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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.

Defining dyslexia

Defining dyslexia is a complex and contested process and there are no agreed definitions internationally. The Ministry of Education has drafted this definition as a starting point for our work and, as such, it is as a working definition with further refinement expected.

Working definition

Dyslexia is a spectrum of specific learning difficulties and is evident when accurate and/or fluent reading and writing skills, particularly phonological awareness, develop incompletely or with great difficulty. This may include difficulties with one or more of reading, writing, spelling, numeracy, or musical notation. These difficulties are persistent despite access to learning opportunities that are effective and appropriate for most other children.

People with dyslexia can be found across the achievement spectrum and sometimes have a number of associated secondary characteristics which may also need to be addressed, such as difficulties with auditory and/or visual perception; planning and organising; short-term memory; motor skills or social interaction.

People with dyslexia often develop compensatory strategies and these can disguise their difficulties. People with dyslexia can also develop compensatory strengths which can provide an opportunity to further advance their learning.

Early identification followed by a systematic and sustained process of highly individualised, skilled teaching primarily focused on written language, with specialist support, is critical to enable learners to participate in the full range of social, academic, and other learning opportunities across all areas of the curriculum.

Rationale

The Ministry drew on components of some existing definitions as identified in .

The Ministry wants a definition that provides a basis for action, that is, for teachers and other educationalists to identify, think about, and address dyslexia in the most constructive ways.

We also want:

  • an evidence-based definition appropriate for the New Zealand social and educational context
  • to avoid pathologising dyslexia or any suggestion that enables teachers to abdicate their responsibility.

Our thinking around each part of the definition is explained below:

  • Dyslexia is a spectrum of specific learning difficulties and is evident when accurate and/or fluent reading and writing skills, particularly phonological awareness, develop incompletely or with great difficulty. This may include difficulties with one or more of reading, writing, spelling, numeracy, or musical notation.

This provides a descriptive starting point that acknowledges dyslexia as a spectrum of specific difficulties and focuses on written language as the primary manifestation of dyslexia as seen in education. It does not define dyslexia by causal factors (which are currently debated in international research).

This draws on the British Psychological Society definition, the common features of definitions identified in the Ministry’s literature review, and on the definition from the British Dyslexia Association.

This part also broadens the scope of written language to include numeric and musical language as well as alphabetic text.

  • These difficulties are persistent despite access to learning opportunities that are effective and appropriate for most other children.

This part makes it clear that this is an ongoing problem, not a transitory or temporary issue, and that children do not respond as expected to teaching that works for most other children.

  • People with dyslexia can be found across the achievement spectrum and sometimes have a number of associated secondary characteristics which may also need to be addressed, such as difficulties with auditory and/or visual perception; planning and organising; short-term memory; motor skills or social interaction.

The first part reinforces the idea that dyslexia affects different children in different domains and has no relationship to intelligence. It provides some indicators of wider difficulties that teachers could look for to trigger further assessment of, and support for, a learner’s difficulties. This draws on the British Dyslexia Association and British Dyslexia Institute definitions.

  • People with dyslexia often develop compensatory strategies and these can disguise their difficulties. People with dyslexia can also develop compensatory strengths which can provide an opportunity to further advance their learning.

This part signals to teachers that children become good at ‘covering up’ difficulties or compensating through inappropriate strategies that do not serve them well in the longer term. It also acknowledges the positive ‘gift’ side of dyslexia and a strengths-based approach linked to personalising learning, rather than a deficit model.

  • Early identification followed by a systematic and sustained process of highly individualised, skilled teaching primarily focused on written language, with specialist support, is critical to enable learners to participate in the full range of social, academic, and other learning opportunities across all areas of the curriculum.

This part provides the action focus and sets expectations for addressing dyslexia, including an expectation of early identification (which is critical, see Tunmer & Greaney, 2007). It sets expectations of effective and deliberate teaching and assessment focusing on the specific needs of the individual, not using a ‘one size fits all’ approach (British Psychological Society, British Dyslexia Institute), and also legitimises the use of specialists where needed (British Dyslexia Institute).

Tunmer, William E. & Greaney, Keith T. (2007). Reading intervention research: An integrative framework. Draft paper awaiting publication, Massey University, New Zealand.

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