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 (http://www.newsweek.com/electric-shocks-help-dyslexic-children-read-faster-442693/) 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…

Catch-All
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 https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161221125517.htm , or https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090624193502.htm)  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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjVQJdIrDJ0 ), but what interests me here is how Kahnemann demonstrates a clear connection between reading comfort and thinking levels.

The  cockpit

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

Shanghai’d

“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!”

Cheers,
Bob

SpLD Central Update

As some UK readers will know, we are launching a new conference on June 20th this year, called SpLD Central. It will have a dyslexia focus, and we are delighted to have the excellent Neil Mackay presenting two keynotes on the theme “Getting it right for Dyslexia, getting it right for all”. There’ll be about 15 exhibitors (not just ourselves!), excellent food, a free shuttle bus from the station, b&b on site if you want it – the full monty. Basically, we’ve been to so many events since we started in 1993 – good, mediocre, and absolutely dire – we think we know how to put a good programme together. If you want to know more, visit www.spldcentral.com.

There have been two changes to the programme since the conference was launched. Here they are:

1) A new workshop. 
Originally I (Bob Hext) was going to present “Visual Stress: What it is and what to do” in both the afternoon workshop sessions (we’re running two sessions of 9 parallel workshops in the afternoon, so there’s plenty of choice), but I decided a few weeks ago that I would present “Dyslexia, Learning, Games and Puzzles” for the second session. I used to do this workshop regularly before we got so involved in visual stress support, and it was always popular, so I’m looking forward to doing it again: it’s going to be a bit of going back to our roots.

2) Stress management (not visual!) timetable change
A contact of ours with a background of teaching lower ability FE students for core skills subjects has started a stress management consultancy. We originally thought it would be helpful to include a short session (including relaxation exercises) on “Stress management in the workplace” as part of the main programme, with an alternative option of detailed presentations on flagship products from selected exhibitors (TRUGS, Wordshark, and others including ourselves). However we have now taken this session out of the main programme, and included “Identifying and managing stress” and “Product related workshops” in the workshop options, making the timetable less cluttered and allowing more time for input that relates specifically to outcomes for SpLD students.

I’ll also post profiles on our speakers on this blog, but I’ll keep these updates short and sweet.That’s it for now.

Bob Hext 11/2/15

Seven Lessons on teaching maths, learnt from the students.

The seven points below are taken directly from Steve Chinn’s summary of a workshop he will be delivering a Feb 17th. I thought anybody involved in teaching can benefit from a reminder of these important principals, and having read in this morning’s paper that proposals exist for sacking head teachers who fail to have 100% of students able to repeat their times tables from memory, I would suggest that they are daubed in large letters across every wall of the Department for Education – ideally accompanied by an appropriate illustration by Banksy…

Steve used to be the principal of a beacon specialist school for dyslexic students, and has advised the government on numeray strategy. They really ought to listen to him. This is what he says:

“After 17 years of successful teaching in University and mainstream schools I had a reputation for being a ‘good’ teacher, but then the lessons from my first experiences of trying to teach maths to dyslexic students taught me that I wasn’t good enough. In this session I will explain the significance of the ‘seven lessons’:

Lesson 1: Rote learning does not work for all students

Lesson 2: If they can’t learn from the way I teach, can I teach the way they learn.

Lesson 3: Know which students have poor working short term memories.

Lesson 4: Making students anxious does not help learning.

Lesson 5: Asking students to do mental arithmetic, or any maths question, quickly is rarely productive

Lesson 6: Children rarely learn from their mistakes in maths (but teachers can).

Lesson 7: It’s complicated!”

Nicky Morgan, please read.

Steve is an excellent speaker and a leading authority on maths and dyslexia. You can get  a series of low cost teaching videos by Steve at www.mathsexplained.co.uk.

He has written a number of books and articles on the subject: NEW for 2015 is ‘The Routledge International Handbook of Dyscalculia and Mathematical Learning Difficulties,’ edited by Steve Chinn, with 30 chapters from experts around the world.

Academic Arguments and Anecdotal Evidence

http://bit.ly/Yzy1L7

I don’t normally get involved in the fallout from academic arguments, but on this occasion I will, because, like Mark (http://beermonstermark.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/visual-stress/), I feel that this needs a response.

You can look through both ends of a portable telescope – it will either magnify what you are looking at, or make it practically disappear. It’s the same with figures. Depending on what position  you want to justify, you choose your data accordingly. So for example global warming is happening, or it isn’t. Drinking a certain amount of red wine is good for you, or it isn’t. Coloured overlays and reading rulers can make a difference to some people’s reading experience, or not. There is actually a wealth of accumulated evidence from 20 years top level academic research to say that they do, plenty of which is peer reviewed – if anybody who wants to look at it, just click on the link in the footnote below. The question is, what do you want to believe?

As one of the people responsible for the significant increase in awareness of Visual Stress over the last decade, the following (alongside the compelling scientific evidence from Essex University, Oxford University and elsewhere) is what I believe. It comes from a seven-year old girl called Maddy, and was given to me by her dyslexia tutor who is a senior professional at a highly respected teaching college:

“ …. The words look different, they won’t stay still and then I start to see ‘rivers in the text’ when I try to  concentrate on text books at my school.  Sometimes it looks like the words are almost 3D and with little lights behind them.  I try blinking a lot to get the words back into focus and then sometimes I even see colours round the text.  But then when I started to use the blue reading ruler, the “weirdness” went away …”

Ah, but there’s a problem, isn’t there? This is merely anecdotal. Maddy doesn’t exist in the cloud of figures that swirl around research like midge swarms. But she has a face, and a story; and I’m sure we could arrange for the people who said “manipulation of the visual system using colour to facilitate reading lacks scientific support” to meet her, or her tutor, if they wished. Or maybe  the American Academy for Pediatrics, Council for Children with Disabilities, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus and the American Association of Certified Orthoptists, who concluded that “… scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of … special tinted filters or lenses in improving long term educational performance” would like to meet the little boy that Mark quoted who, when he looked at text through a blue overlay, said “Is that what you mean by a word? Can I start learning to read now?”

We designed the Eye Level Reading Ruler ten years ago now. There are thousands more stories like Maddy’s out there, of lives that have been changed during that time because “the weirdness went away”.  We hear some of them, when people have the time to write to us, but mostly they exist in the results from schools who assess all their weak readers for visual stress and see significant increases in reading levels when the overlays have been given out; or in the research project from a London University dept of psychology (over 30% increase in reading speed in some children) that wasn’t accepted for peer review because apparently 72 subjects was not enough. To you 72, even though you apparently don’t exist, you know better, and I salute you!

One of our staff sent me an amusing post a few months ago. It went something like this: “To the optimist and the pessimist: While you two were busy arguing over the glass of water, I drank it!Signed, the Opportunist”. Whatever the arguments, there is only one truth. No doubt the midges will continue to swarm. And while they do, the “weirdness” will carry on going away as more people discover how filtering out specific wavelengths of light can neutralise the pattern glare from the repeated stripes in text and put an end to the over-excitation of their visual cortex. So to everyone in that great body of anecdotal evidence, I have one thing to say: we will be here for you.

Bob Hext

Managing Director, Crossbow Education Ltd.

(Unashamed purveyors of Visual Stress Solutions.)

 

Footnote: Crossbow, Cerium, and I.O.O., who are the leading UK manufacturers of overlays systems, work closely with the scientific establishment to ensure that their products meet the criteria established by the research that detractors say doesn’t exist, but which can be easily found, for example, at www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/overlays/ , or read about in Arnold Wilkins’s excellent book “Reading Through Colour”. We don’t get involved with coloured lenses: we leave that to the optometrists, whose patients will have their own set of stories of life-changing freedom from Visual Stress. The instrument they use to prescribe the correct lens tint is called the Intuitive Colorimiter. It was developed at Cambridge University and funded by the Medical Research Council. Unscientific? Really?