Friday December 2, 2011
ET CETERA By SHARON LING
LAST week I heard a heartwarming story about a girl named Stella who overcame a learning difficulty and gained self-confidence as a result.
Through her early school years, Stella believed she was stupid as she could not learn to read and write, no matter how hard she tried. By the time she was in Form Two, she was often at the bottom of the class, angry, frustrated and with no hope for the future.
But then she met Dr Ong Puay Hoon, the president of the Dyslexia Assocation of Sarawak, who assessed her and brought her to Klinik Jawa in Kuching where she was diagnosed with dyslexia.
With the intervention of Dr Ong and the association, Stella was able to attend a school with a special dyslexia programme and gradually learned to read and write.
She sat for her PMR exam two years after entering Form Three and managed to pass, although she did not score any As. Now she is studying in a vocational school in Matang and has bright hopes for her future.
“Before she was diagnosed with dyslexia, she had no self-esteem. She did not think she was pretty and would walk with her head down. Now she is full of confidence, standing tall and even putting on make-up,” Dr Ong said.
Dr Ong was relating the story to show that children with dyslexia can be taught to read and write with the right help and intervention.
According to her, dyslexia is not a disease or intellectual disability, nor are dyslexics slow learners.
“Dyslexia is a learning difficulty. People with dyslexia find it difficult to read and write. Normally we use a specialised part of the brain for reading, which is the left brain.
“But dyslexics use the right brain instead. It’s like using the wrong tool for reading and does not bring about the desired outcome or result. So dyslexics end up getting angry or frustrated because they work so hard to try to read but make so little progress.”
However, this can be overcome. At the association’s resource centre at Jalan Maxwell, Kuching, children with dyslexia can undergo a three-month intervention programme which is phonics-based.
“We found that students progress very well using this programme,” Dr Ong said, adding that once dyslexic children overcome their difficulty, they can actually become better readers than non-dyslexic children.
“They just need help in decoding the letters. Our role is to tell parents and teachers that children with dyslexia are normal and can be very intelligent.”
Stella’s story also highlights the lack of expertise in the school system to accurately identify and diagnose students with dyslexia.
For every Stella who receives help and succeeds in overcoming her difficulty, how many more students go undiagnosed, particularly in rural areas?
The association, with the help of the Health, Education and Welfare Departments, carries out assessment of children at risk of dyslexia and sends them to Klinik Jawa for clinical diagnosis, besides offering intervention and tuition programmes for dyslexic children.
But it cannot be expected to spearhead these efforts on its own.
The Education Ministry needs to step in to ensure that there are sufficient trained teachers and departmental staff who can assess or diagnose children with dyslexia in schools.
As the association points out, one of the items on its wishlist is to have educational psychologists in every district-level education office to diagnose students with dyslexia.
This means assessment and diagnoses will be done at the local level, including rural areas, Dr Ong said.
She said the association also wants all teachers to be trained in at least one module on learning difficulties.
“This should not just be for teachers trained in special education. We hope the Education Ministry can come up with a compulsory module on learning difficulties in all teacher training institutes.”
In addition, the association called for more dyslexia programmes to be opened in primary and secondary schools in the state.
The Education Ministry should pay serious attention to the association’s wishlist and find ways to implement its requests.
By doing so, children with dyslexia would be able to receive the right diagnosis and intervention. Then they would not miss out on their education but go on to complete their studies and fulfill their ambitions like any other student.