How Kara helped me understand Dyslexia

Kara Tointon

Image via Wikipedia

I watched a television programme on BBC iPlayer yesterday. It was about the actress Kara Tointon who has recently won the (in Britain) famous dancing competition “Strictly Come Dancing“.

Now I have some connection with this young lady in that (I am told) she went to a school as a child that I taught in. The problem is that in our 500+ children school I could not remember her. Firstly, I did not teach her and secondly, she did not really make waves at school. She was not one of the super-naughty ones that you remember forever because they still make you squirm to think of the many brilliant ways they could misbehave and generally try and make your life a misery. She was also not one of the high fliers whose work is always impressive, who corrects you in class, who you know will go on to great things.

She was well behaved and fitted in but throughout her school career she had a big problem…. she could not read and write properly. It was not until she was about eleven that she had Dyslexia confirmed as her problem.

The programme looked at her life which is not just about reading difficulties but also organisational difficulties. She lived in constant fear of losing things like her mobile phone which she would put down and then find it very difficult to find again. As an actress she could not read her lines very well and would spend a very long time laboriously writing down her lines and then trying to commit them to her long-term memory.

In the programme she had a brain scan to try and find out exactly where her problems lay. The best definition that they could give her afterwards was that she read English in the way that someone might who is not native to the language, i.e. she took the letter patterns and then put them together into sounds and then had to search through her memory banks for the word… it was a tortuous process to watch. She also visited an optometrist who investigated her vision and found that she had problems in reading text on a white background… but could focus when she had a green lens to look through.

In the programme Kara visited a special school (private) for Dyslexic children. She saw how these children were trying to overcome their difficulties by being taught in a multi-sensory way that included making the letters of a word by pouring a can of water onto the ground. They played with the letters, they literally lived the language rather than just relying on their memories to recall and then being expected to read.

In this school there was a sixteen year old boy who spoke about the difficulties he had at school. He had always been unable to keep up in class. He had got into trouble throughout his school career. He had faced bullying from his peers and at the age of seven (yes seven!) he had tried to commit suicide. He spoke movingly about the way that the private school had changed his outlook on life. He now realised that he was not stupid and that he could succeed at his exams and become what he wanted to be in life. Kara asked him what he wanted to be and he said… a teacher…. because he wanted to make sure that children like him were given the right conditions to learn and not go through the things that he had had to go through in his school career.

Later on in the programme she met a young man who had great problems with learning. He still could not read and write properly but he went practically every day that he could, with his girlfriend, to the local library in Nottingham where he lives, to try and use computer technology to help him to read. He told her how he had been excluded from school and had later become a thief because most jobs were closed to him due to his inability to read and write. He had been in prison but was now determined to change his life and to try and break through the barriers that his Dyslexia had given him throughout his life so far.

In Kara, the young sixteen year old student and this young man from Nottingham I saw people who had been seen as slow or even stupid at school, who had gone through countless difficulties when going through our conventional school system that does not understand and in many cases still does not even recognise that Dyslexia exists. Yet these three people were determined to try and read. They still had the motivation to want to learn and they had each found some peace in knowing that they were not inherently backward but had a brain that worked differently to most other people. They had the courage to try again and they had found people and organisations that understood that they needed to be treated in a different way.

I am passionately against streaming of any kind in schools. I have spent many hours arguing with fellow teachers and consultants about this and it is examples such as the three people mentioned above that makes me see the iniquities of streaming. We define by putting on a label. A child cannot read… it is their fault, not ours, they can’t listen properly, they are lazy..if they tried harder they would succeed.They are troublemakers.. they should be excluded.

In the programme Kara expressed her desire to read through a Harry Potter book. Her specially made glasses with the green lenses arrived and she started to read and found that she could read with a greater fluency than she had ever felt possible. She went to individual classes for Dyslexic adults and has been taught about a multi-sensory approach to remember things using coloured sticky notes… it has helped her to be better organised in her life and to become much more efficient in learning her lines.

As I said, I never taught her but wonder if I would have helped her if I did. I think that this programme has helped me to see that we cannot just talk about personalised learning…we need to put it into practice in schools….. there are too many people like Kara who have miserable school lives because we refuse to accept that they have specific learning needs and we do not cater for them. In the end we all benefit from these children achieving their potential.

The programme can be seen for the next few days on BBC iPlayer

About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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