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.

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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.

Reading Snobbery

A friend of mine was having a rant on Facebook last night because someone who was a complete stranger to her had taken it upon themselves to berate her for reading a gossip magazine (you know, something like Hello! or Closer).  It wasn’t as simple as decrying her choice of reading either; the individual made the assumption that as she was reading such a thing, she had to have issues with confidence and self-image, so I get the impression the discussion got quite personal.

Although my first thought was the obvious one of “Who do people think they are to make such aspersions about total strangers?” it later got me thinking about how dyslexics might feel should a similar situation happen to them and what the potential consequences of such an occurrence might be.

When an individual makes a disparaging remark, no thought is given to the circumstances of the recipient of the disdainful comment, or what such words might cause them to internalise, regardless of whether or not there is any substance to the both what was said or the subsequent thoughts the receiver might have in relation to it.  While some people might say it’s easier to live by the adage of if you haven’t anything nice to say don’t say anything at all, it isn’t always as simple as that.

In the instance of grouping children by reading ability, they quickly learn who are deemed the struggling readers, by the size of the lowest set of nothing else – because lower ability groups need to be smaller so that the children who need the extra support get it.  But still, I remember being appalled and hurt when a child (by this point someone old enough to know better than to say such a thing) felt the need to tell me that we would be reading better and harder books were it not for me – I later moved from the bottom to the top reading stream so her nastiness was just that and her comment bore no weight in the long run – but even in primary school children are taught to associate certain types of books – those that are shorter in length, for example – with a decreased level of intelligence.

Why does this have to be the case?  As has been proven countless times dyslexics can be whoever they want to be – I certainly didn’t know Jamie Oliver and Keira Knightly (to name but two) were dyslexic before I started volunteering here.  That being said, when book snobbery begins in primary schools, why is it a surprise that it is rife among the British general public?  Why do popular book series’ that appeal to the young and older people alike, such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, have to have separate covers for children and adults?  If you enjoy reading, it shouldn’t matter how the content is dressed up, whether it be a front cover of a book or the medium within which the book is contained, whether it’s a gossip magazine, an audio book or an encyclopaedia.

Nor should the content of your preferred reading material be judged.  Although I don’t read an awful lot of it personally, chick lit such as the recently released Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy gets an awful lot of bad press.  Actually, it’s more that the women that choose to read them sometimes get seen as having nothing between the ears, because it’s not seen as intellectual.  At the opposite end of the scale, science fiction and fantasy fans are seen as nerds, and those that prefer books thought of as high brow classics – I’m thinking along the lines of Jane Austen here –  could be deemed old-fashioned.  My point is, everyone has different interests, the same way that people have different levels of proficiency with regards to reading.  As a result, no-one should be condemned because of their personal tastes or abilities.  The consequences of having something as inconsequential as what a person chooses to read being belittled and mocked could be far-reaching, not only affecting their educational development and self-esteem, but ultimately their willingness and ability to reach their full potential.

While I don’t think anyone would argue with me about the fact that reading snobbery needs to be combated, less clear is how this should be done, although educational intervention is key to change societal attitudes.  I’m not saying that setting by ability needs to be eradicated, that does have its place as they can be of great benefit to children.  However, it still needs to be made clear that along with the support that these teaching methodologies provide, children also need to be taught that life is about more than being put in a particular group or being given a specific label.  It’s about making the correct choices for yourself so you can aspire to be exactly what you want to be and nobody has the right to make anyone – child or adult, dyslexic or non-dyslexic, feel as if they cannot achieve that because of what they choose to read.

A story by any other structure would teach the same….

Picture by Susana Fernandez

Picture by Susana Fernandez

Having highlighted the importance of reading in my previous blog entry, I feel that I can safely argue the other side of the coin without being hounded.

Because the sad fact is, it is more than just dyslexia that can hinder someone’s reading ability and their fondness of books.  What they are forced to read, most notably in schools can also have a huge impact, which of course is even truer in the case of dyslexics given their difficulties with the act of reading.

I remember hating Shakespeare at school, something that was borne out of the archaic language and compounded by the fact that;

  1. We studied five of his plays in five years in English.
  2. The inflexible layout and structure of the textbooks, which implied that the compiler could somehow already know the words that were deemed a challenge for teenagers to understand when in fact Shakespeare was far from that easy to grasp.  Furthermore, the text of the plays were always laid out on the left hand side pages, while the dictionary definitions the author deemed necessary were on the right, breaking up the text so much that it was horrendously jarring.  And this is coming from a non-dyslexic.

I think my little anecdote demonstrates two things.  Firstly, ramming a particular author down the throat of a child only guarantees that they will hate that author forevermore.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in the context of Dyslexia Awareness Week, teaching with a one size fits all mentality is doomed to result in complete failure, particularly when no effort is made to relate the texts and themes contained therein to the lives of students.

Another anecdote:

I remember sitting watching West Side Story in a Drama class, thinking the department were scraping the barrel in terms of their film selection as the end of term was drawing near.  It turns out we were going on to study Romeo and Juliet and they wanted to show us that the themes covered within it weren’t exclusive to Shakespeare and were relevant today.

They succeeded, but I remember being less than thrilled about having to study another Shakespeare play.  It was only after I voluntarily picked up a copy of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses that I fully understood why the story of Romeo and Juliet is timeless.  Although primarily a love story centred around a class war, it could as easily apply in a variety of circumstances as is illustrated in Blackman’s book which is set in a world where white people are treated as an inferior race compared to their black counterparts.  Without giving the plot away, the comparisons between this book and Shakespeare are undeniable (without being strikingly obvious) and yet are posed in such a way that young people can relate to the story.  So significant was its effect on me that it has been my favourite book since I first read it eleven years ago (despite the fact I still hate Shakespeare).

Of course, I’m not saying that people don’t have to do things they don’t want to just because they are dyslexic, merely that if they are unnecessarily forced to read something they risk becoming alienated and further disengaged with reading and learning in general.  And it is not as if, as I have hopefully illustrated, that key themes in books for example cannot be conveyed in a variety of ways.  This Dyslexia Awareness Week one of the questions that needs to be asked is that as no two people learn something in the same way, why are countless children taught in the same way with no consideration of the adverse effects that it could possibly have on them later in life?

Dyslexia and parenthood

A wonderful Insight in to dyslexia and parenthood from Julie McNeil, wife of Paul McNeil  one of our fantastic ambassadors

Books, reading, developing your child’s imagination and sense of creativity were about as fundamental to my approach in parenting as things come.

Paul, my husband who is Dyslexic, embraced this and we both read to our son Shea from a very young age – weeks old.

It is no surprise then that some of his first words were lines from his favourite stories and his language skills were pretty advanced for his age.

Unsurprisingly, for as long as I can remember he has loved books.

As he got older Paul would build dens (Dad’s dens were always better than Mum’s apparently) and the two of them would read together inside.
Shea loved the way his dad told stories as he was so animated and always added a sense of excitement or drama to the story.

I loved seeing his eyes light up and his imagination growing day by day. He loved to act out things he had heard about in books.

As Shea got older and was trying to understand his world he would often ask adults to “tell (him) a story about” this was Shea’s way of asking adults to explain something he didn’t understand.

Shea is all about the questions.

Laterally, Shea started pre school. The stories have moved on. The words are harder.

The other night when I was reading to him before bed he said “no mummy it’s Mr Kark not Krank, you always read it wrong. Daddy knows his name” now, I know it’s “Krank” but I am caught between wanting to read the right words to my young impressionable son and a real sense of loyalty and protectiveness towards my husband. For some reason I don’t want Shea to know his dad struggles with words…. I am not sure why. I know that day will come very soon where Shea will understand that adults struggle too. We don’t know everything, we are not always right and we all have our own difficulties/ disabilities or just things we struggle with in life. But to Shea at 3 we still have all the answers.

Paul is our hero. He never shies away from the difficulties he faces. I hear him spelling out words and learning about phonics because he knows it is important to Shea and he knows it’s important to me. I also appreciate how exhausting it must be for him.

Reading will always be something I value and something I will encourage in both my children but what Paul has shown me first hand is that passion, imagination and time are what lights the fire in children.

Shea begs his dad to take him to bed when he is home early enough from work because Paul tells him “a story in my mouth” instead of a book. You see Paul’s imagination is second to none (in fact second only to Shea’s) and is a very hard act for a Mum with a pile of Julia Donaldson stories to follow.

It’s funny how I thought it would be my role to encourage reading, imagination and creativity in my children when Paul and his amazing, wonderful, creative, Dyslexic brain surprises and amazes me once again.

I know things will get harder for Paul as the children grow and, who knows, maybe the children will be dyslexic too. What I do know is that the skills that Paul has had to develop to cope with his Dyslexia (creativity/ adaptability/ thinking on your feet) mean that Paul was much better prepared for the challenges of parenthood and it is a joy to see Shea lapping it up!!

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At what point do children become aware that mummy/ daddy are dyslexic and how should you to talk to them about it? And are there any useful books/resources to help them understand?

All the books I wish I’d read

I love to read, I do it for pleasure and there is nothing better than immersing yourself in a fictional world where you can create something really unique to your reading experiences. However, I have a tedious love, hate relationship with this pastime.

I recently moved house and had to pack up all my worldly possessions, including my books. I realised just how many I have and how many I haven’t managed to read yet.

Some of my books are well worn, as I have read and reread them time and time again, but there are some, where I have only managed a page or 2 before I gave up.

Reading for pleasure has not always been possible and while I want to read all the classics like all the Bronte sisters’ novels, 1984 and Tarzan to name but a few, I find the complex language and structure difficult to follow and digest and sometimes feel like I am missing out.

I was given sunset song as a core text for Higher English in high school and again when attempting Higher English as an open learning course, yet, I still have no idea what the book is about. Not only could I not follow the scots language that it was written in, I also had no chance of finishing it in the allotted time. So after reading it 3 times, I think it’s is about the industrial revolution… there is a chance I may be wrong!

I used to be jealous of those who enjoyed reading, I, unlike many of my colleagues and classmates never wanted to read in public places. Once, when on one of my sunset song attempts a colleague questioned why I had not finished reading the book yet, (I had been reading it at work every lunchtime for 2 weeks) I felt really embarrassed and it put me off, I stopped reading my book at lunch after that.

In my first job we used to have a book club of sorts, we would discuss the books we were reading at lunch and swap them when we were finished. However, after a while, when I was 4 books behind and running out of excuses, I started missing lunch with my friends as I didn’t want anyone to know how long it took me to read.

I have begun to get over my fear of being judged and learned to love reading for pleasure which is becoming allot easier now I have an explanation for my slow reading pace. Nevertheless, even now I need to get into a book right away, it needs to grip my attention and not let go before I will invest the time and effort it takes for me to read it. This has led to my collection of barely touched books of which there are been many, all in a pile to read when I have spare time!

Beyond Words: What does it Mean?

Beyond the surface

Beyond the surface

There are many battles dyslexics face due to misconceptions about the condition.

I have to confess, that before I started volunteering with Dyslexia Scotland, I was one of the probable masses of people who think that dyslexia only affects literacy.

In truth, it’s so much more than that – which was what this year’s conference, that took place on Saturday, was trying to highlight.

Not only does dyslexia affect short term memory, but it also hinders time management, organisation and note-taking, and that’s just me talking in the most simple and broad of terms.

However,  it’s not just the difficulties that dyslexics face that are misreported.  All too often, having the disorder means that people are written off, when in fact it has been argued that because of the way the dyslexic brain works they are better than non-dyslexics at visualisation, seeing things as a whole and practical and creative tasks.

So not only is the full extent of the condition obscured, but the strengths that it is believed to create go unnoticed.

But it’s not even really about that.  Strengths.  Challenges.  Ultimately just abstract words.  It’s about seeing the person as a whole, for the individual they are.  So when we say beyond words, that’s what we’re talking about.  See the person, not merely a surmountable problem.

Symbiotic partnerships

Dyslexia Scotland relies on the continued support of its members, ambassadors, staff, volunteers and of course many organisations to help us achieve our goals.

One such important partnership has developed with Edinburgh City Libraries.

Sarah Forteath, Business Development Manager, Library & Information Services at City of Edinburgh Council writes:

‘Edinburgh City Libraries and Dyslexia Scotland have developed a strong partnership since Dyslexia Awareness Week launched in Central Library in Edinburgh in November 2010.

The success of the partnership is based on the mutual benefit to both organisations – through our increased knowledge of dyslexia we have been able to develop our reading services to incorporate the UK’s first reading group for children with dyslexia.

We have been able to encourage many more young people with their parents and families into our libraries by using Dyslexia Scotland’s host of fabulous ambassadors to launch events –  as well as their President Sir Jackie Stewart and Kenny Logan!

In turn we host a series of creative and entertaining events for free in our libraries for Dyslexia Awareness Week every year and encourage several hundreds of people to get involved in reading for pleasure.

In the next 12 months we aim to roll out several more Dyslexia Chatterbooks reading groups across the city too!

Our partnership is of great interest to other professionals and I’ve been asked to speak about it at a Spotlight at the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP Umbrella 2013) in Manchester on 3 July.’

To find out what events are available in The Edinburgh area visit www.edinburghreads.eventbrite.co.uk.  Details of events taking place across Scotland during Dyslexia Awareness Week will be published soon.