Alice Frendo talks about her life at school with dyslexia and how it helped her to develop her own London based private practice as a Dyslexia Specialist helping pupils to thrive at school.
Why share my story?
The first reason is because I still see that people are surprised that you can have a degree/ be a teacher/ assess for dyslexia…and be dyslexic. People still say ‘I wouldn’t have known', like there ought to be some physical manifestation of my mental difference. These people are parents and teachers, people who matter greatly in the lives of children with dyslexia.
The best story I know about this is a friend of mine who is a clinical psychologist and is dyslexic. She was organising a conference for other clinical psychologists and was looking over the venue before the big day. The venue manager explained that she should point out the fire exits in case people had special needs or were dyslexic. My friend and I cracked up over the idea that the dyslexics in the room might not recognise the fire escape sign...the little man running from the flames.. and that would be the end of us all! But it does highlight a more serious point about awareness, understanding and expectations about dyslexia.
|People with dyslexia can't read signs! WRONG!|
The second reason is that people might be curious about why and how I ended up setting up DyslexicLogic. When I am contacted, especially by parents, often they know little about me. The internet can be very soulless. I think it is good to share a little of what we are about
I struggled at school from the offset. I remember distinctly my mum showing me flashcards and me having absolutely no idea that there was a link between the sounds of words and the wiggles on the card. I was bright enough; so given five ‘squiggles’ I could soon relate them to five words in an activity, but I was in no sense reading. And the associations broke down as soon as I moved to the next activity. I remember mum showing me how ‘bed’ made the shape of a bed, which in retrospect wasn’t great for teaching spelling-sound correspondences but did at least mean I could read one word for more than ten minutes.
Something happened that meant reading ‘clicked’ for me when I was about 6. I still don’t know what. It felt like I ‘figured out’ what the sentence probably was. My accuracy was poor but I could get the gist. I couldn’t read out loud well and tended to file proper nouns under ‘long name starting with A’ rather than reading them, meaning that I’m often surprised to learn the names of characters in my favorite books. I loved stories and big words and I think this really saved me. I read constantly and had a wide vocabulary. I came across as bookish (helped by thick round glasses) and so people assumed I was academic and were constantly amazed when I wasn’t.
Responses from teachers ranged from well meaning to plain nasty. One teacher who gave me hell when I was 8, called my mum in to tell her how lazy I was and showed my ‘horrible’ work to the class. I think she was convinced I acted stupid just to irritate her. After a particularly unproductive meeting my mother promised I never had to go to school again if I didn’t want to. And we burnt my school uniform together in one of the most glorious acts of my life (there followed some home-schooling, a Steiner school, a parent teacher co-operative, a girl’s secondary and then finally a return to mainstream education aged 14). At the other end of the spectrum was my wonderful headmistress at secondary school who told my mother I was ‘Oxbridge material’ and then was disappointed when I flunked exam after exam. Sadly neither was great for my ego.
By the time I was 9 successive teachers had suggested I was dyslexic and my parents had taken me to be informally assessed. The assessor said I had an adult reading age (the scale stopped at 17) and I was dyslexic. My spelling was particularly problematic. At that time dyscalculia didn’t really exist, so my inability to remember basic maths facts was just considered part of my dyslexia. I had some extra lessons on and off but continued to struggle with the basics.
I had some wonderful teachers who saw past my creative spelling and lack of times-tables knowledge. However, often they were just confused. I could complete the hard maths books but not the easy ones. I could read like an adult but my spelling was infant level. I could tell wonderful stories and write almost nothing. Emotionally I just felt like a let-down. People constantly expected me to do brilliantly and I never did. I didn’t do terribly, I was probably average, sometimes above average, but I was really frustrated.
I got though my GCSEs and did well, although not as well as predicted. By this time I was back in state education and getting no support because I was ‘above average’. It is one of the issues with mainstream schooling, where failure is the trigger for support, potential is completely ignored. I was anxious, overworked and aware that I had huge holes in my learning. I was asked to explain why I got about 2 out of 20 in my oral maths paper at GCSE. What had gone wrong? I was in the top math group. But nothing had gone wrong. I simply didn't know my times tables, I couldn't do basic arithmetic in my head. I was embarrassed about what I couldn't do, that I couldn't spell or add or remember dates...or my own phone-number.
I had had enough of school and left at 16. Small town life was too small, I did a heap of odd jobs, saved like crazy and went traveling.
I later returned to the UK, moved to Coventry, and did one year evening class A levels. I was motivated, paying for the classes myself and determined to make it worth it. I knew I wanted to go to University, and working as a waitress made me even more determined that I wouldn’t spent the rest of my life laying tables and hoovering.
The first year I missed an A grade in English Literature by a couple of points, so when I enrolled the next year I ticked the ‘disabled student’ box and listed myself as dyslexic. I had extra time in the A' level exam. Even better it was in a quiet room by myself. I find it incredibly difficult to filter out distractions. The silence was bliss.
Then the college asked for my proof of disability. I told them very nonchalantly that I didn’t have any, I’d just always been told I was dyslexic. The poor exams administrator turned a funny colour and rushed me off to have an assessment. Paid for by the college, which was amazing. The first question the assessor asked me was whether I had had difficulties learning to read. I told him I was an avid reader from a young age. He said he didn’t think I was dyslexic. My heart sank, if I wasn’t dyslexic maybe I really was just 'stupid'. He then did all the assessments and it came out as moderately to severely dyslexic. I was so relieved. I was finally formally diagnosed aged 21, and I had a spelling age of 11.5. My reading speed was slow, and my writing speed very slow. I was about to start University. The assessor gave me some completely liberating advice. He told me to learn to touch type and to basically give up on trying to spell better. I have handwritten very little since.
So by the time I went to Uni I had learnt to touch-type and had figured out how to use all the technology my ‘Access’ report had given me. I went to a ‘study skills support session’ that the university provided for dyslexic students. But the woman spoke slowly and softly and told me that every essay needed a beginning, middle and and end. The level of guidance was extremely basic and simply didn't recognise that dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty. I realised we were on different pages.
I survived Uni by taping every lecture, and then listening to it many times over while turning it into a mind-map. I used mnemonics to remember names for citations. I photocopied and highlighted all the articles we had to read. I never took notes. I typed my essays in exams. I worked phenomenally hard. I also became interested in dyslexia. Really interested. Interested in why it stopped some people in their tracks, but others succeeded academically all the same (compensated dyslexics), in how people adapted, in why dyslexic profiles could be so different. I wrote my dissertation on compensated dyslexics and residual underlying difficulties. And I mentored children with dyslexia at the local comprehensive, telling them all the things I wish someone had told me.
Life unfolded and I ended up teaching. It wasn’t what I intended, but I found I really enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed teaching children with additional needs. This is partly because I seriously empathise with sitting in the class and having no idea what is going on. And partly because I find the puzzle of how to support these children a real challenge, understanding what is going on for them at a cognitive and psychological level. There is something magical about watching a child learn, seeing those ‘ahha’ moments, and it is even more magical when you know they are hard fought for.
I soon specialised in SEN, working in SEN units, and then specialised in literacy development, and then in dyslexia specifically. I got my Master’s in Education once again focusing on dyslexia and literacy development and did all the courses and joined all the professional organisations which allow you to assess for dyslexia and be officially a ‘dyslexia specialist’. The more I taught these children the clearer it became that a completely different approach was needed. No amount of 'extra lessons' was going to get them there it if it was just the same stuff delivered again...slower. I studied literacy development, learning and memory and became particularly interested in how we encode what we learn and how we can improve the accessibility of what we teach.
I also began supporting and training other teachers and teaching assistants. I realised how difficult it is to understand what it is like to have additional learning needs if you have never experienced them yourself. The approach to teaching children with dyslexia needs to be fundamentally different to suit how they learn best. It was also clear that a lot of children weren’t getting the support they needed and that identification was happening way too late. Many children had struggled for years before getting support and had been really crushed by their failure. Dyslexic Logic, my fledgling company, was born out of a wish to change that.
I had it easy and I know it!
I’m very aware that compared to most children with dyslexia I had it very easy. I had parents who were really supportive, and teachers who were generally fine, plus a few gems thrown in for good measure. My father was dyslexic (although it wasn’t understood at the time), and I have cousins and a brother who are dyslexic. There was no stigma about being dyslexic in my family. I had a good education. I am one of the lucky few who have ‘compensated’ for their dyslexia, found ways around it and succeeded academically. I also believe that there can be advantages to being dyslexic and that life is about more than academic success.
For me dyslexia has been as much an emotional challenge as an academic difficulty. I see a big part of successful dyslexia support being about addressing these needs, making sure a child feels positive about themselves and their learning, sees their successes and not their failures. This is at least as important as ensuring they can reach their academic potential.
While there have been positive changes in awareness and understanding of dyslexia and literacy difficulties, I still regularly meet children and adults who have been hugely let down by the education system. It is clear there is still a lot of work left to be done.
Alice can be contacted by clicking here.