“My child has a literacy problem - what should I do?”

The profile of students with a specific learning difficulty/dyslexia varies from person to person depending on the severity of the presenting problem. In my professional experience, those presenting with “uncomplicated” literacy difficulties are mainly due to a history of fluctuating hearing loss, or that the literacy method taught does not suit the student’s learning style or skill set or the school environment they attend doesn’t suit their abilities (eg a Gaelscoil or modern language school if there is language deficit evident).

Alternatively, those with “pure” dyslexia (ie with a known genetic, biological or neurological origin) can have multiple co-existing issues to varying degrees, and it is imperative to identify those conditions (and the degree to which they affect the student) in order to develop the most suitable intervention path.

According to the British Dyslexia Association (2010) “…..Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia…”

Two groups

In my private practice as a speech and language therapist (SLT), I see two very distinct groups of students, all of whom come under the umbrella diagnosis of a “specific learning difficulty”. I classify them as those with a reading/spelling delay or disorder and those with developmental dyslexia. The former group present with difficulties primarily with the “mechanics” or “how” of reading and spelling - in other words, they have not been taught or acquired the basic concept of sound and symbol association or the essential rules that govern the English language.

They may also present with a weak vocabulary repertoire if they are not reading, being read to, or listening to audiobooks. Their reading comprehension may also be depressed due to fundamental reading accuracy difficulties, rather than an underlying language comprehension deficit. In other words, if they could only read the text, they would understand it.

With this cohort, once they are taught an evidence-based literacy methodology based on the science of reading pedagogy (which focuses on systematic and explicit instruction in phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), their literacy issues will either diminish significantly or totally resolve. Once appropriately treated, it is not a condition that is carried throughout their life span.

Developmental dyslexia

By contrast, those with developmental dyslexia present with a complicated, multifaceted profile where their dyslexia is a life-long condition. Although competent literacy skills can be taught, their “dyslexic profile” will emerge in different guises throughout their life span. From the outset, obtaining a full case-history is essential to find out if other associated (often covert) conditions are present, which are complicating the apparent literacy issues. The following questions can shed light on this and provide the approach to be taken:

1. Were there “alerters” in your child’s case history (as outlined in last week’s article)?

2. Do you find yourself talking or answering for your child?

3. Has your child been diagnosed with (or waitlisted for) an assessment for a “neurodiverse” condition like: a. Developmental language disorder? b. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? c. Developmental coordination disorder? d. Autism spectrum disorder? e. Other?

4. Has your child had a cognitive assessment with either an educational or clinical psychologist and - if so - what were the findings from a cognitive/IQ and literacy/mathematics attainment perspective? Was a diagnosis given?

5. At any stage was an onward referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist, speech and language therapist, diagnostic audiologist, behavioural optometrist or other allied professional suggested? If so, why?

6. Are you noticing your child has different behaviours or skills to their siblings or peers?

Trust your gut

The best advice I can give a parent is to trust your “gut instinct” – if you feel deep down that there is a problem, there probably is! You are your child’s advocate, so if you are not being “heard”, then seek help elsewhere. Don’t be fobbed off with “they will grow out of it”, because children normally don’t if there is no focused intervention.

There are two routes you can follow for assessment: the public HSE services or private services. Your first step is to talk to the school principal and SEN (special educational needs) teacher to get a referral to NEPS (National Educational Psychological Service) if appropriate and/or the local HSE services in your area. To enable you to get access to the correct professionals, you must be explicit about your areas of concern for your child. If the waiting lists are long (which is frequently the case) or the public service does not provide the intervention required, you can access private services via the links above (see bubble).

Here are some common presenting issues paired with the potential appropriate assessment route:

aoti.ie Association of Occupational Therapists of Ireland

diagnosticaudiology.ie Diagnostic Audiology Services

isti.ie Independent Speech-Language Therapists of Ireland

dyslexia.ie Dyslexia Association Ireland

psychologicalsociety.ie Psychology Society of Ireland

adhdireland.ie ADHD Ireland

Top tip

Always ask for and retain professional reports, no matter how brief. The administrative process for General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is that professionals can only retain reports for a finite timeframe, so your reports may not be available if needed for RACE or DARE accommodations later in the secondary school cycle.

Keep in mind that issues with skills on the oral-literate continuum need to be addressed as soon as possible, however it is never too late to resolve a literacy problem with the correct intervention and self-motivation.

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