ADDRESSING SPECIFIC LEARNING DIFFICULTIES IN CHILDREN

Juken is embarking on a major project to help children with specific learning difficulties of dyslexia to overcome the literacy problem they face especially during primary education.

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BRIEF BACKGROUND OF DYSLEXIA

It has been estimated that up to 15 percent of children in Asia may be affected by learning difficulties in one form or another and 60 to 80 percent of these children suffer from a specific learning or literacy problem called dyslexia (derived from Greek meaning .difficulty with words.). Dyslexics are normal children often with above average IQs or intelligence and the problem can only be properly assessed and diagnosed by specialists. It is more related to the way their brain processing information (resulting in for example, seeing letters and words differently) rather than any physical disabilities. Some of the most famous and successful personalities in the world are known to be dyslexics such as Albert Einstein, software billionaire Bill Gates, British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, former US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and film stars Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford.

Dyslexia is not a disease and it cannot be cured. But there are remedial programs available which can assist dyslexic children, depending on their degree or severity, overcome many of the difficulties they face in reading and writing.

Studies and research from overseas have indicated that such learning difficulties, if not addressed properly at the early stage, would likely lead to school dropouts, juvenile delinquency and deep seated resentment against the school system and society in general. This in turn may induce the youths concerned to be involved in social ills such as drug abuse and other social crimes. Prisons in England, for example, are found to have a disproportionately high number of inmates who suffer from dyslexia (more than 50 percent).

Here in Malaysia, it has been estimated that up to 500,000 children per generation are facing various degrees of dyslexia. However, it is still an under-recognized and not yet fully understood or well-publicized phenomenon and there is currently a severe lack of resources, support and proper facilities to address the problem at a national scale. (See our proposal below for calling for a national study on dyslexia). Local dyslexia organizations and some individuals are, however, doing a good job in raising public awareness on the issue and attending to some cases.

In Malaysia, drug abuse affects 1 percent of the population and is taken as a top priority and is even designated as a national security issue. Dyslexia affects far more people and may even be linked to drug abuse itself. This is why we believe the problem of dyslexia requires the due attention of national policy makers.

It is also a matter of justice that many youths in the past and present have suffered unjustly at the hands of parents and the school system since dyslexic students are often perceived as stubborn, lazy, deliberately disruptive and indisciplined and therefore deserve punishment. The youths then retaliate, become even more disruptive and find themselves alienated from society even further. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be addressed urgently.

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LATEST DEVELOPMENTS ON DYSLEXIA PROJECT

Following the success of our pilot program conducted in Kuala Lumpur in July 2003 by an expert (Simone Pogorzelski) from Macquarie University's MULTILIT Program, plans are now on the way towards the setting up of specialized solution-driven centres called "clinics" in Malaysia. MULTILIT stands for "making up lost time in literacy" and it is a highly successful and tried-and-tested remedial program developed by the world-renowned Macquarie University in the field of special education. Our intention is to have the first clinic operational by the first quarter of 2005. The clinics will be staffed by well trained and qualified local "clinicians" who will be able to provide professional assessments and remedial programs (including tutoring service at the clinics) based on MULTILIT in the English Language for dyslexic children and possibly other slow learners as well. We are working towards setting up at least one specialized clinic in all major towns in Malaysia within 3 years.

We are continuing to put more effort into the campaign to raise greater awareness on the issue of dyslexia by educating the public in general and school-teachers and affected parents in particular. We will be exploring more innovative and effective ways to do this (within our means) and we will work with the relevant authorities, media/press and any interest groups to achieve this common objective. We also welcome feedback from anyone on this matter or if you have a personal experience or have heard of any story (good or bad) of how a dyslexic child is coping with his/her learning environment, please tell us about it. We are building up a strong information database for our campaign.

Our long-term plan is to promote the idea to the Government and private educational institutions that selected teachers should undergo training and courses so that eventually every kindergarten and school in the country would have the expertise to detect children with dyslexia and provide the necessary advice to the parents concerned.

Anyone who is interested to know more about our latest development on this project can contact Nur Shahirah at 03 - 2093 6988 or e-mail her at shahirah@jukenworld.com

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WHY A NATIONAL STUDY ON DYSLEXIA IS NEEDED

Juken, while undertaking its own initiatives as outlined above, is concurrently calling for a major study, to be commissioned by a relevant government body, on the actual magnitude and seriousness of the problem of dyslexia in Malaysia, its social impact in the past and present and to propose specific and general recommendations needed.

Experts all agree that dyslexia has a negative impact on our society but the extent of it and in what specific ways need to be researched and analyzed. For example, the study should include a survey of our prison population to find out the percentage of dyslexics and there should also be a survey of a sample of schools to determine the level of dyslexic students and how they disrupt classes or take out their frustrations in other ways.

The study should also include relevant research done in other countries and lessons to be drawn from there as well.

Our society owes it to the past, present and future generations of children and youths to undertake such a study in order that we can then address this problem properly.

Juken Consultancy is still pursuing the idea of a national study on dyslexia (focusing on an assessment of the magnitude of the problem, the learning, social & economic implications and recommendations) with an appropriate financial sponsor and is seeking the support and co-operation of the Special Education Department of the Ministry of Education. An announcement will be made when funding for this study is secured.

ABOUT DYSLEXIA

WHAT IS DYSLEXIA?

The word "dyslexia" comes from Greek meaning " difficulty with words" and is a specific learning difficulty affecting a person's ability to deal with text, and often numbers as well. It is the commonest cause of learning difficulties for children and young people and is estimated to occur in about 8 percent of the population. Dyslexic people are often accompanied by strengths in areas such as high IQ, creative work, physical co-ordination and empathy with other people.

A dyslexic person faces difficulty with writing and spelling and sometimes with reading and working with numbers. He/she may have problems putting things in order, following instructions, and may confuse left and right. A simplistic comparison is with someone who is color-blind. This means that they are perfectly normal in all other respects but cannot distinguish colors to a greater or lesser degree. A dyslexic person does not see words, with their letters in order, as most people see them. The letters may appear to jump around, or be hazy, and their eyes will move unevenly over the words as they read. They would find it extraordinarily hard to remember the letters of a word in order.

The problem of dyslexia is attributed to neurological anomalies in the brain, which bring about varying degrees of difficulty in learning using words and sometimes symbols.

Since dyslexia is not a disease it cannot be cured, but through special help and learning programs and a supportive environment, a dyslexic child can overcome many of the problems associated with reading and writing. Dyslexia is a type of mind, like any other, with its particular strengths and weaknesses. We all have different talents, things in we are good at and things we find hard. Dyslexic children find spelling and getting things in the right order very hard; but also have other areas at which they excel. The important thing is to detect children with dyslexia, offer a remedial program and keep up their confidence.

(Source : Dyslexia Parents Resource)

WHAT CAUSES DYSLEXIA?

The real cause of dyslexia has not been fully established yet but according to an expert John Bradford in a recent article in Dyslexia Online Magazine, the overall picture based on studies in the USA is that dyslexia can be caused in the following ways:

The following information is extracted from the above article.

Hearing problems at an early age

If a child suffers frequent colds and throat infections in the first five years, the ears can be blocked from time to time so that hearing is impaired. The parents can easily be unaware of this until a doctor actually looks into the child's ear. This condition is sometimes known as "glue ear" or "conducive hearing loss". If the difficulty is not noticed at an early stage, then the developing brain does not make the links between the sounds it hears.

This early learning of sounds and words is fundamental to the child's developing ability to handle language and text. It causes lifelong difficulties-dyslexia-if corrective action is not taken at a very early stage. The most common treatment is the insertion of a tiny tube or grommet into the child's ear. This allows the fluid to drain off so that the child's hearing is restored. Another treatment is the removal of the tonsils, which are sometimes the cause of the repeated infections.

Inherited Factors

It is clear from studies and assessments that dyslexia is very frequently found in families, and is often accompanied by left-handedness somewhere in the family. This does not mean to say that a dyslexic parent will automatically have a dyslexic child, or that a left-handed child will necessarily be dyslexic. But where dyslexia does occur, more than 80% have a history of learning difficulties in their family, and more than 60% have a family member who is left-handed.

With the technical advances that have come about in brain-scanning in recent years, a lot of work has been carried out examining the brains of dyslexic people. Bunches of cells beneath the surface of the brain have been detected which lie on the surface in the brain of a non-dyslexic person. These groups of cells ought to have moved to the brain's surface at the time when the brain was developing in the fetus, but failed to make the journey. They are known as 'ectopic' cells (like an extopic pregnancy, where the egg fails to reach the womb and is fertilized in the (Fallopian tube). These ectopic clusters of cells are mainly found in the left and the front of the brain - the areas which are important for reading and writing.

Another area of the brain - the mango-cellular system, which deals with our ability to see moving images - is smaller in the brains of dyslexic people. This makes reading harder, where the brain has to quickly interpret the different letters and words which the eyes see as they scan works and sentences.

There are more dyslexic boys than girls, and investigations are being carried out to see whether a child's mental development is altered by the hormone testosterone. It is thought that a child's immune system could be affected by an excess of testosterone, which could lead to problems such as allergies, asthma and dyslexia.

With the use of EEG, where electrodes are fitted to a person's head, it has been possible to see increased brain activity on the right side of the brain when a child is beginning to learn to read. Increased activity is noticeable on the left side in an advanced reader. However, the brains of dyslexic children show an unusual variation in left-and right-side activity.

A Combination of Both

Sometimes a child has experienced early hearing problems and has also inherited genes which dispose him or her towards difficulties dealing with the printed word. These children are often found to be quite severely dyslexic, and need a lot of support through their school and college years.

Different types of dyslexia

It is thought that there is a variety of types of dyslexia. There is no one pattern which all dyslexic children and adults fit. Some dyslexic children have good short-term memory, whilst others are really weak in this area. Some have good skills in math, whilst others really struggle. Some have few problems with left and right, whilst others get completely confused.

Learning strategies can make a huge difference

Learning strategies to overcome the difficulties associated with dyslexia can make a huge difference to the performance of dyslexia child or adult. In particular, a 'multi-sensory' method can really help; this involves teaching people to learn spellings, for example, not only by hearing and saying the sounds of the letters, but also by using their visual and tactile (touch) memories by writing the letters in the air, on the carpet, with clay or in very large (joined) handwriting on big sheets of paper. This gives their brain a visual and tactile memory of the word as well as the memory of hearing the sounds of the letters. Joining the letters together - in joined handwriting - helps the brain to remember the order of the letters in a word.

Compensating strengths

There are compensating strengths for a dyslexic person. Dyslexics benefit greatly in two important areas: creativity and physical co-ordination. We often see examples of creative and imaginative drawings from children being assessed, and we read about dyslexic children's skills and pleasure in sports, games and other activities which require the physical co-ordination that many non-dyslexic children find hard.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS OF DYSLEXIA

(This section is based on formation extracted from Dyslexia Parents Resource and Dyslexia Teacher of University Avenue, Oxford, Mass. 38655, USA)

A short list of possible clues would include some, but not all of these:

Low self-esteem, lack of confidence or rebellious;

POSSIBLE SYMPTOMS IN MORE DETAILS

Low self-esteem and lack of confidence

In the school situation, a dyslexic child may find he or she is experiencing failure, but is not able to understand why. This frequently results in low self-esteem and a severe loss of confidence, which can lead to the child being reluctant to go to school. In some cases, the child concerned may even find excuses or distractions (disruptive or otherwise) at home or in school, just to avoid reading or writing.

A discrepancy between the pupil's ability and their actual achievement

If you notice that a child who appears to be average or bright when they are talking to you is struggling to read, spell or cope with math/s this may be the strongest clue that something is wrong. It is very common for dyslexic children to be quite able, especially in the areas of creativity (art, drama, drawing, etc) and physical co-ordination (physical education, swimming, sports, model-making, etc.). However, there are differences in the neural links in their brain that makes it hard for them to deal with text (and often with numbers) without extra support. A reading age or grade level of two years below what you would expect from them is a sign of possible dyslexia. Obviously, this could also be caused by other factors such as lengthy absences from school due to illness.

A family history of learning difficulties

Of the two types of dyslexia, the more common is inherited through the genes and called 'developmental dyslexia'. This has been found to be more common in boys than girls, and is thought to be due to an excess of the male hormone testosterone during pregnancy. If there is a history of learning difficulties among one or more members of the family, it might be significant.

Difficulties with spelling

Spelling is the activity which causes most difficulty for dyslexic children. The observation of spelling errors in short, simple words is the way in which most dyslexic children first catch the attention of teachers and /or parents. Examples of words which cause particular difficulty are: any, many, island, said, they, because, enough, and friend. Other words will sometimes be spelt in the way that you would expect them to be spelt if our spelling system were rational, for example does/dus, please/pleeze, knock/nock, search/serch, journey/jerney, etc.

Dyslexic children also experience difficulties with 'jumbled spellings'. These are spelling attempts in which all the correct letters are present, but are written in the wrong order. Examples include dose/does, friend/friend, said/said, bule/blue, because/because, and wores/worse. "Jumbled spellings' show that the child is experiencing difficulty with visual memory. Non-dyslexic children and adults often use their visual memory when trying to remember a difficult spelling; they write down two or three possible versions of the word on a spare piece of paper and see which spelling 'looks right'. They are relying on their visual memory to help them, but the visual memory of a dyslexic child may not be adequate for this task.

Confusion over left and right

A fairly quick way to establish this type of confusion is to ask a child to point to your left foot with his or her right hand. If you try similar instructions - in a non-threatening environment - you will soon be able to see if this causes difficulties or not. (Try it on a colleague - who is not dyslexic - and you can see how a non-dyslexic person is able to sort out the left and right elements quite readily.) You may also notice difficulties with east and west, or in following directions like "Go to the end of the road and turn left, then right, etc'.

Writing letters or numbers backwards

You will have noticed some children who mix up 'b' and 'd', or even 'p' and the number 9. These letters are the same in their mirror image., and cause regular confusion for a dyslexic person. Some pupils make a pint of always writing the letter 'b' as an upper-case or capital 'B', as they fine this much easier to remember in terms of the direction it faces.

Difficulties with math/s

One feature of dyslexia is difficulties with sequencing - getting things in the right order. Math/s depends on sequences of numbers 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. Whilst many people are aware that dyslexic children and students have problems with reading and spelling, they do not know that math/s can also be a real challenge.

Difficulties with organizing themselves

Whilst you may quite reasonably think that all children live their lives in a mess, this is particularly so for dyslexic children and students, who may have genuine difficulties with planning and thinking ahead to when a book or pen might be needed next. They can really benefit room help with organizing papers and folders under a simple color-coded system.

Difficulty following 2- or 3-step instructions

'Go to Mrs. Brown and ask her if Peter Smith is in school today. Oh, yes, and ask if I can borrow her dictionary' - such and instruction is just too much! It involves both sequencing and memory skills, and you would be very surprised to see a dyslexic child return with the dictionary and information about Peter Smith! Dyslexic children love to take messages as much as any other child, but it has to be a less complicated instruction, e.g. 'Ask Mrs. Brown if I can borrow her stapler'.

IF A CHILD PRESENTS WITH A NUMBER OF THESE SYMPTOMS

No two dyslexic children are exactly alike, and the above symptoms are just the more common ones. The list is not exhaustive, and few children would show all of these signs. However, if a child is having difficulties with spelling and writing, and has some of these signs, it may be time to think about the possibility of a professional assessment.

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November 2004