The Power of Words

glasses-143762_640I seem to be coming across lots of article about the importance of language recently.   Whether it be people expressing annoyance at the word selfie (which was voted the most annoying word of the year according to Lake Superior State University, but there are numerous similar articles that claim whatever is the most galling word), conveying their supposed irritation at the overuse of perfectly fine words such as passion, robust and iconic or demonstrating the significance of the changing meaning of the word geek, which was declared the word of the year by Collins English Dictionary due to the fact it is now used to describe anyone who is deemed to be an expert in something, people seem to have lots to say about words.

This is all subjective of course, something that is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that the word selfie appears on both the overused and most annoying words of the year lists, but has been given the accolade of being the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year.

When it is merely opinion and is nothing more than a bit of harmless fun, you can be forgiven for questioning why all of this frivolity is notable enough to appear in a Dyslexia Scotland blog.  Words, whether you love or hate certain ones, have power.  Power to help or hinder, enrage or console, deflate or inspire.

It might be of little surprise, then, that scientists have recently found that reading can have a profound impact on the brain.  Although reading is not the be all and end all (and it has to be remembered that in the technological age, books can be accessed in a variety of ways, such as an audiobook or ebook,) the findings highlight some of the reasons it is important for dyslexics not to struggle with this task unnecessarily.  While I don’t personally agree with how the researchers phrased it (apparently reading a good book creates “muscle memory” in the reader which causes them to emulate the traits of fictional characters, as well as the decisions they make), it is true that a novel that gets under the skin of the reader has the potential to inspire them by giving them access to someone who they can relate to or a role model who they can look up to.

This is why it was disappointing, although not surprising, to come across an article in support of Ruth Rendall’s claims that reading is now “a minority activity.”  Although this could be seen by some as a pity for a variety of reasons – the lack of escapism that can be a great benefit to the sanity of some individuals is the main one that springs to mind – people must remember that to engage in reading as a pastime is a choice and if people do not want to read during their leisure time they should not be judged for wanting to do something else, just as the reading choices of those who do wish to read for pleasure should not be scrutinised (for more on that, see my blog entitled Reading Snobbery).

Think for a minute about people who may have chosen, particularly with it being a new year, to join a gym and get fit.  If they are judged for being a bit out of shape, it’s not going to encourage them to better their fitness levels.  In fact, they may stop attending all together and be in a worse state than they otherwise would have been.

Is the same not true of people with dyslexia who struggle to read, and may struggle further still as a result of societal attitudes towards books?  While I agree with Ruth Rendall’s assessment that people read less nowadays than previously, there are reasons for that.  Not only is there more choice in terms of entertainment (on a related note, although you don’t see as many people reading books on public transport, what about Kindles?), but advances in technology have, while increasing communication, led people to be less patient in terms of waiting for correspondence and so people have busier lives and perhaps have less time to read than they otherwise would have had.

Once again, no mention is made of the significant proportion of the UK population – one in ten to be exact – who have dyslexia and consequently have problems with reading.  If anyone was to imply that it is disappointing that Britons are no longer ashamed to admit they do not voluntarily read fiction, as has been suggested by another author, to someone who has dyslexia, how do you think that would make them feel?

There is no need for people with dyslexia to feel ashamed of having the condition, and I see no reason why anyone should feel ashamed for not having a particular hobby, in the same way it is unusual, although perfectly acceptable, to be female and be a football enthusiast.  The difference is, however, that issues with reading are synonymous with dyslexia, a learning difficulty that occurs through no fault of the individual who has it, and by making reading out to be of paramount importance you risk alienating and discriminating against people who have dyslexia.

As I have stated previously, words have power: I ask you to be conscious of the ones you use.  It might make a world of difference to an individual who has dyslexia.

Facebook and Literacy

Photo by mkhmarketing

Photo by mkhmarketing

According to recent research conducted by Booked, a magazine for UK schools, 70% of headteachers believe that Facebook and Twitter has adversely affected the literacy of young people.  To be fair to them, the examples that are used to back up this claim are not without merit:

“I wont to work wiv you’re  company.”

Another example the research cites is applicants deeming it appropriate to put xs (as in kisses) at the end of their applications when applying for jobs.

While the last example is something that is blatantly inappropriate, the first one throws up several interesting points.  Firstly “wont,” though outdated now, is an example of a word that is in itself correct, but lacking the right context, which would be something like the following:

It was Harry’s wont to go for a run before breakfast.

This is the case as wont is another word for habit, practice or custom.  Similarly, although “you’re” is correct when used as a contraction of you are, the company to which the person in the above sentence is referring will belong to someone and so your would be the correct word to use here.  Crucially, these are examples of two errors that would not be picked up by a spellchecker.

While some young people (actually people in general) may just use text speak to be lazy (something that “wiv” is but one example of), this research makes no mention of either the benefits literacy can attribute to social media or those who have genuine difficulties with spelling, reading and writing.

Given that literacy problems are such a big part of what it means to have dyslexia, it does the pupil/teacher relationship no favours when accusations of idleness are thrown about with no consideration for those that may have a significant and undeniable problem in this area through no fault of their own.  By not acknowledging people with dyslexia (or those that may be struggling on undiagnosed), such research risks stigmatising faultless young people.

Another error that was singled out was the difference between to, too, and two.  But there is also the difference between affect and effect, practice and practise, of and off, elicit and illicit, there, their and they’re…I could go on.  The point is, so much of the English language has two (or sometimes more!) words that sound the same and yet mean completely different things.  Therefore, not only can people with dyslexia have great difficulty learning to read, write and spell words, but they also sometimes encounter problems learning the correct context in which to use them.

The research made no allowances for simply being human either.  Yes, people should proof-read what they write and not rely on spellcheckers or other people to point inaccuracies out to them, but we all make mistakes, no-one can ever be perfect.  While I can understand the importance of presenting yourself in the best light when it comes to applying for jobs, why does an individual’s Facebook account have to be word perfect and grammatically sound 100% of the time?

As I have stated previously, nothing is mentioned with regards to technology advancing literacy.  Facebook now has a built-in spellchecker that will alert you to an error in the same way Microsoft Word does.  I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but being made aware of a mistake encourages me to correct it – to ensure I am easily understood by those with whom I am conversing if nothing else.  If Facebook does this, is it not a good thing?

What’s happening while that’s going on?  It could be anything at all; recommending great reads, finding an informative link, helping someone out with an academic quandary, offering a frustrated individual the chance to vent when things go wrong and a platform to shout from the rooftops when something great has happened.  I’ve seen all these things occur as a Facebook user, probably because it is the most accessible platform to use in order to say something to people we know en masse.  When this can be so much more problematic for individuals who have dyslexia, the last thing they need is for social media to be vilified.

It also seems a tad convenient to blame social media – a faceless entity that can’t answer back – for falling literacy standards when it is also considered that England is the only developed nation where children are deemed to be worse at mathematics and reading than their grandparents.  When such a bold and distressing claim is made, it is too simplistic to besmirch social media and not make other correlations.  What about the constantly changing curriculum?  A possible over-reliance on certain authors and texts?  Class sizes?  Teacher education and standards of teaching?

In short, while social media may have its faults, it is not fair to blame it for falling literacy standards without also acknowledging all the good it does.  Social media has its place in teaching literacy just as books do and there is no reason why they can’t harmoniously co-exist.

The article about the research in question can be found here:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2507642/Facebook-Twitter-harm-pupils-literacy-claim-headmasters.html

What Gaps Exist?

Following the recent news that Michael Morpurgo has written the first book in a series that is being published with the intention of making it easier for dyslexic parents to read to their children, I was surprised that, as the volunteer Resource Centre Manager for Dyslexia Scotland, I hadn’t realised that such a big gap in the market existed.  While it makes sense that everything that can be done to make reading easier for those who struggle with it should be, this is not something I had previously thought about.  In my defence, I’m neither dyslexic nor a parent and therefore had no reason to.

That having been said, it has caused me to ponder what other resources could be developed and used by dyslexics.  While I have seen books that explain what dyslexia is to children of various ages, for instance, I have seen none written from the point of view of a dyslexic parent.  Similarly, while there are books detailing how teachers can assist dyslexic pupils, as far as I’m aware there is nothing out there written from the perspective of a dyslexic teacher.

These are, of course, just two examples and it is probable that those who have experience of the condition can think of many more.  Getting back to the matter at hand, though, the fact that the idea for a series of books aimed at dyslexic parents and their children came about after Barrington Stoke were approached by a man who faced difficulty reading to his child poses an interesting point.  If something so worthwhile can occur through a simple conversation, what could a more frequent dialogue between dyslexics and official bodies, such as Government organisations and publishers to name but two, achieve?    On a related note in terms of resources, what would dyslexics like to see produced?  Given the gap that has been closed as a result of one man’s plight (although it is doubtless many other dyslexic parents will have also faced this issue) it stands to reason that many more barriers may well be overcome with open communication lines, which is why roundtable events, feedback and social media are so important – in giving dyslexics and those who help them a variety of ways to communicate you are not only making them feel more comfortable but giving them various ways in which to express themselves.  In doing so, a clearer idea is gained with regards to what support and resources dyslexics need.

In this instance, books that are accessible to dyslexic parents benefit more than just them and their children.  While it is true that they will improve the self-esteem of the parents and ensure that their children are not denied a love of books, reading and all the things that come with it (knowledge, empathy and a more imaginative mind were just three things that came into my head as I was writing), it benefits the wider world too.  For if dyslexics are given the ability to read to their children, does it not stand to reason that having this opportunity may make them want to overcome the difficulties they may face as a result of their dyslexia and become more productive in the workplace as a result of their improved literacy, for example?  Would being read to from a young age possibly make it easier and more enjoyable for youngsters to learn to read and consequently value education more?  While the definitive answers to these questions cannot ever be known, I cannot see a negative outcome to such a worthwhile endeavour.  Let’s hope Michael’s book, called All I Said Was, is the start of a new phenomenon: parents having a way in which to read to their children without being hindered by dyslexia.

All I Said Was by Michael Morpurgo and Itch, Scritch, Scratch by Eleanor Updale, books that have been created to enable dyslexic parents to read to their children, will be published in March 2014 by Barrington Stoke.