30 August 1996

Computers help children with word blindness

Learning to read and spell is harder for some youngsters than it should be. They are the ones with dyslexia, or word blindness. Ann Rogers talked to a farmers wife who runs a centre where children use computers to teach themselves

"IM GOING to computer classes," was how one small boy explained his regular disappearances from school.

It was an answer calculated to engender respect, and a correct one, too. The computer he was off to work on was loaded with a program that teaches youngsters like him – and adults too – how to read and spell.

There are two such computers in the former dairy at Bridgetown, Werrington, near Launceston, Cornwall where farmers wife Sally Rowland receives a steady stream of children and the occasional adult. All have dyslexia and attend to work on a multi-sensory system that improves their reading and spelling ability and brings a new quality to their lives.

The experiences of David (9) and Sarah (11) illustrate this. Neither is any trouble to their teachers. "He/she is a slow learner but he/she will get there," their mothers are assured by teachers who do not recognise their pupils plight.

But David becomes more and more withdrawn, lonely and unhappy. Local children no longer call for him to play. He no longer rides his bike.

Sarahs teacher backs her assurances by referring to the splendid project work Sarah has done. The teacher doesnt appreciate that its work Sarah has done at home, where her parents have helped her, and where she has ripped up every page with a mistake on it and laboriously written it out again and again to get it right.

Sarahs anxiety increases. Extra tutoring, paid for by her parents, only makes her tired.

Neither set of parents is prepared to accept the situation and eventually pay to have their child assessed by an educational psychologist. Each child is cheered to hear that he or she is not "stupid" or "thick", as they have often been called. They have a condition known as dyslexia which can be overcome with the right sort of teaching, they are told, news which starts them on the road to catching up and brings each to Sallys home.

A few months of regular visits and each is blossoming. Mastering their reading and spelling has given them a new confidence. David is happy to go to school these days. His speech has improved and hes learning to swim.

Sarah, too, is happier. She is no longer anxious about starting secondary school this term.

Word blindness

Dyslexia, often termed word blindness, takes two forms, dyseidetic dyslexia, in which the eye sees perfectly but the visual messages are scrambled en route to the brain, and a dysphonetic condition when sounds are perfectly received by the ear but become garbled. Some dyslexics have a combination of both forms together with short term memory loss.

Those with visual problems may reverse their letters, see whole words backwards and write in lines that go up in the middle an down at the ends.

"Dyslexia covers a wide range of things and to different degrees, including clumsiness, poor co-ordination and short term memory, but dyslexics may not have all these problems," explains Sally. "They find it difficult to concentrate for long periods. They may quickly forget what they have just been told to do and are often accused of being difficult."

She has first hand experience of the situation. Her youngest son has to cope with dyslexia and it was through helping him that she is now able to help others. Instead of taking her son to Exeter twice a week for help, she bought a franchise from Starcross Educational Research Group, took a short training course and set up Launceston Indirect Learning Centre.

Trapped

She knows how easy it is for farmers sons to get trapped into a non-reading and writing lifestyle. While they cannot cope with their class work they can shut that part of their lives away with the satisfaction of knowing that they can do a good job at home on the farm and that is where they will make their life. They dont feel a need to do well at school. It may mean they are happier than David and Sarah but in todays world thats not enough.

Sally explains that the system she uses is a learning process not a teaching one. Children work on their own, learning for themselves and remember what they have learnt much more easily this way. It was devised by Jack Denner and it is his wifes steady, reassuring voice that the students hear as they work through the lessons.

Sally assesses each child when they join her and starts them on the program at the stage they have reached in the development of their reading and spelling skills. Some children may have been at school for as long as 18 months without grasping the alphabet and these begin with the expedited learning course, two hours a day for two weeks and learn to read and spell words a total of 200 words in that time.

All achieve touch typing skills through having colours put on their fingers to match colour coded keys.

They learn by seeing the word on the screen, hearing it over the audio system, saying it themselves and endorsing it through touch on the keyboard.

Repetition is the key to the system, with students concentrating on one word at a time. They key it in twice with help from the computer and the third time try it on their own. After they have correctly spelt it they read it back and it automatically slots into sequence further down the screen to be read again later as part of the sentence or story.

If they get it wrong it is immediately wiped from the screen so that they are not left absorbing an incorrect word. They try again and again and if they are really stuck the audio system tells them to ask for help – which is where Sally or her helper, former nurse Mary Cutler, come to their aid.

Children quickly learn to cope and enjoy the work, says Sally. That they are motivated is clear from the amount of work they do. At the time Farmlife called a 13-year- old girl was delighting in speeding through the programs, counting down to the end of the course.

"They have failed so much with books and paper, but this is completely different," says Sally. "Some people find it difficult even to hold a pencil correctly. Here all the things they fear have been removed."

Results are impressive. In seven months application one eight year old improved his spelling by 24 months and his reading by 29. In 11 months a 12-year-old increased both his spelling and reading abilities by 31 months and in eight months a nine-year-old improved his spelling by 19 months and his reading by 10.

Most indirect learning centres are set up by parents like Sally. Franchisees buy their own hardware but rent the program from the Starcross Educational Research Group, paying fees in accordance with the amount that it is used.

It is Sallys view that the system could be used in schools too. "If they put more money into six and seven year olds the less money they would need to spend on secondary schooling for special needs children," she says. "At the moment the system is only available for parents who can afford to pay for it."

Inquiries: 01566-773962.

Sally Rowland:Two computers in the old dairy help children to catch up.

The type face and colouring on the screen is adjusted to suit the user.

Wrong

spellings disappear from the

screen quickly before they can be remembered.

Children learn keyboard skills by matching colour marked fingers to keys. Right: Children work at their own pace with Mary Cutler (left) and Sally on hand to help when asked.

Children quickly learn to use the indirect learning system and take pleasure in counting down to the end of

the course.