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  1. The whole person - not just the disability

  2. What does specific learning disability mean?   (SLD)

  3. What is dyslexia?

  4. Developmental Delay/Developmental Lag

  5. Why the emphasis on spelling?

  6. Learning for life - it takes time

  7. The social side of SLD

  8. The invisible disability

  9. To label or not to label?

  10. Assessment

  11. What are the signs of SLD?

  12. What should my child know at each age?

  13. Eight years to learn the basics

  14. NCEA - what should my young one be able to do?

  15. Why is sounding so important?

  16. What if it's not a specific learning disability?

  17. What if memory is the problem?

  18. What if concentration is the problem?

  19. Undoing the damage

  20. Big picture learners

  21. Various speech and language difficulties



1.  The whole person - not just the disability

When a child has learning problems you need to be able to see the whole child, and not just the problem, for instance:


  • Is she bold or timid?

  • Does he have emotional resilience, or is he fragile?

  • Is she competitive (likes to win/succeed)?

  • Does she have the ability to persevere, or does she give up easily?

  • Is he tolerant?

  • Is she patient?

  • Can he cope with hardship?

  • Is she a perfectionist?

  • Can he cope with “being wrong”?

  • Is she out-going, or withdrawn?

  • Does he actively participate in learning, or is he a passive observer?

  • Does she have high self-esteem?

  • Does he have friends?

  • Is there something(s) she is really good at?  Does she know how success feels?



When children have just one problem affecting their learning, they will often do OK.   It’s important to look at what else may be going on:


  • Can he see properly?

  • Can he hear properly?

  •  Is her eye-tracking ok?

  • Has she attended school adequately?

  • Has he suffered from poor health?

  • Has there been a major emotional upset?

  • Does the child have a specific learning disability?  (See below - SLD)

  • Does the child have other barriers to learning?



Some specific learning disabilities and barriers to learning include:


  • Phonological processing problems (dyslexia)  

  • Visual processing problems

  • Attention problems – unable to concentrate or listen for long enough

  • Hyper-activity problems – day dreaming relentlessly, impulsive, fidgety

  • Anxiety problems

  • Cluster disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome, autistic spectrum disorders

  • Marked behavioural problems (and if so, why?)

  • Dyspraxia – co-ordination problems

  • memory deficit problems (short term, long term, working memory, storage/retrieval)

  • sleep disorders, where the child is perpetually over-tired


And it’s important to be aware of the child’s family life and circumstances, for instance:


  • are the parents literate/educated?

  • do one or both parents have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia?

  • is literacy valued highly in the home?  Is it a priority?

  • do the parents read to their children?

  • do the parents play with their children?

  • does the dad value literacy, even if he is living elsewhere his input is important

  • is homework routinely tackled in the home?

  • is English the first language in the home?

  • is the family struggling with other serious problems?

  • is home-life settled, or chaotic?

  • are general knowledge and life-skills important in the home?

  • is nutrition adequate?

  • Is the child in good health?

2. What does specific learning disability mean? (SLD)


Your ability to learn is made up of many different little bits and pieces - tools.  Here’s some of the main ones:  long term memory, short term memory, working memory, memory storage, memory retrieval, ability to recognize patterns, ability to recognize sequences, processing speed, general knowledge, ability to process visual information, ability to process auditory information, vocabulary, ability to organize and plan, spatial awareness, time awareness, directionality awareness, ability to co-ordinate thoughts, phonological processing, social awareness, creativity, problem solving ability, ability to make deductions, ability to make inferences, imagination, IQ, etc, etc, etc.


When each of these tools is tested separately, it turns out that they tend to cluster around a certain level in a given person.  So if the person is really brainy, most of these tools will score at a high level.  And when a person is not very brainy at all, most of these tools will score at a low level.  And when a person is average, most of these tools will score around an average level.


But for some people, the tests show something quite different.  Some of their test results will cluster in the usual way, but they have one, or more often a few, wild scores.  They might be scoring around average for most things, but processing speed is very low.  Or they might be scoring well above average for most things, but vocabulary and auditory processing is very low.  When this happens we say the person has a specific learning disability.  One, or a few, small specific parts of the tool kit are not working nearly as well as the rest of it.


The SLD is not specific to reading or maths or spelling.  Some of these tools affect all subject areas (memory, for instance).  Some affect social situations as well as school work (language processing for instance).  


Anyway, the result is a person of reasonable (or even high or very high) general ability, who can’t do some things that most kids find reasonably easy.

That, of course, leads to problems - frustration, self-esteem problems, not liking school, thinking you are dumb when you are not, and a whole lot of other issues.


Bear in mind, some of the tools in the learning tool kit are more important than others, some affect all subject areas while others only affect some subject areas, some combinations of ‘faulty tools’ are worse than other combinations, and the degree of impairment of each tool can be anything from slight to severe.  So the over-all result of a SLD can vary a lot from one person to another person.


Likewise, the kind of help and tuition needed varies a great deal from one SLD student to another.  This is why one-to-one tuition is so very important.


3.  What is Dyslexia?​               (say:  dis - lek - see - ar)


Dyslexia is one of the specific learning disabilities.  People with dyslexia do not process language, and particularly sounds within spoken words, in the usual way.  Their ears are fine, but their brain does not properly sort out the information sent by the ears.  This is called a phonological (sounds) processing problem.


Children with dyslexia cannot detect all of the separate sounds that make up words, and so they can't link the sounds to the letters and combinations of letters we use to write sounds.  Sometimes they can't work out the order of the sounds they are saying or hearing.  It's a bit like riding a bike - when you go too slowly you fall off.    When dyslexic people try to slow a word down and draw it out to listen for each sound, they end up not being able to say it at all.  


Dyslexia can also affect the way the brain processes whole language - sentences, instructions, descriptions etc.  Depending how severe and how extensive the phonological processing problem is, they may have difficulty spelling, reading, writing, following verbal instructions and a range of other language difficulties.


Each dyslexic student is different.  Some have trouble detecting vowel (voiced) sounds.  Some have trouble with consonant (mostly unvoiced) sounds.  Some can't identify endings like s, es, ing, ed.  Some can hear the sounds, but can't work out what order they came in.  Many have trouble collecting their words together when speaking.  Some can't hear the natural rhythm of speech and so they can't tell where punctuation should be placed.  Some can't detect rhyme words.  Many have speech impairments, which are often mild and not noticed by parents and teachers, or they may be more marked.  


Dyslexia is usually genetic and usually runs in families, but it can be caused by other things such as brain trauma, low oxygen at birth or high fever in infancy.  It can't be 'cured' but with the right help students can overcome many of their difficulties.


Here is a link to a site that shows an MRI brain scan of a dyslexic student and a non-dyslexic student performing the same task.  You can see how different parts of the brain are used by the dyslexic person:,d.dGI&psig=AFQjCNGTr-ucOmoQAqW3szn32xgdCuUkNQ&ust=1379411421911033 




Being unable to sound out new words in spelling and reading is not the only problem dyslexic children have, but it is one of the strongest indicators that dyslexia may be present.  Dyslexia is a distinct possibility if a child has not grasped these things by the end of the first year at school:


  • the idea of sounding out words, and the skill to do it

  • the idea of chunks (syllables) in words, and the skill to identify them

  •  the correct sounds for the letters of the alphabet

  • the common letter combinations we use to write many of the sounds


4.  Developmental Delay/Developmental Lag


This is a dangerous term.  Here’s why:

Occasionally a child really does have developmental delay in a particular area.  It is much more likely though that a child does not have developmental delay at all.  They have a learning disability.  Learning disabilities do not go away, and specialist help is usually needed for the student to cope well.


So when your child is seven, it’s called developmental delay.  You are told to wait.  When your child is eight you are told the same thing.  When the child is ten, you are still being told the same thing.  When is the point in time when someone will say, “Hey, this isn’t delay.  This is a learning disability”?


Now your child is two, three, four or more years behind in literacy.  To catch up they will have to cover several years work in one or two years.  But it is a subject area they find exceedingly difficult.  Just managing one year’s work in one year has not been possible, and it is going to be tough even with the specialist help you have finally realized your child needs.  


Even if a child really does have developmental delay, he will probably need help with literacy.  It is all very well saying, 'wait a few years and he will catch up', but catching up is not easy when you are behind.  Chances are he will need a lot of help to do that.  It is much better to put the help in place early on.  



Poor literacy starts to affect all subject areas, even maths.  You need to be able to read and write well to learn, answer questions and produce work in every subject.


Worse still:

There are particular ages when various parts of the human brain have a much greater capacity to learn than at other times.  These times are called “windows of opportunity”.  The key language learning part has a window when the child is seven years of age.  You don’t want to miss that window, because it is the time when your child will find it easier to grasp a lot of language material than any later time.


 Around the age of ten years the human brain undertakes a big pruning job.  It kills off a lot of brain cells – permanently.  It doesn’t do this randomly.  It knocks off the ones that are not used or are not used much – the ones that haven’t been stimulated much.  It seems rather bizarre that our brains should do this, but it happens never-the-less.  So if a child has not grasped literacy and their language learning brain parts have not been stimulated much, those parts are at risk of being pruned hard at age ten.  That makes literacy even harder to learn thereafter.


Around age thirteen another major change begins in the brain.  It lays down stuff called “white matter”.  White matter enables the brain to sort through information much more quickly (which will be very handy in adult life) but it causes learning new material to become more difficult.  The white matter is laid down over a period of ten years or so.  It does not happen randomly.  It starts in particular places and moves through the brain in a set pattern.  The language learning areas are among the first parts to have white matter laid down.  So once the teenage years are reached, learning about language becomes much more difficult.


And then there is the problem of breaking the bad habits so that the newly taught skills and knowledge can be effective. 


Just for interest

Here are a couple of examples of how scientists discovered the windows of opportunity:

When a baby is born with cataracts on the eyes, so that it is blind, the baby’s sight can be restored to normal by simply removing the cataracts.  But if they are not removed until after a certain age, the child will never be able to see.  This is because the window of opportunity for stimulating the part of the brain that deals with vision has closed.  If it is not stimulated before a certain age, it can never be stimulated, and it will never work! 

Baby finch chickens have to hear the adult finch song being sung in order to learn it.  They have to hear it between the age of three days and ten days.  If they don’t hear it during that window period, they can never learn to sing it.  How about that!

5.  Why the emphasis on spelling rather than reading?​


Reading is not enough.  Throughout your child’s education she or he will be tested and marked on what they write.  It is their writing skills that will largely determine their level of achievement in almost all subjects.


Children learn a lot of their spelling, punctuation and grammar from reading.  I often hear teachers say, “If they read well, they will eventually spell and write well”.  This is true – if you don’t have a learning disability affecting literacy.

Nearly everyone can read more words than they can spell, but students who have learning disabilities usually have a very wide gap between what they can read and what they can write.  That’s because they simply don’t pick up spelling from reading.  But the reverse is usually true. 

If they can spell a word, they will usually be able to recognize it in reading.


Of course spelling is only the beginning of writing, but when it comes to the task of writing your ideas, it sure helps a lot if you can spell the words.

6.  Learning for Life - it takes time


Time is the gift you can give to students with learning disabilities.


Many school interventions ultimately fail because they are stopped too soon.  Reading Recovery is usually taught for a minimum of 12 weeks up to a maximum of 20 weeks.  But to sustain what they have learnt students need to continue with help and tuition for at least a couple of years.  It takes a long time for students who already have difficulties with literacy to memorize, consolidate and use new skills and knowledge, and to break the old habits.

It is cruel to give a student special help, get them going nicely, and then leave them to slip back into failure.  We have to be realistic.  We have to be honest.  It takes time.


It’s a bit like teaching a right-handed person to play tennis with their left hand.  It can be done (just ask someone who has lost the use of their right arm) but it takes a long time before it becomes automatic.

In the army they have a maxim:  when soldiers are being taught something new they have to practise it 1500 times before they know it so well that they will do it automatically.

It’s like that with literacy.  It takes a long time to really conquer the difficulties.  If only there were short cuts that worked!

7.  The social side of SLD


Specific learning disabilities like dyslexia don't just affect reading and writing.  Often social life is also affected.  Lots of issues can come into play.


Sometimes these children do not pick up on social cues, like eye contact.  Spoken language difficulties can make it hard for them to participate in conversations and play-ground banter.  Sometimes the clever kids don't want to play with them because they think the child is 'dumb', but the not-clever kids don't want to play with them because they think the child is too clever.  They don't seem to fit.  Sometimes impulsiveness means they find it difficult to take turns.  The constant criticism they receive can sometimes lead these kids to be overly critical of others.  There are many aspects of social life that can be adversely affected by specific learning disabilities.

8.  The invisible disability


A learning disability is an invisible disability.  Not only is it invisible to other families and children, but also to teachers and even parents.


These children need parents and teachers who can come to terms with that, who understand the difficulties the child faces, who can put in the extra time, and who can make literacy a priority.  No child (even at high school age) can understand the impact poor literacy would have on their adult life.  For the time being, we have to be strong for them.


 Nothing is rewarding until you begin to have success.  Nothing is fun when you are struggling and/or failing.  Even success can seem a slender reward when it has taken a huge amount of work to achieve it, and when your problems are not visible to others.  


9.  To label or not to label?


There is a whole lot of debate around the issue of “labelling people”.  Here are some points to think about:


  • A label can help teachers, parents and children to talk about and understand their difficulties

  • A label can sound scary

  • A label can change the way teachers treat a student – in both positive and negative ways

  • A label can change the way other people treat the student and the parents, in both positive and negative ways

  • Having dyslexia is personal information.  Children need to be taught how to manage personal information from an early age in modern society (who to tell, how to guard information) 

  • A label can be used as an excuse – but not when managed properly  

  • A label can cause a child to feel different to others, when they may already be struggling with feeling different – a square peg in a round hole.  Dr Michael McDowell is a paediatrician who has specialized in children with learning problems.  He says, “Every day a little bit of their soul gets scraped off at school”.

  • A label may open doors that would otherwise be closed e.g. having a reader/writer and/or extra time for NCEA exams

  • Without an accurate label students might be given (or give themselves) an inaccurate label, like lazy, stupid or slow.


Dr McDowell suggests referring to dyslexia as ‘a different way of learning’ with young children.

It doesn’t matter so much what you call it, so long as something effective is being done about it.


In my experience children are usually relieved to find there is a name for the problems they are having, and a path out of their difficulties.  It is the adults who struggle with the label.  Teenagers, though, are often very sensitive about labels.


Take it slowly.  Talk to people you trust.  There is a big adjustment to be made when a child is found to have learning difficulties.  There is grief.  There is fear.  Sometimes there is denial.  Sometimes Dads and Mums find themselves on different pages as they work through this.  It is not a small matter for the child or the family.

10.  Assessment


Before effective teaching can begin it is important to establish:


  • What a student can do and what they can’t do – skills

  • What a student knows and what they don’t know - knowledge

  • What a student can use, and what they can’t use even though they know it - efficacy

The assessment at Enable Learning takes two to three hours, depending on the age and stage the student is at.  (It is not much use going on and on testing more and more difficult things if the student can’t do the simple parts in each section.)

After the assessment there is a discussion about the findings.  A written report is provided during the following week.

The report is written in plain language so far as possible, so that parents and teachers can get to grips with it.

11.  What are the signs?

Most children learn literacy without too much fuss, even kids of modest intelligence.  So if your young one is of normal intelligence (and you probably don’t need an IQ test to know that) and struggling with literacy, there is something wrong.


If a child hasn’t grasped ‘sounding out’ for reading and spelling by the end of their first year at school it is a very strong indication that something is amiss.


Here is a list of some things that can point to learning disability.  Bear in mind that many of these things, on their own, do not mean a child has a learning disability.  It is when they cluster together that they start to paint a picture of learning difficulties:


  • struggles to put ideas into words when speaking or when writing

  • has trouble pronouncing words

  • misses sounds in words – Setember for September

  • can’t say some sounds – f instead of th, w instead of r, l on the end – schoow for school

  • phrases often jumbled

  • substitute words often used instead of the correct words

  • difficulty learning nursery rhymes and making rhyming words

  • slow to name objects, colours and items

  • uses the word ‘thing’ often instead of naming the subject

  • later than usual to develop spoken language

  • difficulty clapping rhythm and hearing the rhythm in speech

  • trouble detecting the individual sounds in words

  • doesn’t understand that words are made up of separate individual sounds

  • trouble breaking words into syllables

  • trouble hearing/noticing the endings on words such as es, s, ed, ing, ly

  • makes wild guesses when reading words, guesses that don’t fit with the letters written in the word

  • guessing is the main tool for working out unfamiliar words

  • dislikes reading and writing

  • enjoys being read to even though he/she is not interested in words and letters

  • understands stories when read to, but not when he/she reads them alone

  • difficulty spelling and/or reading and/or printing

  • leaves letters out of words or puts them in the wrong order, especially words which can be sounded out (phonetically spelled words)

  • takes a long time to complete written work

  • has trouble learning analogue time (clocks with hands)

  • has trouble following instructions, especially two or three given together

  • seems to not listen and not pay attention often

  • Can read way better than she/he can spell.  We all have trouble spelling some words that we can read, but when the gap is wider than usual it can be a sign that points to learning disability

  • Below the national standard in literacy

  • Has trouble remembering times tables and other sets of data

  • Clumsy – trouble catching small balls, trips and falls often, bumps into things

  • Trouble tying shoe laces and dressing

  • Has poor sense of direction

  • Confuses left and right

  • Disorganized – confuses times, places, dates – trouble with time management

  • Has areas of strength, surprising knowledge and ability in some areas


Some children can have a specific learning difficulty that remains hidden for several years at school then, seemingly out of the blue, they start to fall behind.

If the specific area of disability is narrow, or mild, or if the child has many other things working in their favour (such as high intelligence, excellent teaching, great memory) they may do all right at school for quite some time.  In fact, if everything else is in their favour, they might live their whole life without ever knowing they have a learning disability.  They will compensate for areas of difficulty by memorizing more, taking longer to do their work, using the dictionary more, etc.


Even so, many of these young people will choose not to go on to tertiary education, or will drop out of tertiary education, because they have to work so much harder than their peers to achieve at the same level.  They get tired of it.  They give up.

Other children will falter long before they finish school.  They may have compensated for very slow reading speed or difficulty understanding what they read by talking to class mates.  They may have compensated for poor spelling by asking friends for help or copying words from earlier work.  They may have been able to guess many words in reading because the early texts are simple and designed so that guessing works.  Children with learning disabilities use many clever techniques to get by, and so they go under the radar all too often – until their coping strategies stop working.


It is far better to pick up the difficulties these children are having early, so that specific tuition can be put in place before they fall too far behind.

12.  What should my child know/learn at each age?


Te Kete Purangi (The Knowledge Basket) is a website where the learning progressions for each year at school are outlined.  It is an initiative of the Ministry of Education.  

13.  Eight years to learn the basics


New Zealand children have about an hour every day in the classroom learning literacy.  That’s about 1600 hours before they begin high school.  They also have many more hours in the classroom using literacy – reading and writing for other subjects.  And they also have homework where they either learn or use literacy, or both. 

Adding it up, the student has probably had something like 3200 hours of learning, using and practising literacy by the time they start high school (that’s about 400 hours a year).


During this time they learn the basics


  • In writing - printing, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, tense, paragraphing, planning writing, editing writing, presenting written work

  • In reading – decoding words, comprehension/meaning, deduction, inference, vocabulary

​                                                                                                            Read more:  The building blocks of reading and writing


With this foundation students are ready for the more complex tasks ahead of them.        


When an intervention is needed it will typically be for one, or maybe two, hours a week – perhaps 40 - 80 hours a year.

Even with highly targeted, highly individualized, highly structured and highly systematic programmes, it is a big ask to make up 400 hours in just 40 hours.  And if your child is more than one year behind, the task is even bigger. 


At the level of individual words:


  • There are 290 Essential Words, which ideally should be learned by the end of year three.

  • The eight spelling levels (produced by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research) which used to be used in all primary schools (and still are in many) contained about 3000 words

  • The average adult draws from a pool of about 10,000 words in every day speech.

  • The Shorter Oxford Dictionary lists 164,000 words. 

English is a vast language.  You can’t learn the entire thing, but by the time students start high school they need to be competent, and know how to tackle unfamiliar words in reading and writing, if they are going to do well.

14.  NCEA - What should my young one be able to do?


This is a link to the NZ Qualifications Authority website where you can find examples of marked exam papers

  • for each subject 

  • at each level of NCEA

  • at achieved, merit and excellence standards 

  • The markers have commented on the strengths and weaknesses of each of these sample papers.


15.  Why is sounding so important?​


English spelling uses letters and letter combinations to represent sounds.  Eight percent of words are naughty words - not spelt the way they ought to be.  Hey, but that leaves 92% of words that are written the way they sound.  So sounding out is a hugely important tool for spelling and reading.


When young children begin learning to read at school they are usually taught to guess new words.  The books are written so that they can guess new words.  "Mum went to the shop", and there is a picture on the page showing Mum at the shop.  This is called The Whole Language Technique.  It works for most children because


  • they pick up the idea that letters (and pairs of letters) match to sounds

  • they pick up the idea that some words are tricky (the, was, one, etc) and have to be memorized

  • they learn to hear the sounds in words so they can have a decent try at reading or writing many unfamiliar words


Meanwhile they are able to read fluently fairly quickly because the text is designed to help them guess the new words until they become familiar.


Some children (about 10%) can't detect all of the individual sounds in words (see 3. dyslexia, on this page).  So they don't pick up the idea that letters and letter pairs match to sounds.  To begin with they do quite well.  They just guess, and guessing works.  But:

  • they don't have any strategy about letters and sounds 

  • they are confused, and often don't realize that some words are strange  (non-phonetic).  To them, all words are strange.

  • memorizing all words is the only way forwards - a massive task


As they progress to higher reading, guessing does not work because the texts are too rich, with too many unfamiliar words and possible word choices.  Spelling unfamiliar words is a matter of memory and random guessing.


Here’s an actual list of reading errors made in a half hour reading session by a bright fifteen year old student who had dyslexia:


Word in text                                  Word read

Plodded                                          pulled

Uttered                                           under

Gaped                                              grabbed

Reacting                                         reaching

Braked                                            barked

Paddled                                          pulled

Swallow                                          shallow

Shared                                            shouted

Plumes                                            plums

Peppered                                       prepared

Shaped                                           snapped

Failing                                              final

Shout                                              short

Roused                                           roasted

Aim                                                  arm

Tense                                              tease

Snarl                                               snore

Earth-moving business            early-morning business

Rammed                                       remained


Students with this problem realize there is something they can't do that other kids find reasonably easy, but they don't know what that something is.  Unfortunately, many teachers don't either.  


Here is a link to a post from Diana Kennedy.  She puts this in a friendly, easy to read way:  


16.  What if it's not a specific learning disability?


Sometimes students need help with literacy even though they don't have a specific learning disability - or not one that can be detected by assessment.​  The child may have missed a lot of school in the early years, or suffered a major emotional trauma during those years, or suffered poor health, or had hearing problems or vision problems.  Sometimes children have difficulty concentrating.  They may be avid day-dreamers who are not able to focus on what they are being taught.  Some children have moved from one school to another several times, and the continuity of early learning has been broken.  There are many reasons why early learning may not have been adequate.  


Most of these students will benefit from a period of one-to-one tuition, where the gaps can be filled in and their understanding of literacy improved.


17.  What if memory is the problem?


One thing we know for sure is that memory is like a muscle - it grows stronger with use.  


When we try to remember something and can't recall it, it hurts.  Because we experience a kind of pain we are inclined to give up.  "I've forgotten".  There are ways, though, to work through this pain point, and ways to prepare for it.


Memory is crucial for all learning.  Serious memory problems are a serious barrier to learning - perhaps the most severe barrier of all.  In some cases specialist interventions through the medical profession may be needed.  Often, though, children struggle to remember data because they don't have enough points of understanding to hang memories on, or because they don't know how to practise memorizing, or because they attempt to memorize too much at once, or because the pace of classroom learning is too fast for them.  These kinds of problems can be helped to a large degree by one-to-one tuition with the right techniques and support.


Here is a link to a site showing a single brain cell 'firing'.  The electrical current is moving from the cell, down the axon, to another brain cell.  This is the smallest unit of memory, or thought, we can detect.


Every time a neuron fires, the pathway the electric current follows to the next cell becomes stronger.  That connection can be made more quickly.   Repetition makes memories strong. 


During the night while we are in deep sleep, our brain clears out its short term memory storage.  It sorts out the memories from a few days ago.  Some of the memories are deleted.  Others are transferred to long term memory.  The ones that are transferred are the ones we have used a lot - the ones that have been in our conscious thoughts.  

18.  What if concentration is the problem?


The inability to concentrate, or focus, can be a barrier to learning, especially classroom learning.   There are several facets to this problem.  Some kids can't sit still.  They are compelled to move about.  Some kids can't stop day-dreaming.  Some kids are distracted by every little thing.  


There are medical interventions which can be made in the most debilitating cases.  There are dietary supplements which can sometimes help.  Sometimes when food allergies and intolerances are sorted out, concentration improves.  Sometimes chronic lack of sleep (for various reasons) is a big factor.  


When kids are having tuition in a one-to-one setting they are able to concentrate more easily.  There are fewer distractions.  The teacher can bring them back to task immediately when their attention wanders.  The teacher can point out when the student has been concentrating so that they learn to identify the feeling.  The teacher can teach the tools of concentration for tasks such as spelling and reading words.  Their stamina improves.  

19.  Undoing the damage


The Whole Language Technique for teaching literacy is used in most schools.  It is more fun for the learner, and easier to teach, than phonics and rules.  And it works for most children – otherwise none of us would be able to read and write.  In fact, at age twelve children who have learnt by the Whole Language Technique are slightly better at reading comprehension than children who have been taught by phonics and rules.  But the Whole Language Technique doesn’t work for many children with specific learning disabilities.


This explains why New Zealand rates reasonably well among nations for the number of people who achieve basic literacy at school, but at the same time, the gap between our achievers and our non-achievers is so large.  The kids that are failing, are failing spectacularly – and that’s 20% of our kids.


Here’s the real damage:

When a child has a specific learning difficulty so that he can’t make sense of sound-symbol patterns, he can often do quite well for a while just by guessing, because as we have seen, they are taught to guess unfamiliar words in the beginning, and the books are set up so that guessing works.   But it doesn’t keep working.  Once they get into higher level reading they begin to struggle.   Guessing is the only tool these children have developed, and the material is now too varied and complex for guessing alone to work.


So the child comes along for tuition.  They begin to learn how to detect sounds in words, and how those sounds are written, and the rules and patterns of spelling.


But when you are seven, and you are learning something that is very difficult for you, and guessing used to work for you, and it was what you were taught to do, it is very, very hard to give up the guessing.  Guessing has been locked in as the way to go.  That’s how you got all those feel good success moments when you were five and six.  Why would your brain let that go?

It can take a year or even a couple of years to convince these children that they have to give up guessing, and use the new skills and knowledge.  It’s long, hard, slow work undoing the damage that has unwittingly been done.



Here’s a seven and a half year old girl who had been in tuition for thirty hours.  She had learnt a lot about sounds and letters.  She came to the word use in a sentence, and she read understand.  She saw the u and the s and guessed from there.  When she was challenged to try and write the word understand she could spell it by herself by sounding it out, and then she saw her reading mistake, and she was able to sound out the word use by herself and without difficulty.

Here’s a twenty year old university student.  She was reading about a movie – Schindler’s List.  She read the name Schindler as Snider.  She saw the s, n, i,d and er, and took a guess from there without checking the order of the sounds, and without noticing the extra sounds in the word.


It would be kinder if these children had never been taught to guess in the first place!  The longer guessing goes on, the harder it is to break.  

20.  Big picture learners


It's often said that dyslexic people tend to be big picture learners.  So what does that mean for learning literacy?


Well it means that these children need to know there is a whole scheme, there are patterns, there are rules - and that when they have learned most of these the thing will make more sense.  In the meanwhile they need encouragement to keep plodding on with the detail. The detailed bits of information they learn at the beginning, for them, seem to be isolated little chunks that don't seem to be building a whole structure, and therefore seem unimportant.  Instead of learning and practising these little bits, they tend to take little notice of them, waiting for the moment when everything comes into view and they can see what they are dealing with. So they need to be shown, all along the way, how these little bits are fitting into the whole scheme, and that they are making progress toward 'the whole picture', and that the little bits of detail are important for building the whole picture.

21.  Various speech and language difficulties


There are a number of speech and language difficulties that have names and have been described.  They include: verbal dyspraxia, verbal apraxia, phonemic paraphasia and paraphasia, agrammatism, dysprosody, dysphasia and aphasia, dysarthria, and dyslexia, as well as stammers, stutters and difficulty making particular sounds.


Most of the descriptions of these conditions talk about severe forms, usually caused by brain injury or disease.  Sometimes, though, these problems come along in milder forms in students with reading, writing and spelling difficulties.  I will post links to websites here if and when I find good material.  You might like to use the contact page on this site to let me know if you find interesting and easy to read websites about these disorders.


In the meantime, here are some brief descriptions:


The prefix 'dys' means difficulty.  The prefix 'a' means without.  So dyspraxia means 'difficulty co-ordinating movement' and apraxia means 'not able to co-ordinate movement' or 'without the ability to co-ordinate movement'.


Verbal apraxia and verbal dyspraxia refer to a condition where the person has trouble or cannot control the processes necessary to make speech effectively.  This can be because of difficulty forming the ideation (idea of what needs to be done), motor planning (timing of muscle movements) or execution (the brain carrying the plan into action).   It can affect putting ideas into words and putting sounds and syllables together correctly.  People with this problem often grope for the words they want to use, have trouble saying what they mean consistently and correctly, make inconsistent mistakes in speech, fail to finish sentences and may have prosody problems (see below).


Aphasia is about the content of speech, about language.  Written and spoken language is impaired, and even sign language when aphasia occurs in deaf people.  There are sub-sets such as anomic aphasia, which means 'inability to name items'.  


Dysarthria is difficulty pronouncing phonemes, the individual sounds in words.  Vowel sounds are often distorted.  Words often flow without pauses.  The person may speak in a mono-pitch, or with hypernasality.  Articulation (speaking of ideas) often breaks down in irregular ways.  Milder forms of dysarthria often come along with dyslexia.


Phonemic paraphasia is when letters, syllables or words are substituted for the correct ones, e.g. shark instead of sharp, or bis-getti instead of spaghetti, or hop-sital instead of hospital.  Sounds may occur in the wrong order e.g. minn-elium for millenium.  This problem often comes along with dyslexia.  Often the person will know they are reading sounds in the wrong order, or are adding extra sounds, but will not be able to correct themselves e.g .  they will read the word 'fat' as 'flat', and even when the error is pointed out they won't be able to stop saying 'flat'.  


Dysprosody is when a person has trouble with inflexion, stress, rhythm, timing, melody, pitch and intonation in speech.  They may have trouble using these aspects of speech, or trouble understanding them when they hear others, or both.  We use these aspects of speech to give specific meaning to words and phrases (such as showing sarcasm or a joke) and to show emotion, among other things.  Stressed and unstressed syllables in speech can change the meaning of words (e.g. record - a vinyl disc, and record - to make a recording) and are implicated in spelling issues.  This problem sometimes comes along with dyslexia.


Agrammatism is the inability to speak in a grammatically correct fashion.  This problem sometimes comes along with dyslexia.


There are also disorders such as stammers and stutters, and the inability to make certain sounds such as th, r, l.  These problems sometimes come along with dyslexia.


Of course, all of these aspects of speech and language have to be learned from infancy.  When mastery is delayed, or doesn't happen at all, problems arise with reading, spelling, writing and spoken language.


You might like to visit these sites:


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