Still Curing Dyslexia

Still Curing Dyslexia

I’ve just been reading some material online on ‘dyslexia treatments’ that include such diverse “therapies” as inner-ear improvement exercises and electric shock treatment that increases reading speed ( If you do any kind of search on the terms “dyslexia cure” you will find neuroscientific brain training, full-on integrated “systems” that combine everything from diet to brain training, hemispheric stimulation, wobble-boards, music therapy, fish oils, and, I’m sure, plenty more. As anyone familiar with my hobby-horses will know, I am prone to rant about anything that claims that  to “cure dyslexia”, even the coloured overlays that we sell shedloads of, so here we go…

We see the words “suffering”, “treatment”, “therapy”, “cure”, and of course “disability”, all associated with dyslexia.  Meanwhile Professor Joe Elliott famously states (“The Dyslexia Debate, 2014) that the term dyslexia is “unscientific and should be abandoned”, while at the same time thousands of parents look to that very diagnosis in the hope that it will help provide the support that will somehow shoehorn their child into educational success.

I can see Professor Elliott’s point. Dyslexia has become too much of a catch-all phrase. And if dyslexia can be “cured” by so many diverse treatments, as most often demonstrated by increased reading speed and improved spelling and/or comprehension, is it even the same “condition” that is being treated every time?  There is evidence  (eg , or  of differences between the brain of a dyslexic person and a neurotypical individual. As the second of those two research articles says, “It is increasingly accepted that dyslexia is not a unique entity, but might reflect different neuro-cognitive pathologies”. One, perhaps, that responds to fish-oils, another one that responds to hemispheric stimulation (whatever that actually is)?

Dyslexic Heroes
I see it like this. Some people’s brains are wired differently from most others, resulting in a combination of strengths and weaknesses that puts them on the edge of any bell-curve distribution that could be labelled “neurotypical”. Those weaker areas will need support if a person is going to succeed in a system that demands strength where they are weak. It seems that there are all sorts of ways of providing that support, some of which I’m sure are more helpful than others. But whatever the different dyslexic phenotypes are, their difficulties in one area are often balanced by great strengths in others, as we know from the Einsteins, Churchills and  many other “dyslexic heroes” who have a place in history. The UK disability consultant to Microsoft struggles to read and write, but he finds ways round the problems and provides a lot of support for a lot of people by sharing the solutions he has discovered for himself. If these people had been “cured” of their dyslexia , the world would be a poorer place.

Dyslexia Cure $$
Bottling Fog
There are all sorts of interventions that can help strengthen some of the weaker areas that are often side-effects of the wiring typical of the “dyslexic” brain, and that’s all good. Let’s help where we can, and use whatever works. But at the same time, let’s make sure we look out for and encourage any unusual positives in the person that we are helping, because they could well be supporting us in something where we are weak – because as Shelley Johnston wrote in her excellent blog on this site, “they’re supposed to be like that!” Meanwhile to talk of curing dyslexia is like trying to bottle fog and give it a label, and unfortunately where you see the word “cure”, that bottle usually has a price on it as well,  and is reached for in desperation by someone who has been told that there is something wrong with their child.

Thinking and Reading Comfort

Thinking and Reading Comfort


Two thought systems

I am in the process of reading “Thinking fast and slow”, by Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahnemann. The whole book is a fascinating insight into the workings of the human mind, and how we operate on two distinct levels: system one, which is our instinctive, “autopilot” mode; and system two, which you could call our rational over-ride; the processes of analytical thought which, when we allow it the energy that it needs to function effectively, monitors and controls the instinctive “gut-thinking” promptings of system one. System two needs mental effort; system one operates at an automatic level, feeding our mental circuits instantly with much of the information we need for daily life – “I recognise that face”, “I know that word”, “I understand that sign” etc. There is a lot more to the book, (if you’re interested you can check out the you tube video on ), but what interests me here is how Kahnemann demonstrates a clear connection between reading comfort and thinking levels.

The  cockpit


System one is like a cockpit, which maintains and updates current answers to key questions, such as: Is anything new going on? Is there a threat? Are things going well? Should my attention be redirected? Is more effort needed for this task? etc. In assessing this constant stream of inputs, system one is continually deciding whether or not more effort is required from system two. One of the “dials” monitored in this figurative cockpit measures cognitive ease, and its range is between “Easy” and “Strained:’ Easy is a sign that things are going well – no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort. Cognitive strain indicates that a problem exists, which will require increased mobilisation of System two.

Many inputs (including the mood you’re in, the familiarity of the task etc) affect this neurological “dial”, but an important one that relates to reading is the clarity of the font. The process of reading familiar words that are clear on the page is a system one activity operating in the “cognitive ease” range, which leaves system two free to work on what the text is about. However if the presentation of the text causes the dial to register cognitive strain, system two is activated to help decipher the font, which suggests that the cognitive resources available for understanding what the words mean are diminished  – especially for someone with dyslexia who has multi-tasking  difficulties.

Font size

This has important implications in at least two areas. One is the question of font size and font type in children’s text books and examination papers. Research by Wilkins et al shows that typefaces for children become too small too quickly: “Sentences presented in a font of a size larger than is typical for use in material for 5-year olds were comprehended by 7–8-year-olds more rapidly than those of a more conventional size. The difference in size approximated 19% and it resulted in an increase in reading speed of 9%. (Typography for children may be inappropriately designed, Journal of Research in Reading Vol 32 2009, UKLA). This increase in reading speed was statistically highly significant.

On the same issue, I spoke to a lady on the phone just yesterday, who was concerned about her 14 year old daughter’s progress at school. She mentioned in the course of the conversation that her school had reduced their test papers from A4 to A5 page format, with a consequent reduction in font size. Wilkins’s research cited above goes on to recommend 14 pt  (this is 14pt) as the optimum size for school texts. Shrinking A4 pages to A5, for the sake of saving paper, will obviously reduce the font size significantly. The implications for cognitive ease are clear. If school testing results are to be a clear reflection of a child’s ability to think, it is critical that font size and clarity are addressed.

Visual Stress

The second issue brings me on to my pet topic, which is visual stress – the experience of discomfort and text distortions that many people experience when reading black text against a white background. Huang et al (2003) suggest that a strong sensorial stimulation – such as a dense written text – might lead to a “reduction in the efficiency of the inhibitory mechanisms in the visual cortex, resulting in an excessive excitation of the cortical neurons, and thus causing illusions and distortions.”*  Wilkins and Evans later proposed (2010) that coloured overlays are effective because “they distribute this excessive excitation and thus mitigate the symptoms of visual stress, thus improving written text processing and reading.” In other words, as is now widely accepted and the many thousands of people who use tinted lenses and coloured overlay products would testify, reading against a coloured background tinted to suit an individual’s preference can move the cognitive ease dial from “strained” to “easy”.

And so the two areas of research come together, like an overlay on a page, even, with an inescapable conclusion:  if text clarity and font size are indicators of cognitive ease or cognitive strain, what is the effect of visual stress on our ability to think about what we are reading? How often do we read something, and it just doesn’t “sink in”? If this is a result of cognitive strain, we may be experiencing it because we are tired, or preoccupied, or because the ideas are unfamiliar, or because the text is faint or too small – or it may just be that we need to be reading against a different coloured background.

*This principal is known as “cortical hyperexcitability” and is the science behind the  coloured overlays, reading rulers and screen tinting software that we supply.

Bob Hext   Jan 2018

They Are Supposed To Be Like That!

Why there is no need to “fix” kids with “special needs”.
Guest blog by Shelley Johnston: Dyslexic, doctor, home-schooling mother.

If I am going to have a rant, I will say that I don’t see anyone classifying children as “SEN” because they lack the extraordinary physical energy and courage of my next-door neighbour’s son. In comparison to him, many other children are frankly pathetic. I will say that I don’t see any children being “statemented” because they lack the ability to handle animals the way my childminder’s son can pick up anything from a preying mantis to a chicken and it appears to become tame. Nobody sighs and says “Never mind, dear, we can work on it,” because they can’t write backwards perfectly, as though in a mirror, like my daughter.

But do you know what? When I am old and sick, if I have a heart attack at 3.00 am, I really hope I find someone in A&E who was like my neighbour’s son as a child, because they have the energy to still be firing on all cylinders at three o’clock in the morning.

One day I WILL finally persuade my husband that a large portion of our household income needs to be spent on horses, and if one of those horses gets colic, I’m going to desperately want someone like my childminder’s son to show up and be able to soothe the thrashing hooves and snapping teeth as the poor thing tries to kick and bite its own tummy.

If I need an engineer, I hope they can flip shapes about in their head as easily as my little girl can.

The biggest trouble our children with “special needs” face is our own short-sightedness; our desperation that they go along with the pack, fit the mould and jump through all the hoops – the hoops laid out by the National Curriculum and Ofsted and other well-meaning bodies of people, who don’t seem to understand that Normal Distribution is a bell-curve; that it is NORMAL for people to be abnormal, that whole populations work by having a balance between lots of people who are good at one thing and a few who are good at others.

If we spend all our time trying to narrow the bell-curve and cut off its untidy tails we will find ourselves up the creek without a paddle. We not only do our “special needs” children a grave disservice by teaching them that what they are good at and enjoy is secondary in importance to the things that they are bad at and hate doing,  giving them the impression, albeit unintentionally, that they have to pretend to be something else before they are allowed to be themselves. We deprive the rest of the world of their brilliant talents. We bury our mathematicians, our architects, our philosophers, our Chelsea Flower Show gardeners, our Einsteins, our Chopins under a wave of “Yes, dear; that’s nice: you can do it when you have practised your spellings/when you have learned to sit still in class/when you can remember to put your hand up before speaking/ got your marks in your SATS (ooh , don’t get me started!).

Perhaps they aren’t meant to sit still. They can learn to read standing up, lying down, walking around, or sitting up a tree. Perhaps being “good” at school, sticking to all the rules and interacting with 30 children at a time is just exhausting for the child who is so sensitive that they read the signals of a frightened baby animal. And that’s OK: they are meant to be wriggly, or sensitive, or able to write in both directions. It’s our job to give them space to bloom – whether it’s in a mainstream classroom, a smaller group, a quiet place to hide, or not even at school.

But it doesn’t matter what they need: that’s not what this article is about. It’s about how we look at our children, because that is how they look at themselves. Do we feel sorry for monkeys because they can’t swim, or do we let them climb trees?

PS Of course we have to buy a life-boat as well, because we are 21st century parents with a pathological aversion to risk, and even though the monkey lives in a dry jungle we have to cover all our bases, but more on that some other time…

Lifting the lid on “exam factory” thinking.

Lifting the lid on “exam factory” thinking.

In a direct challenge to the government’s performance tables fixation and the use of “exam floor targets” to label failing schools, Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, has said that some school leaders should be “ashamed” of the tactics used to bolster their league table standings. The Ofsted view is that some schools are simply becoming “exam factories”, burdening students with “meaningless exams” to improve their league table results.

Ms Spielman said, “At a time of scarce pupil funding and high workloads, all managers are responsible for making sure teachers’ time is spent on what matters most. This means concentrating on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops… The idea that children will not, for example, hear or play the great works of classical musicians or learn about the intricacies of ancient civilisations – all because they are busy preparing for a different set of GCSEs – would be a terrible shame.”

The head of the inspectors in England continued, “All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage three means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

“Rather than just intensifying the focus on data, Ofsted inspections must explore what is behind the data, asking how results have been achieved. Inspections, then, are about looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education –one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.”

Answer the Question!
Is this the first breeze of a fresh wind about to blow through our Education system? More emphasis on teaching and learning as opposed to just focusing on achievement has got to be positive, and with the current state of uncertainty in the political landscape it is unlikely that the government will do much to oppose the direction Ofsted may be taking. This issue was highlighted in the context of maths learning difficulties at our SpLD Central conference yesterday, where Prof Steve Chinn (author of Maths for Dyslexics, The Trouble with Maths etc) was our keynote speaker. Steve pointed out that a frightening number of 16-19 yr olds were, basically, incompetent at maths. By incompetent I mean that they made fundamental place value errors; couldn’t work our simple fractions etc. By frightening we are talking about over 40%. At or near the top of the pile of achievement-based teaching (ie I want you to give me the answer to this question, now!) is learning times tables by rote. And in February this year we find Nick Gibb telling an education select committee that times tables testing would be returning to primary schools in summer 2019, as the government thinks “Times tables are a very important part of mathematical knowledge.”

Back to Basics
I don’t think any of us would disagree with the value of knowing what, for example, 6 x 7 equals. What Steve was showing us yesterday was the importance of making sure that children know what the numbers actually mean before we ask them to do sophisticated operations with them. In order to achieve that goal we sometimes need to go a long way back into very basic territory, then sometimes further back still, before we can put right errors and misconceptions that have been hard-wired into early learning experiences with number. What is easy to see in the context of maths learning applies right across the curriculum. Insisting on tests for times tables (and don’t forget, schools – we’ll be grading you on how many of your students give the right answers!) is just a symptom of the bigger problem which is driving the education standards it is desperate to improve.

So let’s hope Ofsted have their way, and get to inspect more of what is going on “under the bonnet”. Maybe we should send the schools minister one of our dyscalculia kits…


Writing on the Wall


It’s not often I get excited about government reports, but the article I read in last Monday’s paper has got me blogging. A report by the Commons’ education select committee criticises the focus on technical aspects of reading and writing that was introduced last year by the schools minister, Nick Gibb. The report said: “The committee is concerned by the emphasis on technical aspects of reading and writing and the diminished focus on composition and creativity at primary school. The committee is not convinced this leads directly to improved writing and calls for the government to reconsider this balance.”

The report goes further, in what is a damning account of what it calls the “high stakes” system of Primary assessment (SATS), but it’s the phrase “diminished focus on composition and creativity” that caught my eye.

I used to be an English teacher, and I’ve always loved writing. Right from the very beginning in the Infants, (in the 1950s) and all the way through my school years, different teachers encouraged my ability and gave me the tools to nurture it. I grew to love grammar and punctuation, to understand parts of speech, to recognise the difference between a main clause and a subordinate clause, to know a simile from a metaphor, to correctly punctuate speech, and to generally follow the road map that took me on my journey of creativity. The wonder of being able to enter my imaginary world and walk through it with another person has stayed with me all my life.

What did I need for this journey? I needed words, obviously, and I found them in books I read and stories I was told; and I needed to know what sounds the letters made when I wrote them down. Actually the wheel of  phonics that we used then was hardly different from the one that has been re-invented, to the sound of great trumpeting and the ker-ching of much cash, in the last 15 years. And the children it didn’t work for then would probably be the same as the ones it doesn’t work for now. But that’s an aside…

I needed to put words together in sentences, so full stops and commas appeared pretty soon; and then paragraphs and soon the magic semi-colon. I needed these things because they helped me to write, and writing is something I wanted to do: my writing was my world, and it was the place I wanted to visit most of all. In all the beauty and wonder that makes up the brain of a child, isn’t it the imagination, that faculty to compose and create, that we possibly cherish more than anything else and whose passing we lament as the demands of adulthood crowd in? Can anything be more important to a child’s education (from Latin roots Ex out and Duco to lead) than the springboard of his or her creativity?

Of course children need to understand the technical aspects of language, but it must be to the extent to which it serves them  in their journey. If we give a child a pair of wheels, a handlebar and saddle, a chain and some brakes, and ask them to learn their various technical attributes, they will soon walk away and look for something better to do. But if put them on a bike and help them to ride, we have started them on a glorious journey that will last for years and go on for many miles. As  they get older and more competent we introduce the gears, we show them how to oil the chain, maintain the brakes, raise the saddle, mend a puncture and the rest. And as they take ownership of the bike, the richer the journey becomes.

So it is with language and writing. Mr Gibb and your army of auditors: will you please get on your bikes,  and let creativity and composition loose in the classroom again.

Bob Hext is author of the Crossbow publication “How to Write Like a Writer“.


“Pupils to be taught maths the Chinese Way” (The Times headline, 12 July)

So: we’re going for wholesale adoption of “Shanghai maths” in the UK. 8000 primary schools will be switching to the traditionalist style of maths teaching used in South Asia. There will be greater emphasis on class teaching; children from age five will learn through drills and repetition; more work will be done from textbooks, and who knows – maybe in a few years our children will have made up the three years that we are behind Shanghai?

We have a Chinese lady at our church whose husband is a doctor in Beijing. They have a five year old son, who has just started school. Why has she chosen to live away from her husband for most of the year? Because of the education system in China. Because the pressure on children to achieve is such that they spend practically every waking hour either at school or doing school work at home. The average school day runs from 7.30 – 5.00, with two hours for lunch. A 12 year old will typically spend 3-4 hours a day doing homework, knowing that when he or she graduates in a few years they face the dreaded high school graduation exam, the Gaokao or “big test”, which examines high school leavers on their Chinese, mathematics and English, and another science or humanities subject of their choice. Shanghai maths is not just a system that can be cherry-picked off the whole Chinese education  cake: it is part of the mix. The 15 year olds who have achieved “mastery” have done so because they have survived spending their childhood in a pressure-cooker. However we are told nothing about those who haven’t…

The Gaokao
As a recent BBC TV documentary showed, a student’s Gaokao result will determine which university they can attend, and therefore much of the rest of their future, so they are under huge pressure from an early age. For the first time this year, any candidate caught cheating could face jail. Gaokao revision is all-consuming, often at the expense of the necessities of life. A good result means status and a high paid job; failing the Gaokao almost guarantees a lifetime of low-ranking employment, and family disappointment. The shadow of the Gaokao falls right back through the education system, so that even children of primary school age are under its thrall. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently announced that about 500 children commit suicide each year under academic pressure brought about by the examination-based education system, often by jumping from the balconies of their high-rise flats.

From what I remember from my first school days 60 years ago, we used the Shanghai system at Hedsor infant school – or something pretty similar. Maths drills, chanting tables, whole class teaching – isn’t that it? And those “thick” children who just couldn’t keep up, and fell further and further behind – weren’t they in the picture too?

Of course the text book publishers will feast on this like sharks, and doubtless there will be children who will achieve higher standards. Meanwhile we will be around with our new dyscalculia kit, which will be out in September, to pick up the pieces as our schools are Shanghai’d back into a bygone age. Sadly, though, there are some pieces that can never be picked up. The cost will be a lot more than £41 million of textbooks and training.

Plus ça change…

This has nothing to do with phonics or visual stress, but there is a connection with spelling, and also some mathematical content…

On a day when our woeful performance on the football pitch has “booted” us (sorry) out of Europe for the second time in a week, I’ve just found some material on our fileserver that I’d picked up some time (ie years) ago that serves to illustrate that, in the broad scheme of things, appearances may change but realities remain the same. So with acknowledgements to whoever it was who compiled these anagrams, I hope you enjoy the following…

Dormitory Dirty Room
Desperation A Rope Ends It
The Morse Code Here Come Dots
Slot Machines Cash Lost in ’em
Animosity Is No Amity
Snooze Alarms Alas! No More Z’s
Alec Guinness Genuine Class
Semolina Is No Meal
The Public Art Galleries Large Picture Halls, I Bet
A Decimal Point I’m a Dot in Place
The Earthquakes That Queer Shake
Eleven plus two Twelve plus one
Contradiction Accord not in it

This one’s truly amazing:
To be or not to be: that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

And the Anagram:
“In one of the Bard’s best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.”

And for the grand finale:
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong

The Anagram:
“Thin man ran; makes a large stride, left planet, pins flag on moon! On to Mars!”