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Neil MacKay
Dyslexia Friendly Strategies & Support

Notes from Dyslexia Scotland Conference 2013

Dyslexia Scotland Conference “Dyslexia: Beyond Words” September 2013

This conference was a great success, with more than 200 delegates from all over Scotland coming to Perth for the event.  The theme of  “Dyslexia: beyond words” was developed throughout the day to drive home a series of inspirational  messages about the positive nature of Dyslexia together with a range of strategies and approaches to make things better.

View pdf of sldies here

My Keynote focused on “Changing whole school perceptions of Dyslexia” and used the excellent Dyslexia Friendly Schools project in South Ayrshire as the model for best practice.  I have been privileged to provide training and consultancy to schools and groups of teachers in South Ayrshire as part of this initiative and am very proud to be part of it.  My keynote shared some of the changes in classroom practice that I have presented to teachers in the Authority and which have been implemented to great effect.  The over-arching principle is “Getting it right for Dyslexia gets it right for all.”  I also shared details of the “Dyslexia Aware Quality Mark” which is running successfully in the North of England and is linked very closely to current inspection imperatives.  I argued that “Dyslexia Friendly” – certainly in England and Wales – had lost its edge as schools were seeing themselves as “friendly” without addressing the hard questions about changing classroom practice.  On the other hand being “Dyslexia Aware” implies proactively looking for trouble – especially with regard to analysing positive impact of changes in whole school/whole class learning and teaching and ensuring that weak basic skills are not a barrier to ability appropriate achievement

The keynote also gave me the opportunity to develop my view of Dyslexia as a preferred way of learning rather than automatically as a difficulty or, even worse, as a disability – I defy anyone to persuade me that, for example, Sir Jackie Stewart or Kenny Logan are disabled!  I also introduced the concept of “dyslexic type” learning needs for those students who will never get a formal label of Dyslexia but who think faster than they deliver – for me this is the most interesting, challenging and rewarding group to address, because they represent  between 10 - 15% of any class.  When these students are taught by “Dyslexia Aware” teachers it seems to enhance the learning of all. 

This paradigm shift has been fundamental to all my work in South Ayrshire as I challenge teachers to maintain a focus on abilities while addressing learning needs.  This is not to ignore very real issues for developing automaticity in aspects of reading accuracy, spelling and information processing; rather it is taking a view of the whole student and celebrating strengths and abilities in a range of areas while addressing sticking points.

The whole school training events in South Ayrshire are designed to enable teachers to identify and respond to the learning needs of students who do not have a formal label but who have very clear dyslexic type needs.  I presented a range of inclusive strategies at the conference and the hand-out from my keynote is available on my website.

There was an eclectic range of workshops running throughout the day and I would like to celebrate one in particular, the YdyseX Youth Group who talked about how Dyslexia impacts on their life and how easy it can be to make things better.  They also showed extracts from their new film.  Harnessing the power of the student voice has been a feature of Dyslexia Scotland conferences and it sends a powerful message to other conferences which can become obsessed with esoteric research at the expense of addressing the realities of the classroom and the workplace.

The final keynote was a joy – Isabella Lind OBE, Headteacher, community worker and finalist in the Ted Wragg Award for Lifetime Achievement talked about how her dyslexic students have been empowered to find their voice and the positive impacts that has on their confidence, self-esteem and achievement.  We were able to hear the students talking about being dyslexic and their positive messages about the importance of “getting it out there” reinforced the theme of the conference.  Isabella talked of the importance of all staff sharing the vision and, while she was realistic about the challenges of establishing whole school Dyslexia Aware best practice, her delight in the achievements of her colleagues and her students was an example to us all.

Thoughts from the Plenary

A panel, which included two dyslexic students, took questions from the floor at the end of the conference.  Although we adults did our best to respond in a helpful manner, it is humbling to report that the most insightful responses came from the students.  They were awesome!  Three particular issues raised by teachers and parents stick in my mind.

The first concerned teachers who were finding it difficult to embrace certain whole school changes implemented on behalf of dyslexic learners.  The particular example was a resistance to using pastel coloured paper.  Leaving aside the fact that failing to buy in to agreed changes in policy is not an option under any circumstances, the panel suggested that “doubting” teachers were confronted with evidence of reading spelling and writing improvements when certain adjustments were put in place.  Presenting simple “before and after” evidence was recommended so that the positive impact was clear to see.

The use of a coloured background was also raised – a teacher had a number of students with different background colour preferences and was under pressure from parents.  The advice from the panel was to agree a default background colour as school policy – Professor Stein is currently advocating blue as the most effective generic colour – and to work with the parents to explore the impact of coloured lenses.  There is an obvious tension in an inclusive classroom when adjustments for one student may impact negatively on others – in this situation the greater good of the greater number arguably should prevail while the school works with parents and their children to investigate other solutions.

The third question was about children who had been diagnosed as being dyslexic but the parents did not want them to know.  The feeling of the panel was that children need to know and this view was communicated very powerfully by the dyslexic students.  They were very clear about how important it was to them to know about their Dyslexia and to be able to talk about the issues with other dyslexic people. While the panel acknowledged that this information could not be shared without parental permission it was felt that failure to do so was not in a child’s best interest.  It was suggested that dialogue be continued, maybe with an offer of counselling. 

Please feel free to download the hand-out from my presentation.   The last few slides describe various training opportunities that I offer – both whole day, whole school events and also consultancy sessions which have significant impact without needing to wait for a training day.  Please get back to me for more information.


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