Debbie* is nine. She's attended five schools in four years, as her parents have moved around Australia for work. She is still unable to read a paragraph of simple text.
Gavin* is 12, probably born with foetal alcohol syndrome. He is in his third foster home. He, too, cannot read.
Paul* complained to me earlier this year that his big brother and his mates keep him awake till 4 am. By the time he wakes up he's late for school and gets into trouble. It's easier to miss school all together, which mostly he does. None of these kids are dyslexic. But all of them need specialist help so they can learn to read.
Twenty years ago there were jobs for the illiterate. These days even our social lives involve emails, texting and tweets. Depriving a young person of the ability to read is not just to damage them educationally, but to cut them off from full participation in the modern world. Too often, kids with reading problems are shunted up, grade after grade, until the reach an age where they can be dismissed as unteachable. But every child can read. If I can read and write, anyone can.
This is a confession: I didn't write this column, or not as you are reading it now. If The Canberra Times printed what I really wrote you would need to spend most of the afternoon deciphering it. Each week a friend, Angela, transcribes my work into something intelligible. Even a spell-checker can't cope with someone whose words turn inside out or back to front.
Am I dyslexic? According to a literal definition, of course I am. Dyslexic means no more than dys + lexic ie. non-reading, or someone with reading problems, rather than a slow learner in all fields. But increasingly professionals in related areas have tried to narrow the definition to suit their own specialty. My particular difficulty comes from focusing, and it is the one shared by about 11 per cent of those with reading problems.
You can diagnose this by staring at a word or drawing for ten seconds. If it blurs, you are in trouble. I must read quickly, or not at all and I find it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on a few words on a white page, the standard text given to beginning readers. I was half way through my first year of school when the teacher discovered that the girl who couldn't read a solitary, clearly written word on the blackboard was also sneaking into the library to speed read Black Beauty, a lot of small type on thin pages.
Other experts will tell you that dyslexia is solely a phonological problem, characterised by difficulty distinguishing the sounds that make up words. According to them, I am not truly dyslexic at all.
Does it matter? If a child – or any person – has problems reading, surely all deserve whatever is needed to help them learn to read? The danger of relying on a narrow definition of dyslexia is that extra funding or support may only be given to those diagnosed with a specific recognised problem. Simply failing to read may not be enough to deserve help, a laptop computer or an amanuensis/scribe in exams. (An amanuensis is an excellent band-aid, but should never be a substitute for learning to read).
And everyone can read – if they have the appropriate teaching. One of my dearest friends has been blind since she was four, but reads a book a day – by Braille, not talking book. Talking books are another form of band-aid, but no more than that.
Perhaps it is time to ditch the term dyslexia, or to go back to its original meaning, and to refuse to let the term be hijacked into an excluding rather than inclusive definition. Yes, many quite specific and varied conditions do exist and certainly deserve funding for their study. But they need their own, new specific name, not to hijack the wider term dyslexia.
Being dyslexic or a slow learner or just a kid who has just missed out should make no difference to whether they receive the appropriate targeted teaching methods that will assist them in becoming fully literate members of society.
Any child who fails to read at the accepted level for their age group needs individual and continuous assessment until they can read, not just at the benchmark for their age, but at a level commensurate with their verbal intelligence.
Too many extremely bright kids are denied the assistance they need because they can (just) pass their exams. They are usually bored, frustrated and sometimes they start acting out and become disruptive.
It is tempting to think that a child who is just a slow learner just needs more of the same teaching methods they have been receiving. They don't. By definition, a child with problems has shown that previous teaching methods have failed. They will also need help to catch up with the other areas of learning they have missed out on while struggling with literacy.
Every child in every school, deserves to read. If we fail a single child we have failed in our deepest, most important duty as adults – to care for the young, to enable them to create the future. Every child, in every school ... and to hell with definitions.
* all names and identities are carefully disguised
** Jackie French is the Australian Children's Laureate. childrenslaureate.org.au