When his seven-year-old daughter, Sallyann*, struggled to cope with studies in her new Dubai school, her father Roger* assumed she simply needed time to adjust to her new curriculum. She didn’t seem to understand the maths lessons, her handwriting was indecipherable and her reading just wasn’t getting anywhere. “I hate my new school,” the little girl complained each morning. When she began crying on the school run, Roger consulted a counsellor friend, who suggested he wait and watch. “We knew changing schools can be traumatic, he told me,” says Roger. “So he advised me to observe her as many children find it hard to adjust.”
At first her teachers agreed, but when weeks passed and Sallyann was still struggling with every subject, and falling behind the class, Roger and his wife Dilly panicked. “She was our only child so we had no one to compare her with,” says Roger. “But her teachers were concerned too and so finally we took her for tests.” They showed she had dyslexia. “My immediate concern was the effect it would have on Sallyann,” Roger says. “We didn’t know any parents who had a dyslexic child, so I felt as if I was venturing into the unknown.”
As the shock wore off, Roger was relieved. If his daughter had a recognised learning challenge, then she could also be helped.
Her school didn’t provide any support for dyslexia but he found out about the Lexicon Reading Center at Jumeirah Lake Towers, a well-known one-of-its-kind institution that aims to enable children with learning disabilities to reach their academic potential. He had also read a book by Dr Gavin Reid, an internationally known educational psychologist who consults at the Center.
So they took Sallyann along to the weekly sessions, and watched, amazed, as she became more confident and started to really enjoy reading. Her handwriting improved dramatically, as did her spelling, and she started comprehending written passages. In addition, the hour-long sessions twice a week at the Center helped her cope better in a regular classroom setting.
Sallyann is not alone, admits Rudolph Stockling, educational psychologist and clinical director at the Lexicon Reading Center. “Telling a child he or she is dyslexic is not easy,” he says. “Neither is it easy for the parents to accept that their child has learning difficulties. This spurs us on to try and integrate children with learning differences in the mainstream.”
He refuses to call dyslexia and related problems learning disabilities. “I call them learning differences because they denote that someone has specific issues in learning language-based concepts, but has no problems in applying any other skills such as those required for sports or the arts,” he says.
Rudolph calls them the three Ds of learning difficulty – Dyslexia, the difficulty in reading; Dysgraphia, which relates to writing; and Dyscalculia, the inability to comprehend mathematics. The professor says dyslexia is the most common condition. “What a normal person will see as words or letters, a person with dyslexia sees as squiggles on a page because his or her brain doesn’t connect sounds to the symbols.”
But it is frustrating, he says, that after 20 years focusing on dyslexia, many schools still don’t understand the condition. “There are still schools in the UAE where teachers and principals believe that there’s no such thing as learning disability, only lazy children!” says Rudolph. “I say the opposite; there are no lazy children, only those with specific needs.”
There are various misconceptions about learning difficulties. Many people still attribute the inability of a child to read or write at the level expected at a particular age to low intelligence levels. Rudolph debunks that theory.
“There is no connection between dyslexia and a person’s level of intelligence. Reading and writing skills don’t indicate IQ levels; the child’s capacity to draw inferences and think in abstract terms are more indicative of that.” Not all children with reading and writing difficulties have dyslexia – the development of fine motor skills takes time in some children and this may well affect their writing and reading abilities.
At the other end of the spectrum is the theory that equates dyslexia to genius, going by the examples of Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein, who both had the condition. “It doesn’t, however, hold that most dyslexics are geniuses either,” says Rudolph. “They can be very ordinary children of average or even below average intelligence,” he says. “But they all require the same support that a very talented and intelligent dyslexic would need.”
What Lexicon does is help “develop senses through a multisensory, systematic and phonologically-based intervention to teach the brain to do something it doesn’t do naturally for children and adults with these conditions.” A confusion between letters like ‘m’ and ‘w’ or ‘b’ and ‘d’ is not the main indication of dyslexia, rather, it is a simple inability to form words, to associate sounds with words, and hence with symbols, say experts.
“Many times they get the sequence wrong,” Rudolph explains. “They may recognise the letters, but are still unable to join them properly to form words. So we teach them to understand that a word is made out of sounds, and to listen to the major sounds in a word, which are the vowels, and to build the rest of the word around the core. We sharpen their ability to hear sounds, and to look at a word like a puzzle, and analyse it.
“If a child is strong visually, then this will help them to use the visual sense to develop an ability to associate letters with sounds. The third way we help is by movement, and they are taught to write in the air with big letters, and then to concentrate on sound by pronouncing the consonant. Like when they write ‘a’, they pronounce along with it the corresponding phonetic sound.”
Children suffering from Dysgraphia may or may not have this issue of not being able to recognise words. “They are often able to get the sounds together, but their brains have a difficulty in telling the hand how the squiggles come together,” he says.
“They take a longer time to figure it out, so they are unable to connect. So instead of writing a syllable they write individual sounds; instead of writing patterns, they write individual letters. They have to be taught a rhythm so that they do not lose the connection between the letters.”
In Dyscalculia, which is less prevalent, apart from the dissociation between sounds, sound symbols and meanings, one also has to deal with associating meaningful things such as quantities to meaningless symbols. One of the newest researches in dyscalculia show that people with this problem also have a problem in seeing patterns. They cannot understand that five times one is five, but three added to two is also five. Instead, a person with dyscalculia would need to count again.
“To remedy this, we use a programme called Touch, where we use dots to denote numbers and make the child touch and feel the dots and associate it with numbers by counting them.
“In dyslexia we know exactly which part of the brain is responsible. In all three learning issues, there is a strong element of psychology, which is why counselling helps.”
While these learning issues may seem insurmountable to many parents, Rudolph says that with the right guidance and work, such children can join and compete with their peers in mainstream education. “A thorough knowledge of the individual child’s learning profile, their particular strengths and weaknesses is an essential ingredient in helping a child with learning differences to succeed,” says Rudolph.
The first step in supporting a child is thorough assessment of a child’s learning profile. “The child’s learning environments – at school and home – and the interaction between the child and these environments holds the key,” Rudolph says, emphasising that an understanding of how a child’s learning environment impacts his or her ability to develop strengths is as important as finding ways to compensate for his/her weaknesses.
He points to the example of 10-year-old Billy*, a typical boy who exhibited no signs of learning difficulties early on. Dubai-based Billy loves to play on the computer, Mindquest being his favourite. From the age of three, he showed a keen interest in using Lego blocks to fashion the most amazing structures, from aeroplanes to fantastic buildings. Clearly, Billy is talented, energetic and extremely creative. However, when he started school, he had trouble with reading and writing. Billy had dyslexia.
Initially his parents attributed his slow learning to a lack of interest in studies. “While researching Billy’s problems online, I came across one of Stockling’s write-ups and I began to recognise the several characteristics of dyslexia that were noticeable in Billy,” says his mother Brenda. “Before his dyslexia was identified, we even used to wonder if he had attention deficit syndrome, since he is a very active child.”
They had him tested at the Lexicon Center, and were relieved to finally identify the root cause of what was preventing him from achieving his true potential.
Billy’s parents also wanted to ensure that it did not affect his self-confidence. The tough part, though, was explaining to an eight-year-old about his learning difference and how to cope with it. “It was important for us to be positive in our outlook,” says Brenda. “We even gave him references of great minds like Einstein who had dyslexia and yet turned out to be one of the most brilliant men the world has known.”
His school has a learning support teacher who gives specialised attention to groups of four to five children who need help to catch up with what is taught in class.
Stressing the need for early detection, Brenda says, “We only wish that some of the teachers who had noticed his problems in reading and writing earlier on were able to identify it as dyslexia.”
When Billy was enrolled at the Center for after-school classes he had to begin relearning from the very basics. “This was to ensure that he got the learning foundation and basics like alphabets and phonetics right,” says Rudolph. Being a typical child, it was frustrating for him to have to go back to the basics. Yet in the very first year of being enrolled at the Center, he made huge improvements.
“The team at Lexicon have been the key to bridging the learning gap between Billy and his peers in school,” says Brenda.
“At home, I help him choose easier books, making the reading process more enjoyable and less taxing. We also encourage him to read out simple books to his younger brother. Even reading small stories in newspapers tends to be good practice for him.”
As a working parent, assisting Billy with homework tends to be a challenge for Brenda, who works as a receptionist. As Billy grows older, it becomes important for him to tackle his homework more independently, which requires time and efficient support. This is where centres like Lexicon come in handy. Lexicon goes to the extent of getting in touch with its students’ school teachers to track their progress and recommend better learning practices, suited to their personality and abilities.
“The concept of mind mapping – a diagram used to visually organise information – taught at the Center has really helped in that respect,” Brenda says. “Billy is now able to work on his assignments in a more structured and effective manner. When it comes to time, effort and money, there is definitely a lot that needs to be invested in managing the learning difference. But I believe it is well worth the effort when I see the results.”
“I wish that more teachers who notice their students’ problems in reading and writing are able to appropriately identify whether it is dyslexia,” says Rudolph. “School teachers need to be given sufficient awareness to catch signs of learning difficulties.” As of now, there are only a few schools in Dubai who have dyslexic support units. But the hope is that in the near future, more schools will employ teachers who are trained to support kids with learning difficulties and ensure that they progress on par with other students.
Brenda believes that there can be nothing more important for learning than one-on-one personalised attention. “The teacher or caregiver needs to understand the child and help him set achievable goals.” She has set up a goal chart at home for Billy, on which they set realistic goals for each week. She looks at it as a great way for Billy to stay on target and also build self-esteem and confidence through the achievements that are made. “I have always told Billy that he needs to continually strive to do better, for his own future,” she says. “Owing to his passion for Lego and creating something new and dynamic, he now wants to grow up to be an architect who designs and conceptualises building structures.”
Many parents everywhere refuse to discuss their children’s learning challenges as not only is it mentally and emotionally stressful for them and the kids but also a social taboo. Rudolph says this is true of the UAE too, though awareness is increasing.
Roger believes that schools across the UAE still have a considerable way to go until they adopt the highest standards of support for kids with learning differences. “But I must say I am greatly impressed by the internal and external support provided by Sallyann’s school and Lexicon Reading Center,” he says. “This support has helped establish a routine, which has developed Sallyann’s personality and academic progress. I would like to reassure other parents whose children have dyslexia that the progress your child can make, with the right kind of support, is incredible.”
Sallyann now enjoys ballet and loves engaging in tennis and swimming. Her teachers say she has an innate creative potential and tendency to always dream big. Roger believes that the sky is the limit for his daughter. “This can be true for every child with learning difference,” says Rudolph. “Provided they get the right kind of support at school and home.”