Dyslexia – a long history in education

While we've come a long way in helping students with dyslexia reach their potential, explains our Director of Teaching and Learning Cara Fugill, learning barriers continue to pose challenges. Cara discusses the history of dyslexia and how we can create adaptive curricula and learning environments that support each student.

A boy, aged 10 years, was brought to me by his father on 8 Jan 1900 to see the reason for his great difficulty in learning to read. The boy had been at school for three years and had got on well with every subject except reading. He was apparently a bright, and in every respect, an intelligent boy... It was soon evident, however, on careful examination that the difficulty in learning to read was due to a deficiency of the visual memory for words.

– Hinshelwood

In the early 1900s, when Scotch College opened its doors, the term dyslexia was coined by a German ophthalmologist, Rudolf Berlin, who determined that the issues associated with reading were not related to any underlying eye condition but instead a deficiency in seeing words. He referred to it as wortblindheit or word-blindness. UK physicians then began the long journey to understanding dyslexia and its impact on a child's education. It wasn't until the 1970s that they developed intervention programmes that promoted the explicit teaching of phonics and language learning at a young age to reduce the impact of dyslexia.

Many myths were dispelled about dyslexia. It was considered a reading difficulty rather than a disability, but linked to lower intelligence. Unfortunately, this misinformation had a detrimental impact on generations of dyslexic learners who were perceived by many as incapable of learning.

In 2011, more than 100 years after its determination, the Australian Government created a working party and published a paper entitled, 'Helping people with dyslexia: a national action agenda'. Among other things, the working party agreed on a common definition. Dyslexia became recognised as a learning disability requiring government funding and a National Advisory Council.

Today, all education syllabuses for pre-service teachers include training on identifying dyslexic traits and differentiating teaching strategies to support the participation of dyslexic students. A diagnosis of dyslexia should entitle a student or adult to use a computer or laptop with appropriate assistive technology programs installed, in class, in exams and the workplace. In addition, dyslexic students should receive additional working time in timed examinations at school, TAFE and university.

At Scotch, we pride ourselves on providing an inclusive and equitable education and are passionate about removing learning barriers for all our students. In its most basic form, it's about providing support and adjustments that can assist students with a learning disability overcome challenges in their learning environment. At a more complex level, it is about designing a curriculum and learning environment where the learning disability no longer matters because all students can choose how they learn and share their understanding. In the past, the level of reading skills, writing ability, organisation and rote learning required to be successful underpinned our education system.

Nowadays, teachers have flexibility and options to determine a student's level of understanding using different assessment formats, assistive technology, and varied delivery modes.

For example, it is just as valid to ascertain a student's content knowledge through a presentation as it is for them to write about it or be tested in timed conditions. It is just as valid for a student to understand and analyse a novel by having it read to them through e-books as it is by reading it themselves. It is just as valid for students to discuss and select how they would like to demonstrate and share their understanding as it is for them to rote learn a response and regurgitate it in writing. In fact, some would argue these skills are more relevant for a 21st century model of education.

It is common knowledge that many successful individuals like Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, Pablo Picasso and George Washington were or are dyslexic. The talents of people with dyslexia have more recently been recognised, with social media platforms like LinkedIn adding dyslexic thinking as a valuable skill. The wide range of creative and talented people in this group demonstrates that whilst dyslexia is a learning disability, it can have significant upsides, with the following abilities noticeably above average in dyslexic people.

  • Visualising: interacting with space, senses, physical ideas and new concepts (75% are above average)
  • Imagining: creating an original piece of work or giving ideas a new spin (84% are above average)
  • Communicating: crafting and conveying clear and engaging messages (71% are above average)
  • Reasoning: understanding patterns, evaluating possibilities and making decisions (84% are above average)
  • Exploring: being curious and exploring ideas in a constant and energetic way (84% are above average)

At Scotch, we pride ourselves on providing an inclusive and equitable education and are passionate about removing learning barriers for all our students.

Whilst it would be fair to say that we have come a long way in helping students with dyslexia reach their potential, the model of exam-based education is still a barrier for these students. The International Baccalaureate is more generous than the state-based system, which offers between 25% and 50% additional working time depending on the severity of the disability. In contrast, the state-based system offers an additional 10 minutes for every assessment hour, regardless. However, students can now gain entry to universities with a Certificate IV pathway, requiring no examinations. These changes are significant in ensuring that people with learning disabilities have an equal chance of fulfilling their career aspirations.

Cara Fugill
Director of Teaching and Learning

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