"Do you still think you have a reading problem?" No.
"Do you still think you're dyslexic?" No.
Six weeks and four lessons earlier, the answers would have been different. Sheila, as we will call her, is 14, and attends an English school in Spain. Until our first lesson, her reading had been hesitant and inaccurate, and she didn't enjoy it. She had never been able to learn multiplication tables, despite assistance from a highly-qualified family member. Sheila had been assessed as dyslexic by a British educational psychologist, and the examinations clock had begun to tick.
How Sheila, and her younger schoolmate Rachel, turned this situation round in a short time provides some insights into the particular issues of learning to read in English, as well as the outdated and unreliable techniques used to assess people who don't find it straightforward as "dyslexic".
Sheila was reading the David Walliams novel "Mr Stink," and had reached Chapter 6. Reading it to me, she soon met words in which the letters did not indicate their most frequent sounds - giant, pulled, emblazoned, jewel-encrusted - and which she could not work out using the regular sound to letter correspondence that worked for her in Spanish. I explained to her why we could not always rely on what letters told us to read every word, and that, as has been known for almost twenty years, there is an area of the brain that interprets the information from letters in English, so that we can distinguish "please" from "bread", and "should" from "shoulder".
Put simply, in order to read fluently in English, we need not only to use the information contained in the letters, but to know what they are actually indicating in each word. Children can be helped to learn to blend information from letters in the early stages of reading by giving them highly regular texts, but this is of no value to a fourteen year old who has to handle the full range of the language in her school work.
The operation of letters in English is based on four main functions. Around two-thirds of the time, a letter indicates its most frequent sound - cat, hat, rat, etc. Sometimes, a letter gives us information about another letter, changing its most frequent sound. In "giant", the i has a softening effect on the g - this happens a lot of the time but not always, as in "girl" and "get". Sometimes, because we have only 26 letters and over half a million words, letters work in groups. "Station", for example, has a sound for each letter, then the group "tion". Finally, we have variations in pronunciation for historical reasons, beginning with the Norman conquest, which flooded English with French for around 200 years.
The consolation - that reversing the process makes it relatively easy to learn French - comes later. The immediate task is to explain why things as they are and to engage the area of the brain, described by Professors Blakemore and Firth (The Learning Brain, 2005) as the "word form area" that enables them to interpret the full range of information conveyed by letters, and so read whatever text they have before them. My technique is to treat the text as if it were a new piece of music, perhaps with some unfamiliar flats and sharps, and not to expect perfect reading at sight first time round. Instead, each new pattern is explained by moving to another word with the same pattern, discussing it, adding more examples, and inserting the word that has caused the problem once the pupil is confident with it. Once the pattern behind the error is secure in the child's mind, we return to the text and read it again, as with a piece of music that has been practised. The whole process builds and reinforces the key skill of blending the information contained in the letters to build up words by giving intensive and constructive practice with each individual example.
The government, in the National Curriculum, has come very close to endorsing an extreme form of phonics, in which the whole of language is reduced to "phoneme" (sound) and "grapheme" (letter or group of letters) correspondence, with no explanation of the other factors in reading, including phrasing and the development of spelling outlined by David Crystal in Spell It Out. The one thing that has prevented this is that the glossary of terminology is "non-statutory" - ie, there is no obligation to use it in teaching, provided the material is taught. The terminology, like that of grammar, is included in the Key Stage 2 tests, but can be added as an extra after the material is taught, at which point it is much less likely to do damage.
To return to the two cases. Sheila, after six lessons, had read the whole of Mr Stink, and found it progressively easier. She read to me a science test she had just taken, with perfect understanding an no errors. As a teenager rather than a saint, she had not practised tables, but could say 2,3 and 4x with only one error, which was encouraging as she had previously not got beyond 2x2 without hesitation and error. Sheila could also apply the principles of Slimmed Down Spelling to spell chaos, infatuation and chaotic. Rachel, who had chosen The Vet Fairy, had to work very hard to read even the first few words in her first lesson, but in the second, on Monday, was brimming with confidence and managed a paragraph with full understanding. Her parents' comment - "It was amazing to see the way you work...you've given us hope."