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Dyslexia

Sara's first lesson, with updates.

Sara is 11 and has an assessment of dyslexia for which her parents paid £2000. Her main problem is in spelling, and this lesson aimed to show her how to spell using Slimmed Down Spelling. This technique combines phonics with other properties of letters, including groups of letters that cannot be read one letter at a time, extra letters, and “awkward” letters and groups, derived either from foreign languages, or  the result of shortcuts in speech. I did not asked to film the lesson, as Sara was very nervous at first, but some filmed examples are on this site, and I’m happy to demonstrate further pro bono. The lesson started at 5.30, after a school day, as it was the only time available that week. Sara’s mother sat on her left, and I on her right,  at right angles to her.

We started with Sara’s name, and agreed that it had one sound for each letter. I explained that, if we heard a sound we said a word carefully, we had to have a letter for it. This clearly works with Sara’s name, and is the basis of nearly all initial phonics schemes.

I then asked if Sara could spell table. She couldn’t, so I wrote it for her. Why did she think table was spelt with the l before the e? She didn’t know. I said the word carefully and slowly in French, and asked if she could hear the l before the e. She could. I then explained that we had been invaded by William the Conqueror around a thousand years ago, and that he did not speak English, but a kind of French. I embroidered the story a little, talking about William’s misdeeds, and getting across the idea that things tended to be done his way.

After a quick check that Sara could spell a simple three letter word – cat – I explained that sometimes single letters did not tell us all we needed to know in order to read a word, and that sometimes that has worked in groups. I asked to spell station. She wrote down sta   n. The letters she used were correct, but she did not know the tion group. I wrote tion on a piece of paper, asked her to look at it, then put my hand on it, and asked what the four letters were. She remembered it accurately. I then added tion to sta, asked Sara to look at it, then put my hand over it again, and asked her to spell the word while I wrote it. She got it right. Much praise, and mother clearly very pleased. Sara then wrote the word herself, accurately, but in poor handwriting which we will deal with another time.

I then explained that our brain works by making connections between cells, the fingers of our hands might touch, though of course a brain cell has many more connections. As we practise, specialist brain cells deposit a substance called myelin, which works a little like the insulation on a cable, and speed things up. As we learn more words with similar structures, they form a network in our brain, and each reinforces the others in the group. So, looking again at station, how much she spell nation? I covered station, and she wrote nation correctly. I extended the idea to situation, which has one sound for each letter, followed by the group. This took two attempts, but Sara wrote the word correctly, without copying it. One of the principles of this technique is that the learner does not copy, but holds information in their mind, and writes without looking at any prompt. If they do not get it right first time, I praise the parts that are right and draw attention to the part that needs to be improved. They try again. Each extension requires careful judgement, so that the child is challenged, but can succeed if they try.

The next stage is to explain that some words have an extra letter. This doesn’t represent a sound in itself, but usually changes the sound of another letter. I wrote mat, which Sara read, followed by mate, which she could not read. I explained the principle, in simple English, then wrote hat, followed by hate, both of which Sara read accurately. With an older pupil, or earlier in the day, I would probably have gone on to the softening effect if e, i and y after c and g (face, city, cycle, gentle, gin, energy), but at this stage I just wanted to introduce the idea, without overloading her. I did, though, explain that some extra letters show that the word comes from Greek. Asking Sara to spell chaos, she wrote caos. Very good - all of the letter sound correspondences were in place. Showed her the h, and explained why. Sara then wrote chaos without copying.

Finally, we returned to table and William. The language, I reminded her, was about 1000 years old, and if we were 1000 years old, we’d have a few wrinkles. But once we knew what the wrinkles were, we could use them. For example, we agreed that you only saw the same letter three times in a row in cartoon strips. Thinking about table, how would she spell cable? Correct. Did she like horses? Yes, she used to enjoy riding. Where did horses sleep? In a shed. (Served me right for asking the question in that way.) Did she know if the shed had a special name?  No. I explained that it was a stable, and like the other words. Sara wrote stable.

How do we spell was? Sara got it right. Why do we spell it like that, and not wos. I explained that the people that William defeated with Anglo-Saxons, that Saxony was a part of Germany, and that their language was a lot like German. I pronounced it in a Germanic way, and we worked on water, and warm (a word completely sharing spelling and meaning with German), and we noticed that the a in these spellings followed a w. This let us build up a group.

Did Sara think she was well-behaved? Yes. Did that mean she was perfectly behaved all of the time, some of the time or nearly all the time? We settled on nearly all. Letters, I said, were a bit like that. They do as we expect most of the time, but we need to be ready for when they don’t. We use what the letters tell us, but don’t believe they tell us everything. Some things we need to know.

Oh, and was Sara learning a language? No, as she was dyslexic. I pointed out that several of the words we’d been working on were French – nearly every word in tion is shared, though not always with exactly the same meaning – and we practised saying the words we’d worked on in French. Sara adapted her pronunciation remarkably easily. Did she feel she’d learned something this afternoon? Yes. Did she feel she would learn a lot more with me? Yes. We’ll meet again next week, and perhaps do a little more French. Sara and her mother were laughing and joking as they walked home. Apart from two tries at situation, this severely dyslexic girl had got everthing I’d taught her right at the first attempt.This is the first lesson. I'll post on progress next week. 

Update 1. Sara's second lesson had to be postponed because of a birthday party. However, her mother sent me a message saying she had "remembered all I'd taught her, and found it very helpful. Further updates will follow. 


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