The November/December issue of SEN Magazine has given well deserved space to Susan Godsland's article 'Six myths about dyslexia'.
Susan is well placed to write on the subject, 'being the parent of a once struggling reader' and she writes about how deeply she was affected by the 'frustration and anxiety which results from having a "dyslexic" in the family'.
Myth number one is the belief that dyslexics have a fault with their brains which doesn't enable them to hear and manipulate individual sounds in the language. As the writing system was invented to represent the sounds of the language one at a time as discrete spellings, this would be, if it were true, a pretty serious incapacity. Susan discredits this perspective by pointing out that if children have learned to talk, as the vast (98% +) majority do, they have at some point heard and learned to reproduce the sounds in speech. In fact, wherever you go in the world, all children do this, even though their carers adopt different approaches to encouraging this ability. Even from the beginning of the last trimester of pregnancy, research (and there's lots of it, so fascinated are psychologists by what infants are 'hard-wired' for) has revealed how attentive to sounds babies in the womb are.
Of course, as Susan makes clear, once infants move beyond the stages of reduplicated babbling (mama, baba, dada) to non-reduplicated babbling (consonant-vowel-consonant and vowel-consonant-vowel combinations) by the end of the first year and onwards, they no longer need to pay specific attention to the individual sounds in the language and the ability 'disappears into the background of the brain'.
Before the invention of writing, the requirement to 'hear' individual sounds was no longer needed after this last stage of vocal development. However, 'in order to learn to read and write using an alphabetic code,' Susan argues that 'it becomes necessary to bring this facility (attention to individual sounds in speech) once again to the fore'.
So, why is it that some children just simply learn to read? The argument put forward by Susan is that some children seem to be able to 'resurrect' this vital ability. It could also be that some children maintain that special attention to individual sounds in the language – which may possibly be one of the reasons why bilingualism is such a useful additional resource! Naturally, with sympathetic carer/parent/sibling help and an environment rich in cultural capital, those children give the appearance of learning to cope with the writing system naturally and effortlessly.
What about those less fortunate children? Susan is in no doubt. The ability to hear and represent sounds in words can be recuperated through teaching 'systematic synthetic phonics'. This formulation is the only thing in the whole piece with which I disagree. There are a range of available phonic programmes, which I would differentiate as 'synthetic' and 'linguistic'. The difference between them is not, as I imagine some people will think, a case of angels dancing on a pinhead, but has profound implications for our teaching and the success of our teaching. But that's a discussion for another day.