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Difficulty With Words And Numbers?

When the numbers don’t add up, or the words don’t make sense, what help is at hand? By Kim Maxwell.

Misunderstood and unfairly associated with stigmas, there is no need for schoolchildren with dyslexia and dyscalculia to despair, help is available.

Demanding dyslexia 

“If you meet me, you’ll never know I’m dyslexic, but if I send you something I have written, you’ll see the grammatical errors. I might be able to say I’m eloquent, but there is no way I can spell it.” Strong sentiments from dyslexic specialist Sharon Gerken, director of the Dyslexic Association of South Africa. She is also a parent of two adult dyslexics.

“Educational psychologists would rather refer to it as a learning difficulty, than label it dyslexia. Some parents don’t even want their children labelled,” continues Gerken. “For my children, it was incredibly empowering to acknowledge dyslexia. If we can teach our children that they’re not stupid, they just learn differently, that’s what it’s about. How can you get an accurate assessment of my IQ as a dyslexic if I can’t understand what is written?”

About 5 to 10 per cent of schoolgoing children globally have some form of dyslexia. South Africa’s dyslexia statistics reflect a similar trend, according to the Reading Language Gym.

Elizabeth Nadler-Nir is a speech and language therapist at this Cape Town practice. “Dyslexia is quite a loaded term. It exists and it’s on a spectrum, like everything, with different levels of severity. Many people, with a bit of help in treating dyslexia, can be out-of-the-box thinkers,” she says.

“Dyslexia is generational and inherited. As therapists, we look at the symptoms and ask ‘what can I do for that child?’ Some are stronger orally than in writing, for example.”

Nadler-Nir stresses that if a teacher flags a young child for observation, the proper channels should be followed: schools refer to an educational psychologist and a lengthy assessment evaluates the child’s literacy in cognisance of all their skills.

“You want those reports, the paper trail … to show a child struggled in lower grades. We need it to get Independent Examinations Board, government and Cambridge school concessions in high school,” adds Gerken.

“The school will say: go to an educational psychologist, then an audiologist or speech therapist, and so on. Parents of dyslexics often get overwhelmed. And not everybody can afford private therapists.” The association can point parents in the right direction. “You have the right to ask your local hospital for an educational psychologist’s report for your child – you might just have to wait six months. Children are falling through the system because parents don’t know this.”

Gerken says dyslexic children are eligible for accommodations. A spelling concession – if a teacher can identify the word, it is marked correctly. Extra time is granted for written tests in junior and high school. A child with dyslexia and dysgraphia (challenges visible in handwriting skills) may attend school with a scribe and a reader (who reads and writes for them). Gerken’s sons opted not to use scribes and readers because they wanted to prepare themselves for later studies. “Both my sons struggled at school, and both managed to get degrees,” she says.

Occupational therapist (OT) Sarah Skevington from the Olive Tree Therapy Centre in Gqeberha has a special interest in sensory integration. “In children with dyslexia, I’ve seen a reversing of letters and incorrect sequencing of letters in words when spelling and reading,” she says.

“As OTs, we’ll deal with the building blocks for sequential reading and writing – things such as bilateral integration, lateralisation of both sides of the body and sequencing. We don’t focus on reading and spelling, but rather work on those gross motor building blocks that support the spelling or reading process, from left to right. So we’ll get kids moving rhythmically left to right or clapping to a rhyme to build on sequencing to help improve functional difficulties of dyslexia.”

Daunting dyscalculia

Just as dyslexics have trouble with words, so children with dyscalculia struggle with numbers. Nadler-Nir doesn’t work with dyscalculia, but says that like dyslexia, dyscalculia is a diagnosable difficulty. These children have incredible difficulty learning the basics with numbers, just as dyslexics have trouble breaking the code of reading.”

Skevington says there is usually a list of criteria to meet for any condition. “I haven’t seen a lot of dyscalculia in my practice in Gqeberha, or previously in Cape Town. More often, I’ve seen the handwriting condition called dysgraphia. It seems to be an individualised learning difficulty: not being able to use your body as your mind wants to for what you want to execute with your hands on paper.” It could be poorly formed or spaced letters on a line or page, an awkward pencil grip or arm posture. “An OT can help with improving body awareness, organisational skills, fine motor strength and co-ordination, and postural control in a classroom setting.”

Lindi Cronje, a department head at Meerhof School, a special needs facility in Hartbeespoort, teaching maths and computer application technology for Grades 10 to 12, says: “A child with dyscalculia struggles to understand any numerical concepts: place values, imagining a number line … 1,2,3,4. They will have a problem finding the larger of two numbers, say, between 2 and 4.” These children have normal intelligence; understanding numerosity concepts is the issue.

“They’ll count on fingers to solve problems. Have difficulty with simple adding, subtraction, multiplication and division. Problems reasoning with concepts of time on a clock or with direction: north/ south, forwards/ backwards, up/ down. They can’t do problem-solving or mathematical reasoning. However, if children have dyslexia, they may have a problem with maths or numbers that isn’t caused by dyscalculia,” says Cronje.

Cronje adds that high school children with dyscalculia have the same struggles with division, subtraction, and so forth, but are allowed to use calculators. Their struggles will be in tackling geometry and learning to apply algorithms.

“For a primary school child with dyscalculia, a calculator and extra time would be a concession. Also, maths marks not counting for passing the grade.” Schools apply for these accommodations. “Sometimes a quad page could help a child to organise where to put a number. But a child with dyscalculia and dyslexia, won’t get that accommodation in high school grades,” she says.

High school accommodations include extra exam time and maths marks not counting for passing Grade 8 and 9. “If they can’t cope with mathematical literacy in Grades 10 to 12 and have a dyscalculia diagnosis, they can apply for a concession to take an alternative subject.”

As with dyslexia, sending a child to an educational psychologist for a diagnosis is a first step. Cronje stresses that like dyslexia, dyscalculia does not develop gradually. “If a child has dyscalculia, it would be problematic before formal schooling.”

As part of her recent masters in learning support, guidance and counselling at the University of Pretoria, Cronje’s thesis on using information and communication technology to support Grade 6 learners with dyscalculia showed encouraging results.

“I worked with Grade 6 learners with dyscalculia on basics in number concepts that Grade 1 learners would normally do – to strengthen the basics,” recalls Cronje. “These were online maths games, which made maths fun. We did a test and there was an improvement in their maths ability after playing. Children with dyscalculia often hate maths so we never called them maths games. One Grade 6 boy liked gaming and even started playing those maths games at home instead.”

The research involved weekly two-hour sessions for six weeks. “It wasn’t enough, but we saw positive outcomes. We saw that if we could do those online games for longer and start at an earlier age, it would help greatly.”

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