There are children who go through the school system but never learn to read. But, instead of taking responsibility for failing those children, adults tend to blame the students. This is one of the things that frustrates Cathryn Kelshall, chairman of the Dyslexia Association of TT, about the country’s education system and its treatment of children with learning disabilities.
Kelshall said schools can refer students to the Education Ministry’s Student Support Services which assesses children with any sort of difficulty.
“However this doesn’t seem to be happening. We see children at age 12 or age 16 who have been through school, have never learned to read, and nobody has thought, ‘Why don’t we refer these children and see what’s going on?’”
She said instead of teachers and other adults owning up to the responsibility for teaching children, TT has a culture of blaming the children when they do not learn, as if the children are expected to teach themselves.
People prefer to believe children are not trying, are lazy, are not doing their best, or are “hardened” rather than change their teaching methods or make the effort to find out what the problem is.
She said teachers are not expected to be able to diagnose that children have dyslexia, mild autism, or that they cannot see or hear well. They just have to recognise that the children are not learning and refer them to Student Support Services. She said it is a free service so it is “extraordinary” that teachers do not often use it.
She put the responsibility on the teachers specifically, because many parents do not know about the services that are available to assist students.
Kelshall told Sunday Newsday there are no services in the public school system for teaching children with dyslexia.
Kelshall said the ministry sometimes sends some of its representatives, whom she calls visiting support officers, to the association for training so they can, in turn, assist teachers in the public school system, showing them methods and activities to teach dyslexic students. However, she said the support officers are responsible for several schools and are unable to do as much as they should with students.
Ministry: We provide
special education services
One ministry official explained these officers were special education teachers who were assigned to a school or group of schools. As mentioned above they provided assistance to teachers.
However, she said this person also considered each student’s case individually and might work with students directly if necessary.
“In the special education area there is no general rule. It depends on the case, we would activate a different plan. It might be a matter of providing different techniques to study while someone else may require a different type of intervention. We provide assistance to facilitate the learning processes of these children.”
Kelshall added that the ministry gives concessions, allowing children with learning disabilities extra time during their exams. But while extra time will help those who read slowly, it does nothing for those who cannot read at all. She knows of many students who did not get their assessments from Student Support Services in time for the SEA exam, and were not allowed the extra time.
A few schools sends their teachers for training, she said, while other individual teachers pay for their own training at the association and set up remedial reading classes.
The association has trained over 1,200 teachers throughout TT in methods for teaching dyslexic students since its inception in 1990. “We get a lot of help from corporate Trinidad so we could offer the training at a third of the cost, which makes it affordable.”
The association also runs a referral service, where it refers those who need help to trained teachers for screening test and possibly lessons. She said the service is important as the association receives about 30 calls a month from parents who need help for their children.
It also provides training for children with other reading issues such middle ear infection and the need to develop good language skills. She said those children sometimes wrongly end up in schools for children with low IQs, or get into trouble at school. She gave the example of a seven-year-old boy who was expelled from school instead of someone in authority making the effort to find out why he was acting out.
“He can’t read, he’s embarrassed, children tease him, and so he’s lashing out. When he goes for lessons he doesn’t have any behaviour problems because he’s being taught and he’s learning and he’s happy... Children are made to stand up and read in class. I don’t know what the purpose is, maybe to humiliate them.”
Dyslexic diagnosis in UWI
One dyslexic adult who went through a denominational education system described her primary school experience as traumatising, saying her teachers were her bullies. Journalist Rachael Espinet recalled misspelling the name John in standard five. The teacher made her stand up at her desk and had the whole class applaud her for “being that stupid.” Espinet said her mother realised she had difficulty reading from a very young age and she was taken to be diagnosed several times, but it was never conclusive. Instead, she was told she had “a sequencing problem” but it was never called dyslexia.
Her mother, a second year teacher, decided to teach her and turned the house into a classroom, with flashcards taped to the walls and furniture.
She taught Espinet how to spell phonetically and drilled her after school and on weekends. Espinet said her secondary school experience was better because her teachers recognised she was intelligent but had difficulties.
“They just had more compassion and patience than my primary school teachers. If I didn’t engage with the teacher and ask questions, if they did not explain when I asked, then I would not understand anything. My audio processing style is slower than others but when I get it, it sticks. And by that time mom had me in lessons like crazy. All of it helped me to do well in my CXC exams.”
At 18 she enrolled at the University of the West Indies (UWI), where she learnt that students are penalised for spelling mistakes. Espinet took the time to get screened at UWI’s academic advising disabilities liaison unit and was diagnosed with a high probability of dyslexia. However, to be allowed to use a laptop spell check during exams and be allowed 15 minutes extra on an hour, she needed to be officially diagnosed through a psycho-educational assessment. The results? She had a “specific learning disability” which the doctor diagnosed as dyslexia. With those concessions she graduated in 2012, but she know things are not as simple for others.
She said she has a nine-year-old nephew who has difficulty reading and his family has been unable to get him the assistance he needs.
“Any help with learning disabilities are expensive and the government schools write them off (children with disabilities) as having behavioural problems. If in 20 years things haven’t improved and children with disabilities are still having problems in the classroom, what hope do we have in the government ever doing something?”
She said she was screened for dyslexia at UWI through a computer programme and cannot understand why the ministry does not invest in software to easily determine if a student needs further psycho-educational testing.
However, the ministry official said the ministry trained teachers to identify children with learning difficulties.
After a child was diagnosed with dyslexia, officers from Student Support Services worked with curriculum officers to formulate a plan to deliver the curriculum using a different method, according to the severity of the child’s condition.
There were also aides available to help the individual child learn during class but that service depended on the condition of the child and the ministry’s resources.