Wednesday, June 28

‘Kids are feeling dumb’: Parents push for smarter teaching of dyslexic students

Every single day at school was a battle for Walter Smithers, as he struggled with reading.

“It’s hard not to feel like a failure when everything you’re doing isn’t your strength,” he said.

“When you’ve got dyslexia, everything you do at school is difficult.

“School wasn’t my favourite time. I didn’t enjoy it and there was a lot of pain.”

It was even harder for Walter to watch his twin brother, Louis, excel at school.

While Louis got a scholarship at a private school, Walter dropped out.

He is now pursuing his passion for filmmaking at Swinburne University of Technology, but remembers the frustration of his school years

“When you’re a kid, the word dumb has a big impact on you,” he said.

Walter and Louis’s mother Carolyn Merritt says she realised early that Walter learned differently.

But she had to do her own research to find out that Walter was dyslexic.

“I don’t believe any teacher’s ever told me that. I told them that,” she said.

“They start to feel dumb even before we realise anything’s going on and that cuts me.

“Kids are feeling dumb from the minute they walk into prep.”

At 17, Walter has learned to cope but his reading is very slow.

“It’s sort of like reading aloud in your head — each word is an individual thing you have to decode and you also have to remember to get the meaning,” he said.

“It’s just a long tedious journey that can literally give you a migraine.

“There’s never been any kind of classroom or particular teacher who has made anything different.”

While a few schools in Australia have introduced specific testing and direct instruction methods for literacy, most have not.

In 2012, the United Kingdom introduced a system of testing students’ literacy known as systematic phonics screening.

It involves encouraging students to read by “sounding out” words. Those who struggle are then taught using the systematic phonics method, decoding the relationship between sounds and words.

It led to a dramatic increase in literacy levels in the UK.

In Australia, the Federal Government has set up a working group to look at screening children for phonics ability in year one, but all state and territory governments have to get on board before it can be introduced nationwide.

Phonics-based learning would have made the world of difference to 16-year-old Jasmine Vikan.

She has also dropped out of school in Perth, and is now learning to read using explicit, direct and systematic phonics instruction at a Learning and Literacy Centre.

“Before I came here I couldn’t read and I couldn’t spell. I had teachers call me stupid,” she said.

“I used to hide in the classroom when it came to reading. ‘Please don’t pick me.'”

Jasmine was so traumatised by her experience at school she takes medication to manage her anxiety.

The national Dyslexia Support Group said the failure to diagnose and properly teach dyslexic children is leading to serious mental health problems.

Tanya Forbes, from the group’s Gold Coast branch, said a child who is stressed and anxious in primary school can have depression by high school.

“The anxiety will manifest as depression and the child will begin to have a very poor self esteem, self hate and from that we see severe consequences of self-harm and possibly suicide,” she said.

“Many children in our support group are already seeing a clinical psychologist from age of eight.”


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