A mother’s story: Diagnosing my daughter’s dyslexia

When journalist and mother Julie Clothier found out her daughter was struggling to learn to read she discovered just how challenging the New Zealand education system is when dealing with dyslexia.

As soon as I sent the video to my mother-in-law, three dots appeared on my phone’s screen. She was, unusually for her, replying straight away.

“Brilliant reading. Such expression,” the reply pinged.

My daughter was reading Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree, like any ordinary 7.5-year-old.

Nothing unusual in that. Except, in this case, there is.

Eighteen months ago red flags were raised about our eldest daughter’s reading ability.

A parent-teacher interview revealed she was struggling, but the school told us to wait until she was 7 before we needed to do anything.

My mother in law disagreed, and we disagreed with her.

Get her tested for dyslexia now, she urged. No, we told her, we would do what the school said, wait and see. Which means: wait and see if she fails.

Besides, we didn’t have the $800 needed to do the test — available only privately.

Fortunately for our daughter, my mother in law’s insistence niggled and I did what any half-decent journalist would do, I researched.

It turned out, not unusually for her, my mother-in-law was right. Early intervention was key and there was a whole field of solid scientific evidence to show how brains learn to read – an approach at odds with the methods taught in most New Zealand schools.

My mother-in-law should know, she went through this 40 years ago with her own son, my husband. When we told the school, they nodded sympathetically that, yes, dyslexia did tend to run in families, but still we should wait to see if it would come right.

Like many parents of struggling readers, we were told to read to her more.

We had read to our daughter since she was 10 weeks old. The photo book I made recording the first year of her life is filled with pictures of her being read to by various family members. We were at the library so often the librarians knew our names.

So why weren’t the school hurrying to intervene?

In their eyes they were. She was in a reading group according to her ability. And they had recently started a phonics programme. And yet my daughter continued to struggle.

It brought up a decades-old question: What is the best way for a child to learn to read?

Cognitive and neuroscientists have measured brain activity and have found that introducing a group of sounds before moving on to more complex sounds works best. Once the brain starts to identify sound patterns, it will be able to read them. Everyone can learn to read this way, whether they are dyslexic or not.

The reading books ubiquitous in many New Zealand schools, where children are encouraged to memorise words with tricky, irregular sound and spelling patterns as well as use pictures as cues, were not helping my daughter.

“I told my teacher you hide my reading books,” my daughter said to me one day. I looked resentfully at the stack of unread “guessing” readers I had put next to the TV.

When I was a child, learning to read just fell into place, so understanding dyslexia was a whole new chapter.

My daughter was keen to read but something wasn’t sticking. Bringing home the school readers became a source of stress so we stopped – much to the relief of both parties.

Eventually we did get her tested for dyslexia, and our instinct was correct. She now had a diagnosis.

Phonics is common in many schools now, but evidence-based reading instruction does not just mean phonics.

If a school is still using readers that rely on a child to guess or memorise and they’re using a bit of phonics, it’s known as a balanced literacy approach, a bit of this, a bit of that. Despite its positive-sounding name, a balanced approach has not been found to be the best way for brains to learn to read, but particularly for those who are dyslexic.

It is a hard pill to swallow that we are told to follow the science in many areas of life concerning our children — their diet, medicines etc – but not reading.

A private tutor from the non-profit organisation SPELD came into the school and we arranged for our daughter to see her for $60 a session once a week using the evidence-based methods.

SPELD, the same organisation that helped my husband 40 years ago, is strongly advocating for this approach to be available to all children in all classrooms.

“You’re so lucky they come into the school,” my mother-in-law said of SPELD. And I did feel lucky — she was financially supporting us to go down this route.

I felt lucky we didn’t have to drive my eldest to an appointment dragging her two younger siblings along. But as time has gone on, I resent the luck. We go to a public school and we are paying $60 a week for her to learn to read – a skill which should be a right, not a privilege.

That does not seem lucky, nor equitable. We are definitely the haves when it comes to dyslexia.

Our story is not unusual. A Facebook group started a year ago by a Christchurch mother now has almost 5000 members made up of educators and parents who are lobbying for change.

Some of the anecdotes are heartbreaking.

There is some good news. Dozens of schools around the country have adopted an evidence-based model because it’s helpful to all, harmful to none and crucial for some.They are reporting fantastic improvements in literacy.

And there appear to be signs of some change at the Ministry of Education and Colleges of Education, many of whom have for years ignored what is now a tidal wave of evidence. The answer to New Zealand’s declining literacy rates isn’t to tinker around the edges, it’s to change the way in which reading is taught. But that will come too late for thousands of children.

The current system favours those who can afford help. My husband could be the poster boy for dyslexia. A senior editor at this newspaper, people do not believe him when he says he has dyslexia.

He’s smart and a fantastic speller, giving me hope that our daughter will grow up to be a high functioning contributor to society like her father.

She’s now 8 and reads fluently. We are now working on her spelling.

She is the lucky one.

The other children and mothers out there who are told to wait and see if the kid fails? They are not the lucky ones.

So what should we do? Teach everyone to read as if they’re dyslexic. It’s that simple.

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