Why many intelligent children should suffer seeming ‘word blindness’ has baffled and frustrated parents and professionals in many fields throughout this century. Is there, at last, some light at the end of the tunnel? HILARY BASSETT investigates.
When, in the Fifties, the term ‘dyslexic’ came to be widely used to describe normal children who had learning difficulties akin to those who had suffered brain damage, it was seized on with relief by parents and teachers alike. The idea that there was a physical syndrome called dyslexia, and that it was only a matter of time before its cause could be isolated and a fix-it drug developed, seemed soothingly feasible.
The Nineties have brought a re-think.
Multitudes of specialists have produced a sea of research to try to substantiate the syndrome theory — and have failed. No two children with learning difficulties seem the same. To quote a review of all the research in the journal Educational Psychology in Practice (1991), ‘a highly specific condition called dyslexia cannot be defined in any agreed way … children with such a condition cannot be clearly identified’. It suggests that dyslexia is simply a synonym for a range of difficulties with learning, and that the search for a physiological cause is misdirected.
This, however, is mere semantics to those otherwise-normal, often high-IQ children who can’t seem to progress, sometimes after years of remedial teaching. When mocked by their peers, and dubbed lazy, stupid or careless by exasperated teachers or parents, their self-esteem is often bludgeoned out of existence. They are unable to read without stumbling, their spelling is atrocious, and they are often innumerate too.
Even when dyslexia is diagnosed, help may be hard to find. With at least 15 per cent of white children alone affected, special schools are unable to cope (Tafelberg School in the Cape, for instance, has a waiting list of 250). This in a country which faces such massive challenges in the area of black education that ‘frills’ such as special schools for the learning disabled are unlikely to receive more funding, if indeed they can be maintained at their present level.
A plethora of theories has arisen as to the cause. In researching this feature, I have been assured of at least 10 ‘definite’ reasons for inability to learn, ranging from brain dysfunction through uncoordinated left/right hemispheres, overconcentration of trace elements, imbalance of the inner ear and so on.
Just as I, too, was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the seeming insuperability of it all, I discovered a new system for teaching dyslexics in the home, based on a theory which, unlike any other, produces spectacular results. Seminars up and down the country have led sceptical parents to test the system — known as Audiblox — with astonishing success. Reports abound of improvements in reading ability within a few months of concentrated effort.
The man behind the breakthrough is Dr Jan Strydom (51) of the Centre for Dyslexia in Pretoria. His theory is the result of years of study of the known facts about the way we learn. He has discovered nothing new, but his analysis has led him to a dynamically different view of the true nature of dyslexia.
‘My work began many years ago when I prepared my own children for school. I then did a master’s degree in pedagogics and it struck me that what parents needed to help prepare their children in the intellectual aspects of school was a kit to use in the home.
‘After thorough testing I produced one, and it worked very well. It also produced fantastic results when used with so-called learning-disabled children. That’s when I began to look into this field, eventually to produce a kit designed to help dyslexic children.
‘I question, as others have, why we assume that if a child is not learning properly, there is something wrong with her brain.
‘I focus on two basic characteristics: that no human being can do anything he hasn’t learnt to do, and that the learning process is a stratified process — it proceeds one step at a time. If you miss out on one of the steps, you can’t simply go on to the next and hope you’ll understand that. You never will, until you retrace your steps and master what you’ve missed.
‘A child who hasn’t learnt to count will never be able to add or subtract — it’s as simple as that. The real consequences of moving on before a step has been fully grasped have never been realised. And just as some adults find learning to drive extremely difficult while others sail through their driving tests, so do children differ. They don’t all learn the same thing at the same time and in the same way. Boys are particularly affected because certain fine motor skills are often not developed at the crucial pre-school stage. Girls’ activities, such as needlework, tend to take care of this.’
In a nutshell, Jan Strydom’s message is, ‘There’s no such a thing as learning disability — all there is is inability.’
How does Audiblox work?
‘There is no magic in this. It is a scientific method that works only with perseverance. Where there have been difficulties in using my system they have invariably been caused by one of two things. One, the child has severe emotional problems, in which case I go into the matter and can often help the parents so that afterwards it does work. Or two, the parents are in too much of a hurry and are not applying the process correctly. It takes patience.’
Early criticisms included the charge that the course was too complicated to use. Dr Strydom admits that his research over the past five years has enabled him to improve it a lot, especially by providing a video showing precisely how to work with the material.
‘No testing of the child is required beforehand. The parent or teacher receives a kit comprising 30 tapes, books, a video and various other materials. By working steadily through them, dramatic improvements are usually seen within a few months. I have seen as much as 10 years made up in 11 months.’
It al seems perfectly logical, especially when you hear it in the unemotional, patient voice of Dr Strydom himself. Yet I thought of all the anguish suffered by children who have been, and are, stigmatised, and I wondered, why isn’t everyone cheering from the rooftops now that a breakthrough has been found? Why isn’t every school in the country making use of Dr Strydom’s kit?
‘It takes time to change ideas,’ says Dr Strydom philosophically. ‘In 50 years’ time my ideas will be commonplace. But many schools are already introducing the method with great success — one in Johannesburg for instance, used to require help from the educational department with up to 15 per cent of its pupils, but after using Audiblox, the teachers were able to deal with all but one or two in need of individual counselling.’
Headmaster Jan Venter, now retired, adds, ‘We also used it as a tonic to help all pupils improve their learning skills.’
Roger Budler, head of Dale Junior School in King William’s Town, is so enthusiastic he asked Dr Strydom to give a special seminar to his teachers so that all the boy’s could be exposed to it. ‘We’ve seen the benefits — they’re remarkable,’ he says simply.
The last word goes to Dr Strydom’s assistant.
‘When I studied psychology, we were told that psychologists never got thanked. But working here at the Dyslexic Centre, people ring you every day and say, “Thank you … your system works.”’