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A place where no one fails

Thursday, February 20, 2014
Against the odds —Part 2
Albert Einstein, the most influential physicist of the 20th century was known to be dyslexic.

In Alta, we evaluate students’ progress not by how much of a task they cannot do, but by how much help they needed to complete the task. 


The small student-tutor ratio makes it possible to get everyone to the same place, but only when they can get there fairly independently are they ready for the next level. Alta has no tests, therefore no one fails. Alta students do not need more scar tissue. 


The tutor is one arm of support; just as important is support from other students. Alta fosters a co-operative rather than competitive classroom, with respect for all being enshrined as the number one rule of the Alta classroom. Students work in pairs to fill out their workbook and to practise reading, taking turns to read a paragraph, with tutors walking around to help when neither knows. Creating the right learning environment is essential, but will only lead to literacy if your teaching approach develops the skills of reading and writing.


Last week, Reading, It’s Life looked at the fear that students experience after repeated “failures” learning to read. This week we look at Hurdle 2: Aptitude in areas other than literacy


The greatest myth about literacy is that it is easy—perhaps because we see children reading and writing. Reading and writing are skills and, as for all skills, the wiring of our brain determines our level of ease. The dyslexic brain has an “organising disability which impairs hand skills, short term memory and perception so inhibiting the development of reading, writing and spelling, and sometimes numeracy.” (Dr H Chasty, Director Dyslexia Institute UK) 


The challenges the dyslexic faces were brought home to me as I sat reading with David, one of my early students. He read the first line and glanced at me, no doubt saw a confused expression, and blithely said, “Oh, you want it the other way.” He began this time to read left to right. Imagine having to work out where to start every time you face print. 


This ability to see things from both sides produces great designers, architects and techies, but really messes up spelling which requires letters to be in a specific sequence. The dyslexic can write ‘the’ and ‘teh’, ‘ti’ and ‘it’ in the same piece of writing and not perceive any difference between them. They produce wonderfully inventive spelling, like ‘onet’ which uses a good strategy, taking a word you know to spell one you don’t know. The problem is that the word ‘one’ is irregular with a final silent ‘e’ so you can’t use ‘one’ to spell ‘want’. The dyslexic brain needs to be taught this. 


During an exercise to put words into alphabetical order, I remember Linton saying to me, “Paula, I know we did this a lot, but what really I supposed to be doing?” To most of us, the alphabet comes in a fixed sequence which needs little explanation—not so for the dyslexic. Linton needed detailed instruction for anything in sequence. With this, he went on to pass School Leaving English with distinction. 


So if you found reading, writing and spelling difficult as a child, these will not be any easier to grasp with age, unless a different method is used. 


Next week in Reading, It’s Life, I’ll explain more about how the training method used to teach dyslexics and other methods internationally became part of the Alta Programme.


Against the Odds by Paula Lucie-Smith was first published in 20 Years of Alta magazine, 2012.


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