I listened with interest to Radio 4’s recent podcast hosted by Michael Rosen, where he talked to Professor Maggie Snowling CBE, President of St John’s College Oxford, and leading expert in dyslexia and children’s reading difficulties.

Maggie provides a very clear picture of the nature of dyslexia and its impact on children’s learning in school. Dyslexia, put simply, is a specific difficulty with learning to read and spell fluently. While there will always be a range of ability levels when it comes to reading and writing, the key characteristic of dyslexia is the level of difficulty in the learning of the reading and spelling.

Despite early hypotheses around the nature of the problem, dyslexia is not an impairment of visual processing, but rather, is rooted in language, specifically a phonological processing deficit (phonology is the system of sounds in a language). This means, the problem is not linked to the letters themselves, but in sorting out the sound sequences of the word. When reading, children need to be able to relate the strings of letters to strings of sounds to decode the word and have the language comprehension skills to understand what they’ve decoded. Struggling readers may have weakness in the phonological skills needed to decode the words (dyslexia), or with language comprehension, or indeed both.

We know from the research a structured, synthetic phonics programme is the most successful approach to teaching reading for the majority of children. Early support for developing phonological skills (to support word-decoding) can begin before children even start school however, by drawing their attention to the sounds in their language and encouraging them to talk about and have fun with these sounds. This kind of ‘play’ with sounds includes teaching them nursery rhymes, reading stories with alliteration, rhyme and repetition, playing ‘I spy’ using the letter sound (rather than the letter name) and noticing the syllable ‘beats’ in different words.

Of course, being able to decode words is not the complete picture, as it’s vital children can also understand the vocabulary and grammar of the language they are reading. Children must be able to draw on their oral language skills to make sense of the words they are decoding. Supporting and developing strong oral language skills is therefore integral to the goal of producing successful readers. Some parents may think teaching their children to read before they start school will give them a ‘head start,’ whereas supporting language through conversation, games and reading books together (talking about the pictures and story) will ultimately be of greater benefit.

Whether children with reading difficulties have a profile of poor phonological processing, poor comprehension or both, all will benefit from a combined approach to reading that includes developing phonological awareness skills, having access to a structured synthetic phonics programme, and support to develop their oral language skills. When we broaden children’s vocabularies and build their language skills, we are not only giving them the tools to become confident communicators, but we are setting them up to become confident readers too.

For more information about Dyslexia and speech and language difficulties, check out the Spring issue of The Link magazine where we hear from Rachael McMullen, Education Manager of the British Dyslexia Association.

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