COMMENT: Embracing the challenges of dyslexia

(Illustration of the brain of a dyslexic boy confused about letters: Getty Images)

By Geetha Shantha Ram

Have a conversation with any Singaporean parents with school-going children and it will likely lead to a discussion on the importance of educational success for their kids.

According to a 2017 HSBC study, Singaporean parents spend almost twice as much on education for their children than the global average. With such a significant focus on educational achievement, learning differences such as dyslexia can be a major source of stress for families and their children.

So how does dyslexia affect Singaporean parents’ ambitions for their children?

Dyslexia is a neurologically-based learning difficulty that affects a person’s ability to read, spell and write. There are other secondary challenges associated with dyslexia such as reading comprehension difficulties and it can affect self-esteem and quality of life of those with dyslexia. Findings of a University College London study on 99 Primary 3 pupils, which were shared at conference in 2017, revealed that children with dyslexia are more likely to suffer from social and emotional issues such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem than their peers.

Critically acclaimed director Steven Spielberg once said, “It is more common than you can imagine.” He was of course referring to dyslexia. Dyslexia is one of several specific learning difficulties, and affects around 10 per cent of any population, where four per cent have difficulties severe enough to require timely and appropriate intervention.

And Spielberg, who has dyslexia, is right. Given the universal incidence rate, it is estimated that in a class of 40, at least one student may have dyslexia in Singapore. This totals to approximately 20,000 students with dyslexia. With heightened awareness of learning needs and rising expectations of learners in the last decade, parents and teachers are increasingly sensitive to the characteristics of dyslexia as families and their children navigate through school demands. While this creates the impression that there is a rise in dyslexia in Singapore over the years, it may be that our society is becoming more aware of its presence and its impact on learning development.

In recognising the need for early identification and intervention, Singapore has put certain reinforcements in place. A 2015 paper published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Developmental Differences mentions the systematic screening and subsequent selective identification of students for government school programmes in Singapore such as Learning Support Programmes in English and Mathematics, School-based dyslexia remediation and referrals to external organisations such as Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS), which provides intervention for children from preschool to tertiary levels.

The paper also reported that Ministry of Education (MOE) teachers attend a mandatory special needs module as part of their pre-service training; and schools are equipped with Teachers trained in Special Needs and Allied Educators to support learners with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) in MOE schools. Moreover, students with dyslexia and other SpLDs may also apply for access arrangements such as extra time to demonstrate their understanding and abilities during examinations. Inclusive practices in schools also ensure that students are encouraged to interact with different types of learners and forge a better understanding and awareness of students with learning differences.

Building a more inclusive society

All these laudable efforts have secured Singapore’s position as one of the most academically resilient countries in the world. And yet, we should not be complacent as there continues to be limitations to the services meted out.

Looking at the statistics, the number of students assessed and given intervention for dyslexia remains relatively small in comparison with those who require assistance. Support for learners in tertiary education and those who are entering the workforce also remains comparatively sparse. Despite the best efforts of schools, due to resource limitations and other reasons, implementation of inclusive practices often relies on physical integration of students rather than an acute understanding of dyslexic needs.

In particular, one group warrants special attention - families dealing with concurring difficulties of financial challenges and dyslexia. At DAS, more than 50 per cent of students receive bursaries in order to access intervention, with more than half of them receiving 100 per cent bursaries. Children’s literacy learning is closely linked to parental education and wealth but low-income families struggle to provide for the necessary intervention and resources for their children with dyslexia. Parents may feel incapacitated in attempting to promote learning at home especially with a reduced ability to invest in scaffolding their children’s cognition.

The incidence of dyslexia among the incarcerated is perhaps a repercussion of insufficient support. A 2000 report conducted at the University of Texas Medical Branch with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice indicated a high prevalence of dyslexia within prison populations. Similarly, a 2014 report found that the poorer a person is, the more likely he or she is to be incarcerated. When both indicators are present, it is possible that children with dyslexia living under poor conditions are more likely to end up in trouble with the law.

Together, we can become more vigilant to the needs of children living with dyslexia and their families, by taking inspiration from the nation’s efforts. UPLIFT, which stands for Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families, is a taskforce that targets three key areas namely long-term absenteeism and dropout rates, parent outreach and engagement, and student motivation.

We can embrace different types of learners in our midst as we evolve into a more inclusive society. A 2016 Lien Foundation study found that only 30 per cent of those surveyed agreed that Singapore is an inclusive society with reference to children with special needs and only 32 per cent believed that typical learners are comfortable interacting with children with special needs. In contrast, about 65 per cent worry that children with special needs may be bullied by typical learners. This calls for continued awareness raising and advocacy support.

On people with dyslexia, Spielberg said, “You are not alone. And while you will have this the rest of your life, you can dart between the raindrops to get where you want to go and it will not hold you back.”

Dyslexia may pose several challenges due to its multifaceted effects. But if Singapore remains active in reducing the negative impact of dyslexia by offering appropriate, timely and continued help, learners with dyslexia can achieve their potential and more.

Geetha Shantha Ram is the Director of the English Language Literacy Division and Staff Professional Development Division at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS). She has over 13 years of experience supporting children and adults in the area of dyslexia.

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