run out of time as well. This may well be true, but they would have a huge advantage as they'd have read the whole exam paper when I was only 2/3rds through it. 

Lets look what exams are used for. Employers use them to assess  a candidates fitness for a job role. If you want to employ someone as a software designer, do you want someone who designs code that works or someone who can read the instructions on a tin of beans more quickly? Public exams should say that "the candidate knows the subject". I find the whole issue of time pressure to be absurd. candidates should be given enough time to reasonably complete the paper, whatever their capability. 

What I find intriguing in all of Hitchens articles is that save for the odd reference about using phonics, he really says nothing at all about dyslexia. Many articles he writes, which are tagged with the word dyslexia or have it in the title, morph into rants about treatments for ADHD, which is a completely different  syndrome. HEre is a typical example from Hitchens latest blog.

"Legions of healthy children are drugged into numbness because they fidget during boring lessons, and countless people are persuaded that they or their children suffer from a supposed disease called 'dyslexia', even though there is no evidence at all that it exists.

A few weeks ago I rejoiced at the first major cracks in this great towering dam of lies. Dr Richard Saul brought out his courageous and overdue book, ADHD Does Not Exist."

If you read the articles on this blog, you will see that there is one small area of agreement with Hitchens. I do believe that poor teaching is a major factor in dyslexia. I believe that good teachers will address many of side effects of dyslexia (especially illiteracy). I have friends who are teachers, and I am often shocked at their lack of awareness of the subject. It is absolutely vital that dyslexics are identified as early as possible. They should then have their progress monitored and they should recieve additional help. If, as Hitchens claims, phonics is the best way to teach dyslexics to read, I would be all for it. My school taught things in the "traditional" way, so I've no idea whether it would have made any difference, but knowing how my mind processes information, I doubt it.  

I am rather mysified by Hitchens claim that legions of healthy children are drugged due to dyslexia. i know many dyslexics and parents of dyslexics. I am not aware of any who are drugged for the condition. It wouldn't surprise me if some were treated for depression as a result of the stress brought on by dyslexia. I used to suffer extreme anxiety around lessons. When I was at school, teachers would routinely humiliate me in front of the whole class for poor quality work. It wasn't pleasant and I could quite understand how some sensitive souls may be pushed over the edge. 

Hitchens claims that there is no such thing as dyslexia. If he's right, what is it that I am lumbered with? Why can't I process information? Maybe I am lazy? I think that may be a difficult proposition to support, given what I do and have done. Maybe I am stupid? I am sure that Mr Hitchens would choose this reason, but I'd counter that my acheivements in my career would topple that idea. Maybe I am just an attention seeking idiot? Well I've documented here just how much I hated the attention that dyslexia has brought. Maybe I'm in it for the money? Well unlike Hitchens, I don't write long boring books and columns on the subject, which pay my rent. Sadly I don't earn any mony from this blog, save a few pennies from the adwords, which pays for a curry every six months. Maybe I'm just a fantasist and I made the whole thing up?  Well I suppose that is possible. If you believe that, read this blog - - it has an extract from one of my schoolbooks, and I explain what the whole thing was like.

When it comes down to it, I believe Hitchens and those who agree with his views are ill informed and wrong. It is a fact that there is a documented link between premature birth and dyslexia. I was born six weeks premature and I believe that this affected the way my brain works. I suspect that in the fullness of time, dyslexia will be identifiable using an MRI scan or similar. It is a real shame that buffoons like Hitchens feel the need to stick their oar in to a debate which they know nothing about. I don't write blogs about what its like being in a Lesbian couple backpacking in Asia, as I am not in a Lesbian couple backpacking in Asia, so I wouldn't have a clue what it was like, in short, I'd have nothing useful to add. I write about subjects I have an interest in and which I believe my contribution can make a positive addition to. In Hitchens case, he seems to write about dyslexia purely to generate controvosy, so that the Rothermeres will continue to sign his wage cheque. It's a free country, so I have no objection to people making a living peddling old cobblers, but I do worry that some poor souls seem to take his nonsense rather seriously.

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