How did you learn to read? Can you remember? My gut feeling is that most of us who contribute to this site will not remember struggling to translate text into sound, or to make sense of letters, words and sentences.
But for children who do, the dyslexics, learning to read will be such an achievement that the successes and failures, the praise, and perhaps the occasional thoughtless rebuke, will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
I’ve worked with dyslexics, and with teachers of dyslexia, for many years. I’ve sought to understand why dyslexia happens, and how to overcome it. Dyslexics often seem to be a personality type – they are restless, intelligent, curious but often very demoralised. Despite schools having access to very sophisticated technology, most classroom teaching is still very largely text based. Dyslexics have a mountain to climb.
Michael Morpurgo recently presented two excellent programmes about learning to read, “Between the Lines” on BBC Radio 4. The first was dedicated to looking at the ‘real book’ movement, the second to synthetic phonics. Morpurgo’s gentle, avuncular tone scratched away at the reasoning behind both, and, despite his courtesy towards the phonic tribe I could hear a clear passion for putting a love of books, of stories before anything else. I’m sure most of us share that with him. I find it very hard to be passionate about synthetic phonics. For some children, without doubt, phonics is the only way they will learn. But to use this as the primary means of teaching children to read is something I can’t help but instinctively reject.
And yet governments in the UK, particularly the Welsh Government, are becoming so prescriptive about how teachers should teach there is a distinct danger something obvious will be overlooked. In Wales, the education minister has made it quite clear that literacy and numeracy should be a school’s focus, and other areas of the curriculum are subservient to this. I’ve always had the sense that relegating, for example, creative subjects, to a second division of the curriculum was a fundamental mistake, but could never reason why.
However it’s thanks to Morpurgo’s programme that I think I’ve realised what it is.
During the second programme Morpurgo interviewed Usha Goswami, Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at Cambridge University. What she said made so much sense to me that I wanted to stand up and applaud. In essence she thinks that dyslexia is not a visual difficulty, but an aural one. Children who are dyslexic, for example, often cannot hear stresses in words. They don’t hear rhythm in speech as well as those of us who have never experienced reading as a challenge. Neurons responsible for replicating rhythm, and for developing rhythm in speech, and therefore for following metre and syllable patterns in words, must be kick started at an early age otherwise they will not trigger at all.
It is very likely, she says, that there is a genetic disposition towards a child’s brain not being receptive to patterns such as these, but there is also a large element of nurture.
I wrote to Professor Goswami, and she very kindly sent me some of her research papers. She suggests that young children who have difficulty keeping a steady rhythmic beat are more likely to be dyslexic, and that early intervention, with music, dance and rhythm in rhyme, could help the infant brain to prepare itself for reading.
Which suggests that music could have a vital, pragmatic role in children’s learning. Music, which has been shunting into a siding in the school curriculum for years, and which in most recent times, particularly in Wales, has been rusting and covered in weeds, should be given an overhaul, and dragged out into the light.
To education ministers of the world: pay more attention to music.