Dyslexia. Learning difference or learning disability?

During a recent Chit Chat with Bill Hansberry from Hansberry Educational Consulting based in Australia we discussed the following question.

"Here (New Zealand), our government call dyslexia a “learning difference” rather than a learning disability…is that one of the problems in getting universities, teacher training etc on board?"

When it comes to education, would the recognition of dyslexia as a disability place accountability on the government and other educational institutions to ensure that teachers are trained and adequately equipped with the knowledge, skills and tools to recognise dyslexia, and teach and support students with dyslexia?

Difference or disability?

When we discussed in our chit chat, Bill explained that for him the term ‘difference’ is not strong enough, “I think it trivializes it” he said. And I agree. Living with dyslexia is tough, and it is lifelong.

In addition, we discussed that individuals might have their own preference for the description of ‘difference or disability’ and that it also tends to change depending on which space you are in, or the context in which you are conversing. For example, you may be in the political space, or you may be in a learning space.

But is deciding for yourself an option? Shouldn’t we have it clearly defined?

The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as a specific learning disability.

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

As we continued our discussion Bill enlightened me (and I had to ask him to repeat during our Chit Chat) that within Australia dyslexia is a recognised disability and included as a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 Australia, and this means you have rights.

Reviewing any action and accountability this has placed on defining a clear pathway or guidelines for education in Australia is a blog for another day.

Now let’s talk about New Zealand.

Here in New Zealand, dyslexia was officially acknowledged on 19 April 2007 by the Ministry of Education. In New Zealand dyslexia is not recognised as a disability.

This acknowledgement has (after some time) resulted in a fantastic Kete of resources and information listed on the TKI website.  All steps in the right direction, but is this enough?

And while the Dyslexia Kete is an extremely helpful resource for educators and parents, in my opinion, it is not accessed, nor utilised widely enough across the education sector. The Kete is very clear in that an evidence-based Structured Literacy approach is the gold standard for teaching students with dyslexia and an approach that is beneficial for all. As Bill titled his presentation made last year for the South Australian Department of Education, “Teach them ALL as if they’re dyslexic and you teach them better”.

In New Zealand, there is no requirement to adhere to any of the recommendations within the Dyslexia Kete.

Further to this, there is a disconnect between what is recommended and what many schools still teach in mainstream literacy lessons. Unfortunately, Balanced Literacy is generally the order of the day and still very ingrained in many of our schools. There’s also a lot of variability across schools with how reading is taught, as discussed in my previous blog ‘The lottery of reading instruction’.

When researching for any definition or structure within the Education and Training Act 2020 it states in section 34 that “students who have special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enrol and receive education at State schools as people who do not”.

So as-it-stands for our students with dyslexia, they currently sit within the ‘otherwise’ category (at a push). What does this mean? There is no agreed definition or structure as to how to best support and teach students with dyslexia. Is this sufficient enough?

It does make you wonder. If dyslexia were recognised as a disability in New Zealand and/or if there were a clearer definition of rights within the Education and Training Act 2020 for students with dyslexia would we see more focus and emphasis on ensuring that our school leaders, teachers, and education providers are better equipped during their teacher training? Would we see national screening/assessment tools in place on school entry for all students? Would we see early intervention for students with dyslexia if indicators were present? Would we see consistency across interventions ensuring alignment to national guidelines?

At least 1 in ten people have dyslexia and some statistics suggest 1 in 5 (although many people remain undiagnosed). Currently, there is not a clear nor supportive enough pathway or guidelines in the New Zealand education system for students with dyslexia. What could this pipeline of awareness, support, and success look like for our students with dyslexia?

Let’s not play the blame game.

Right now, in New Zealand, it is not mandatory for our trainee teachers to be taught to teach in an evidence-based Structured Literacy approach. They are not taught about the Science of Reading, about how ALL brains learn to read, or the most effective way of supporting students with dyslexia.

Teachers can feel guilty and somewhat frustrated when they first come across the Science of Reading and may go through somewhat of a grieving process. Thinking back to all those children that they have taught, and what could have been, is tough. I know this because I was one of those teachers as I discussed in my blog ‘We don’t know what we don’t know’.

When discussing with Bill he says he felt it too, “When I trained as a teacher (a long time ago now), there was nothing in there about how to teach children to read and spell.”

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." Maya Angelou

So, what can we do about this? Well, until it is mandatory for our teachers to be trained and equipped with the knowledge of the Science of Reading and the tools and know-how to teach with an evidenced-based Structured Literacy approach, we must keep continuing the discussion. We must continue with our bid to infiltrate Structured Literacy throughout our primary schooling system.

If you are a teacher, a great place to start building your knowledge and understanding is to talk to any intervention teacher at your school and ask questions. What is going on in intervention in your school? Understand and look for the presence of a connection and alignment between tier 1 / tier 2 / tier 3. Also, be aware and probe further if that alignment doesn’t exist. Ask them to explain what they are doing and why. But be wary of Reading Recovery (this is very adopted in New Zealand and does not follow a Structured Literacy approach). If the why and the what doesn’t align with the principles of Structured Literacy then learning more and more is your next step.

If you are a parent, it should be ok to be able to go into a school and ask how your child is being taught to read. Build a relationship with your child’s teacher, but also understand that teacher’s knowledge may vary. Do this with integrity and respect. Relationships are everything.

Each and every one of us contributing to this discussion is making a difference. But where is this leading? I believe a clear pathway, national guidelines and requirements would be a good place to aim for. And we must keep discussing.

Discuss. Discuss. Discuss.

Influencing any shift is US.

Carla McNeil

Carla is the Founder and Director of Learning MATTERS Ltd. Carla has been a successful school Principal, Mathematics Advisor and Classroom teacher.


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