Dyslexia and the challenge of teachers, parents

There are hundreds of thousands of dyslexic schoolchildren in Nigeria today subjected to ill treatment and stigmatisation largely due to ignorance and impatience of teachers and parents. Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal, writes on the challenges of pupils with dyslexia.

Alexander Akintoye is an adorable child. He is affable and precocious. But he is a victim of verbal and sometimes physical abuse – both at home and in school.
“My mummy slapped me and asked me to kneel down here,” the youngster replied his neighbour why he squatted in the afternoon sun instead of being in the comfort of his parents’ apartment.

“What did you do?” the neighbour wanted to know.

“She slapped me when I told her the letters and figures in my textbooks were dancing and that I could not get to see them well,” the boy said.

“The numbers and letters are dancing? Are you kidding me?” the neighbour said, laughing.

“Yes! They’re always dancing. Sometimes, I tried to make them still. That’s why I don’t like writing or reading. But my mummy thinks I am lazy,” the boy said excitedly.

“Now, I understand why your mum slapped you and sent you out of the house to kneel down in the sun,” the man said, discontinuing the conversation.

Young Akintoye exhibits symptoms of dyslexia but his parents will not have any of that. Life and learning, in the mean time, have remained a nightmare for the boy.

What is dyslexia?
The World Federation of Neurologists said it is as a disorder in children, who despite conventional classroom experience fail to attain the language skill of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities. In relating dyslexia with learning disabilities, the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke defined the condition as a disorder that impairs a person’s ability to read and which can visibly manifest as a difficulty with phonological awareness, phonological decoding, orthographic coding, and auditory short-term memory.

In other words, dyslexia is a learning disability that can hinder a pupil’s ability to read, write, spell and sometimes speak.

Most children love to learn in school but some cannot cope adequately because they have difficulties with learning the letters of the alphabets, associating sounds with letter that represent them, identifying and generating words.

A closer observation of the kids that fear learning, researches have shown, suffer from dyslexia.

It is believed that dyslexia can affect between five and 10 per cent of a given pupil population, although there has been no studies to indicate an accurate percentage. In Nigeria statistics are not readily available and not much is known about dyslexia.

According to the Dyslexia Foundation Nigeria, knowledge of the condition is not common in Nigeria and as a result children grappling with the challenge are beaten, called names, bullied and jeered at – leading them to develop an inferiority complex.

“Dyslexia is different from Attention Deficiency Hyperactivity Disorder and Attention Deficiency Disorder (ADHD, ADD). However, they frequently co-exist and it is best to test for both separately. Early detection is necessary without which the person is misunderstood, beaten, called names both at home but worse in school, by teachers and of course other children who see the person as stupid or lazy.

“Before it is discovered if it ever is, the damage has been done, the person is intimidated, and will lose self-confidence. As always the case, help is sort but is limited to getting a new lesson teacher or changing school,” the organisation said on its website.

Many parents and educators are unfortunately ill equipped for this challenge. Since they do not understand the underlying reasons dyslexic children struggle academically, they become more frustrated with every effort they put in to salvage the situation.

Some kids, experiences have shown, are even labeled “wizards and witches” determined to bring shame to their parents.

A performing artiste, Merry Everest, who struggled with dyslexia for years, shared her experience, “They say every dyslexic is different. Here’s what it’s like for me: When I read, letters dance sideways, and up and down, sometimes all at once. It’s like a Busby Berkeley movie. Sometimes letters dance in a pattern, and sometimes chaotically. It’s quite fun, actually, and mesmerizing. I blink and look again, and they do it again, and it’s a different dance.

“Any spaces between words affect me. Word problems are the worst. One time, a tutor spent six hours working on one word problem with me, no success. She gave up out of frustration, my poor teacher. Reading clocks and calendars is problematic. I tell the wrong time. For example, it’s 3:20, and I say it’s 2:30 while 9 am and a quarter to 12 seem the same to me.”

Other notable characteristics of dyslexia include difficulty copying from the board or a book. There may also be disorganisation of written work. A child may not be able to remember content, even if it involves a favorite storybook. Problems with spatial relationships can extend beyond the classroom and be observed on the playground. The child may appear to be uncoordinated and have difficulty with organised sports and games.

Last October, the DFN claimed that more than 17 million people in the country are living with the condition.

Speaking on ‘Dyslexia in Nigeria, Problems, Prospects and Possibilities’, at its first national conference, the Chairman, Board of Trustees of the foundation, Ben Arikpo, stated that one in 80 persons are affected by dyslexia.

“In Nigeria this figure is conservatively put at 17 million people living with dyslexia. Dyslexia is said to be responsible for the high rate of school dropouts and the increasing number of juvenile crimes,” he said.

At least, according to the organisation, 500 children have been diagnosed with dyslexia and providing therapy for the condition does not come cheap, costing between N600, 000 and N3m.

A researcher on the condition, Ikediashi Nwanneka, said, “When a child cannot read or write well in class. There is the need for the teacher to know why. An experienced teacher by way of careful observation can easily detect dyslexia. There is no significant or generally acceptable management of or cure for dyslexia. In addition, the dyslexic pupils can be assisted to learn to read and write with the appropriate instructional strategies and educational support. An important aspect of dyslexia is for the school to develop a plan with the parent of dyslexics to meet their challenges.

“However, if the dyslexics’ current school is unprepared to address this condition, the child needs to be transferred to another school with better plan and facilities to handle dyslexia. In addition, a good treatment plan should focus essentially on strengthening the child’s weakness while utilizing the strengths.”

Nineteen-year-old Ayanwoye Rasheed, a Senior Secondary School three pupil of the Federal Government College, Ogbomosho in Oyo State, for years struggled to excel in school. In fact, he repeated classes. But through the concerted efforts of his teachers, kindness and patience of his mother, he turned out to be a star.

“It was tough for me. Whenever I saw an alphabet, I mistook it for another. I was scared because I never wanted to become a school dropout. So, I discovered that I can invent technological appliances,” he told an online medium, Premium times, in an interview.

It was even telling when one of his teachers, Ishola Abdulkabir, who took personal interest in him, admitted, “Some teachers in the school believed he was under a spell and this was the story I had to believe. Fortunately for me, watching the movie ‘Like Stars on Earth’ changed that perspective. It featured a character who suffered from dyslexia. I watched the movie with the boy and I asked him what his inference was. Then, he told me this was exactly what’s wrong with him. The first thing I did was to carry out a background research on his learning history.”

Rising above his challenges, in 2014 Rasheed won a runner-up prize for his invention at the Schlumberger Excellence in Education Development (SEED). The Science and Technology School Exhibition gave him an opportunity to showcase his projects as he was honoured with the most innovative student award. Later, he was featured on TEDx Isale General programme themed, ‘Beyond the Walls’.

According to the dyslexia foundation, most dyslexics have “gifts in areas controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain such as artistic skills, athletics, music, mechanical activities, vivid imagination, intuitive, creative global thinking, and curiosity. They can excel anywhere but best at architecture, interior design, marketing and sales, culinary arts, wood working, carpentry, athletics, music, scientific research, engineering, computers, electronics, mechanics, graphic art, performing art and photograph.”

Rather than frustration and impatience directed at schoolchildren with dyslexia, experts on the condition urge parents and teachers to be more creative, more patient and more empathetic in helping them to be the best they can be.

They also want the Federal Government to provide the needed opportunities for dyslexic people to excel and live a meaningful life.

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