by Gaynor Chapman DipEd.,BSc.

The issue of dyslexia came up on TV One news of Tuesday, 14 February 2023. Surely, I am not the only one to see how inequitable the news content was [lots of NZers can’t stand our MSM news —Eds], since it was a focus on only Maori children, who are unable to access diagnosis or remediation with tutoring for dyslexia . Both these activities are too expensive for the parents.  But actually to all low SES parents.

Dyslexia has been extensively researched by many neuro and cognitive scientists, this century but especially Mark Seidenberg. Conclusively it has been shown that the sound pathway in the brain is used for reading. A dyslexic student’s brain scan is quite different from the scan of a good reader. However, when the dyslexic student is given an intensive course of phonics the brain scans match up.

The fairest way to address dyslexia is to have all students given a course of a phonic (sounds of letters) based, direct, systematic and with sequential instruction. Since the top 40% of students are advantaged by this in their spelling and for the other 60% of students this approach is essential. The bottom 10% to 15% of the latter group who may be dyslexic also need a ‘multiple repetitions ‘ approach, since according to Seidenberg it is very difficult to distinguish between the slow developer and the dyslexic in this struggling readers’ group and it is at least four times as difficult to remediate an older dyslexic compared with a younger one.

Only 10% of NZ primary schools use a structured literacy course and the Ministry’s recently introduced phonic readers are countered by the retention of predictable reading books which are antagonistic to phonics and are designed for the 3 cueing system which has no basis in the science of reading.

Another big problem is the prevailing educational idea, which considers repetition, drilling and rote learning to be ‘ghastly boring ‘ and mindless. To modern thinking drill and practice dulls students’ creativity. It is even criminal as it supposedly robs learners of the opportunity to develop their human potential and motivation to learn. Only sports and music students are allowed to benefit from repetition, for them to master these subjects to the desired levels of automaticity and fluency. Drill and practice can be conducted in ways to render it pointless, a waste of time and frustrating for children. When properly conducted, however, drill and practice is a consistently effective teaching method and as essential to complex and creative intellectual performance as they are to the performance of a virtuoso violinist.

Repetition certainly benefits children riddled with learning difficulties. A meta-analysis of 85 intervention studies with children with learning difficulties (2000) found the most effective interventions were those that included systematic drill, repetition, practice and review.

This was how reading was taught to struggling students prior to 1950, when NZ had an excellent basic education with high levels of literacy and numeracy. Also consider Finland, where differences in socio-economic status of families have little impact on students’ reading achievement. Their early reading is structured and strongly focused on phonics.

Maori inequity is not just an SES problem, but results from NZ’s failing education system.

References: Dyslexia Intervention: Repetition, a Cornerstone in Overcoming Dyslexia. Susan du Plessis, March 2021.

Language at the Speed of Light, Mark Seidenberg, 2017

Gaynor has been involved in tutoring reading and but mostly mathematics for 45 years on the Kapiti Coast. She has communicated with Massey University who used to visit her mother in the 1990s since she was then the NZ expert in teaching phonics. She has been involved in successfully teaching 100s of dyslexics who no longer have signs of the problem.