Education Conference – a volunteer’s perspective

I attended this year’s Dyslexia Education Conference in Dundee as a volunteer interviewer, on behalf of Dyslexia Scotland. This was my first real ‘Dyslexia Awareness Event’ and in all honesty when I entered, I was rather overwhelmed. Surely not all of these people were here for the conference? There had to be something else going on simultaneously I thought. However as I bumped into everyone on the way, I became apparent that this was certainly a more popular subject of interest than I had originally thought.

After being introduced to my one-person technical crew of Sara, another volunteer and the social media manager in her day job, I dumped by baggage for the day and set out with my q-cards.

After some mingling in the mezzanine, we were ushered into a lecture theatre by the staff and volunteers who had taken on the massive responsibility of ensuring that everything went to plan. A welcome introduction was given followed by some very interesting talks. Whilst each speaker took the stage and expressed what they or their organisation had done or was doing to work with those with dyslexia to the best of their ability, I genuinely began to become more and more interested and inspired.

They say that when someone is passionate about what they do then that it exudes from them and other people catch onto it – I think that is exactly what happened here. I didn’t even think of some of the obstacles which people with dyslexia had to face particularly in primary schools since when I was growing up, there was very little awareness and it was almost a taboo subject. But now, it was heartwarming to see all the good intentions and existing support which people with dyslexia had. Although it was clear that society still has more that they can offer as well as the government, particularly the government.

I might have overlooked the flip book aspect of my q-cards because I kept losing the organisation’s aimed questions within the flip book and then by the time I was ready, Sara would be like “Naina, they’ve gone”… what a team! I had a lot in common with Sara, I also liked the fact she was very critical of the support which was offered to those with dyslexia in her secondary school, as this is a point I had raised myself in the past, so it was nice to be on the same page.

 As a social media manager, Sara knew what she was talking about when she approached the people and they seemed happy enough to talk, we positioned ourselves, asked, fixed the zoom, the lighting, the sound etc. until the potential interviewee sighed impatiently and began to hunt for an escape route but we had to get in there before they changed their minds.

The ones we did get were good, so I was pleased. I was also pleased with my own performance to be honest, I prefer staying in front of the camera rather than behind because I’m impatient and technology pressurises me. So I was glad I didn’t have to deal with that for once.

We spoke to both exhibitors and delegates about what brought them to the conference, their experiences, the importance of dyslexia awareness and their products. I was quite surprised by how many teachers had turned up, especially considering it was a Saturday! Although I did initially think that they would all be learning support teachers, so it was great to see how many classroom teachers cared enough about their pupils to sacrifice their own free time to learn more about what they could do to help.

After going around interviewing every one of the exhibitors, lunch was served and after grabbing some extra donuts from the cloakroom, we then realised that since people were most likely to have finished their lunch by now, we should begin filming some more delegate interviews so we decided that we would just make eye contact with people until they were left with no other option than to talk to us! We got a few of these, a couple of interviews with our very own Dyslexia Scotland staff and an advertisement, all in the space of ten minutes!

The Dyslexia Education Conference was definitely an event I would attend again as it was a pleasant surprise since conferences are usually incredibly dull, however, this one seemed to have a very enlightening atmosphere.  

Naina Bhardwaj

 

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Complementary resources to ‘Accessing Books – A Guide for Dyslexic Adults’

3 new resources that support dyslexics to engage with books are available from the Seeing Ear.  They are free downloads.  They complement the self-help guide ‘Accessing Books – A Guide for Dyslexic Adults’, detailed on this blog on 5 January 2015 at http://wp.me/p2CUtl-9g.

What are the contents of these resources?

  1. A list of book series for adults that are more accessible than mainstream books
  2. A set of strategy flashcards that aim to help dyslexics to engage with books
  3. An activity that dyslexics can use to identify accessible features of mainstream books

Who are the resources aimed at?

  • dyslexic adults
  • people supporting anyone of any age to engage with books e.g. educators, library staff, family members
  • learners and students e.g. adult literacy learners, students of English

Where are the resources available?

Non-fiction, Dyslexia and Empathy – by Nicola Morgan

Many years ago, in about 1993, I trained to work with people with dyslexia. We believed that non-fiction was great for dyslexic pupils or any struggling readers, for two main reasons:
1. In the quest to improve reading skills, all reading material is equally valuable because, the more you read, the better and more confident you become.
2. Dyslexia was thought to be more common in boys. Although we have since refined the assessment techniques and found equal numbers of both genders, reading reluctance remains more common amongst boys, perhaps for cultural reasons. And boys (and men) often prefer non-fiction.

Years passed, and I continued to value fiction and non-fiction equally. For struggling and reluctant readers, I was just as happy for them to be reading cereal packets, though I’d encourage them to move to inspiring, imaginative, gripping and mind-boosting material when they could. Although I loved fiction, I would never have considered that there was something “better” about it, compared to non-fiction.

Fast forward through the years and stop at about 2007. I’ve moved away from dyslexia teaching and I’m becoming known for writing about the brain, teenagers and how brains learn. There’s fascinating new research about the neuroscience and psychology of reading. We have the beginnings of digital reading and the potential of ebooks. I’m studying all this research and starting to talk about it.

Some of the science is about the power of fiction. I’m reading research by people like Maryanne Wolf (and her book, Proust and the Squid) and then, particularly, Keith Oatley, Raymond Mar and colleagues, who spent years researching and investigating the work of many others. Oatley eventually, in 2011, published Such Stuff as Dreams. It’s a fascinating book. And since I love fiction and by then was talking about the role of reading and reading for pleasure, it was inspirational.

It was also extremely problematic. Because, there was I, valuing fiction and non-fiction equally and yet reading so much which seemed to indicate that fiction, not non-fiction, is crucial in empathy-building.

As Mar, Djikic and Oatley say in their paper “Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood” (see here): “Exposure to narrative fiction was positively associated with empathic ability, whereas exposure to expository non-fiction was negatively associated with empathy.”

Woah! So, I’m wrong to value non-fiction equally? If I think empathy is important (I do!) and if non-fiction doesn’t develop empathy in readers, how can I value non-fiction equally? Should fiction maybe be like fruit and veg: you’ve got to consume enough of it?

I don’t think so. I worked out what the research lacks and why I think some of the conclusions are wonky (though it’s still fascinating research, with value.)

The problem is that the science is trying to measure something very difficult to measure: human reactions, all wrapped up in emotions. So, take one of the most well-known of the studies the researchers discuss: a Chekov short story about a trial is “non-fictionalised” so that half the study group have the original story and half the non-fiction version, basically a courtroom transcript, with no characterisation etc. Note that the researchers suggest that the reason fiction may have a mind-changing and empathy-building effect is that the reader transfers himself into the character’s mind/world/situation, which can’t happen without characterisation and narrative tricks.

Is it any wonder that readers of the original story were able to be “narratively transported” into the character’s mind and into the story, while readers of the transcript couldn’t? Basically, you’re comparing reactions to great writing and not-great writing; you’re not comparing well-written fiction to well-written non-fiction. You’re comparing a beautiful fresh strawberry to a piece that’s had all its strawberriness taken out.

I believe that what matters is not whether it’s fiction or non-fiction but whether you can engage fully with the text, whether you can achieve “flow” and transportation. Good writing can be about football or planets, the ancient Egyptians or how an eel produces its young. Non-fiction often contains stories and people, too, as well as emotion and character. What matters is that the writer sucks the reader in and keeps him there. It’s about engagement.

So, let’s not spend time discussing the relative merits of fiction over non-fiction. Whether you’re dyslexic or not, whether you’re working with reluctant readers or not, value fiction and non-fiction, equally. Read greedily and widely, open-mindedly, for pleasure, growth and change. Find books you love and can bury yourself in and value your children’s engagement in books, not what sort of books they are.

It is all about the writing. Stop judging; get engaging.

By Nicola Morgan

Biog: Nicola Morgan writes and speaks around the world on the teenage brain, cognition, stress and the reading brain. She’s also an award-winning teenage novelist and former teacher and dyslexia expert. She is proud to be an Ambassador for Dyslexia Scotland. http://www.nicolamorgan.com