Awareness, early detection key to helping pupils with dyslexia

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If teachers detect such pupils early and assist them, these children can go on to achieve tremendous success in their chosen paths, writes Dev Arul Jayakumar.

It was just another day for Henry (not his real name), 9, until his Science teacher asked everyone in class to copy some notes from the whiteboard. That was when he realised he was struggling to write as quickly as the others.

The teacher appeared impatient and didn’t particularly help him as the class was ending soon. “Why can’t you keep up with the rest of the class?” he snapped.

This was a pattern that continued until Henry’s mother found out he had dyslexia a couple of years later.

Unable to complete his work in time because he could not read and process information as quickly as his peers, Henry felt miserable at the government school he attended. The teachers would often think that he was slow or lazy and reprimand him. He felt humiliated and his self-esteem nosedived.

At times he despaired, feeling it was not worth the anguish. He would have nightmares and the next day refuse to go to school, leading to heated arguments with his parents. He would rather stay at home than be ridiculed and isolated in school.

Henry’s experience is typical of how pupils with dyslexia may feel in school. There are many more Henrys out there – perhaps up to 10 per cent of the population – and it is time for the education system to fully understand the problems they face and help them.

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability with symptoms including poor reading and writing ability, left/right confusion, orientation problems, sequencing difficulties, poor short-term memory and coordination problems. Those with dyslexia may be confused with punctuation and grammar and may find it hard to name objects and form sentences.

These symptoms are usually noticed when children start attending school and find it hard to cope with their studies. But their teachers might think that they are lazy, irresponsible, daydreaming or even disruptive.

Dyslexia is still not recognised widely in Malaysia. Many uninformed teachers do not realise its impact on pupils and their families. For teachers to help those with dyslexia, they must first understand what it is.

Educators need to find out what kind of teaching styles should be applied to assist those with dyslexia. Unfortunately, the education system has not given many teachers the proper tools to guide such children.

Pupils with dyslexia learn in different ways from their peers. How can parents understand what they are going through? What can the education department do to adapt teaching styles to put those with dyslexia on a level playing field with their peers?

There is still no standardised test to assess pupils for any specific learning disability. Few are aware of the intervention programmes or resources that the government may have to help those with dyslexia.

Pupils with dyslexia need to be diagnosed early so that they can be assisted in their studies. If pre-school teachers are aware of dyslexia, they can help those affected by applying the latest teaching methods best suited to the children’s needs.

Some action has already been taken to reach out to those with dyslexia.

The Dyslexia Association of Malaysia has begun organising courses for teachers from pre-school, remedial and Year One on how to detect dyslexia at an early age and assist such pupils.

The Specialist Teachers Training College in Kuala Lumpur runs long and short-term courses on special education needs, including for those with dyslexia.

Meanwhile, NGOs that deal with learning difficulties hope that the education system will emphasise teacher training to assist children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

Henry was fortunate to overcome his disadvantage with the support of his family. His mother ensured he had access to the help he needed for his studies. She acquainted herself with the Dyslexia Association and even went back to do her Master’s focusing on dyslexia.

Henry was taken out of the government school and started home schooling. He would go on to complete a degree and is now seeking employment, looking to the future more positively. He still has dyslexia but it is not an insurmountable issue, and he is happy with who he is. After all, if Tom Cruise, Steve Jobs and Leonardo Da Vinci could live with dyslexia, he reckons he is in good company.

The education system needs to change to help children with dyslexia. Parents and teachers too need to be aware of the condition and realise that these children, if properly guided, can go on to achieve tremendous success in their chosen paths.

Dev Arul Jayakumar is a pyschology graduate currently doing an internship with Aliran. He recently participated in an Aliran Young Writers Workshop on Youth and Activism at which he wrote this article.

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