The colour-coded spines of the Oxford Reading Tree books were the bane of my existence when my son was learning to read. I was not surprised when reading proved difficult for him, being dyslexic myself I expected it. The problem was seeing the pain in my little boy’s face in this very public display of difference. The dyslexic child soon becomes old enough to notice they are different from their peers but too young to understand why.
    The comments of teachers when they saw my son’s scrawled, illegible writing – suggesting my thoughtful boy was careless or lazy – made my blood boil knowing the Herculean effort involved for him to produce just a few lines by hand… and so it goes for the dyslexic child.

Just setting out as a Specialist Teacher back then, I knew what was coming next: 

  • Despite teaching children like my son every day, there would be no simple way through this
  • My son would need a different toolkit than his peers. I would need to find a way to help the school understand and see the bigger picture

Perhaps my greatest challenge was to avoid projecting my own experience of growing up in the unsympathetic education system of the 1970s and ’80s onto my son’s situtation. There was no real understanding of dyslexia in schools then and, therefore no useful rationale for a child who consistently mastered IQ tests yet could not learn to read or write. To the school it was simple: I was difficult and lazy. I managed to keep my head more or less down and somehow, miraculously, arrived at university – though woefully unprepared. On the cusp of being kicked to the curb due to my poor grades in my first year, I agreed to meet Will Ryan in the Learning Centre. During our first meeting he said, ‘I don’t think the problem is you can’t write, I think it’s that no one has ever showed you in a way that works for you’. We soon found not only could I write, I was actually very good at it. Is then that I fell in love with academia; my fervour for it has only grown through the years.

“We soon found not only could I write, I was actually very good at it”

In its simplest terms, the dyslexic brain processes language differently, so while dyslexics may excel visuo-spatially or in non-verbal reasoning and be verbally eloquent, the way the brain and the hand ‘sync-up’ to write does not become fully automatic – which is what children need in school to listen, look and write simultaneously. Understanding my son’s neurology, I knew he could sit in Writing Club until the cows came home but it would not give him what he needed. Dr Sally Shaywitz from Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity says: “Dyslexia robs people of time”. By recovering time using tools such as touch typing, specialist technology, exam techniques and multisensory revision skills, a child can reclaim the time lost in the classroom. The most important thing any school can offer a dyslexic child is a flexible approach to discover how that child works best. 

One of my most cherished memories is of my son ringing me from university to tell me he got a First on his first essay. Emerging with strength and pride from the wilderness, he’s not looked back since.

Jessica Narowlansky, Head of Specialist Education and WellbeingCavendish Education