About 20 per cent of the Nigerian population has dyslexia, which is a learning disorder. However, many Nigerians, know little or nothing about it. CHIKA MEFOR spoke with the Director of Dyslexia Nigeria, Dr Adrienne Tikolo about the disorder, why early detection is important and why teachers in Nigerian schools should be trained to handle children with Dyslexia.
How many Dyslexia cases are recorded in Nigeria?
There is no actual data. But the world data states that between 15 and 20 per cent of any population has dyslexia. We expect that in Nigeria, we have about 20 per cent of Nigerians with dyslexia which is about 36 million. That is both children and adult. Dyslexia is the most common form of learning difficulty.
How can it be detected?
Sometimes, you can notice something as the child is growing up.Generally, dyslexia is a specific learning disability that affects all the skills you need for reading, writing and spelling. In grade school for instance, once the child is struggling to read, besides having formal instruction for reading, that child might have dyslexia. However, even in pre-schools, there are things you can notice that might be a pointer to dyslexia. One might have delayed language development. A number of children, don’t speak very clearly when they are young. Their speech might be delayed. It is not always the case but it might be a pointer. Also, the child might find it difficult in rhyming words like nursery rhymes in school. Some of them, can’t tell their left from their right a lot. Sometimes, they have troubles in calling the names of things that they generally know. For example, you can show them a fork and they can tell you that it is a spoon. I know that some children experience this while growing up, but when it is consistent, it is a pointer to dyslexia. This is for children that might be from the age of three to four but by the time they start to learn the alphabet, you find them struggling with remembering the letters. Other times, you find them having difficulties with the sounds of the letters. They might have difficulties marrying the sound with the letters. Most children start up this way but outgrow it but when you have it consistently, then, it might point to dyslexia. As the child grows older, maybe early primary school to mid-primary school, they have challenges with sounding out new words. They have difficulties finding it hard to read and they probably cannot spell and they even mix up the orders of letters. Those are pointers. If the child is consistently not able to read, definitely, it might be dyslexia. But all these are the informal way of looking at it. The next thing to do is screening. There are specific people, professionals that do the screening like a psychologist or dyslexia expert. They can use the screening tool to screen a child and they are able to detect dyslexia type difficulties. From there, you can be able to do a full blown assessment and diagnose dyslexia.
Do you go to the hospital for this?
Dyslexia is not a medical problem. It is actually a learning difference. The child is learning in a different way to the usual, because they are using the right side of their brain to process language as against the left side that is generally used for language processing. What you have to do is to go to a dyslexia screening center like Dyslexia Nigeria and you can have a screening done and then, you have an educational psychologist or dyslexia expert who will then diagnose for you.
After the screening what is next?
I think the first thing is to be happy that you have known it is dyslexia. So many children have struggled through school, some have dropped out of school, because they don’t just know what is wrong because they were not able to read or write and spell. Now, once you know that it is dyslexia early, then you can be able to tackle it.. There are different strategic and intervention programmes that could be put in place like teaching teachers how to give accommodation in the classroom that will help the dyslexia child. It is not that dyslexia children cannot read, no, it is just that they find it difficult. When a child is consistently having difficulties to read, write and spell, it might be dyslexia. It can come with additional issues like short term memory, poor sequencing like in multiplication or reciting the alphabet. If a child is consistently having these challenges, inside the formal teaching, then you start suspecting dyslexia. Teachers really do have to be trained because a lot of teachers do not know what dyslexia is all about. Some haven’t heard about the word. This is an issue. If you are trained, once you begin to see the signs, you will recognise it. Usually, they term it that the child is being lazy or that he is not trying enough, or that he is not paying attention. Dyslexia doesn’t have to do with your level of intelligence. You find a child that is quite intelligent, he can talk to you, he can express himself but when it comes to writing, reading and spelling, then there is a problem. Many times, it is through that discrepancy that people begin to think that something is wrong. The child is sharp but his brain is processing language in a different way. It is like throwing someone that can speak only Yoruba to Russia and expect him to be able to read, everything just seems like a jargon. The teachers have to learn to teach them in a way that they will understand. Some have mild dyslexia, some have moderate to severe dyslexia. And for those that have severe dyslexia, it is like four per cent of the population and it is quite a number. But dyslexia is few difficulties in a sea of strength. They are very creative people. They are very good in music and art which the right side of the brain is made for. You will see such people dismantle your laptop and fix it back, and you will be wondering who taught them. It is not all negative. It comes with magnificent strength. But of course, it is in the school system you learn to read, write and spell, it can be difficult for dyslexics.
What do you think the government can do to help children with dyslexia?
Government can make law that all schools should do universal screening for children in their schools. That will give you the number of children that are already showing the tendency and you can pay attention to them. Government can also train teachers. They can organise free training for teachers because the more the teachers that know about dyslexia, the more children will be saved the agony of going through a system that doesn’t understand them. They also can support schools to ensure that they get necessary resources that they require. Also, we need to legislate that once the child has been diagnosed with dyslexia, they have to be given some accommodation. Sometimes, they need extra time in exams. Sometimes, they should be allowed to type their notes, rather than write them. Government can make that case for them. You can imagine, a child that has poor processing speeds; he knows the answer but it will take him longer time to write it down and most exams are timed. He ends up failing whereas he would have done well if he would have been given additional time. In abroad, they are given 25 per cent extra time, some even 100 per cent, depending on the degree of dyslexia. It is not a problem of intelligence. They understand what needs to be done, but putting it down at the time frame becomes a problem.
What advice do you have for schools?
Schools should ensure that they train their teachers, especially private schools so that they will be able to recognise the signs because early detection is the key. If you notice it early enough, we can tackle it and save the children from failing through crack of failure. Schools must also try to create a dyslexia friendly environment. There are things you do in an environment that makes it easier for a dyslexic to adapt. For example, the font size or type that is used. Some dyslectics have difficulties copying from the board because they have short term memory. By the time they look up to see what is on the board and look down to write it down, they must have forgotten the half of it. Schools can also use a lot more of visual materials, use multi-sensory method to teach, use audio visual; hearing and touching things. Schools should also give it a name, and that is dyslexia. Some schools have difficulty in saying that a child has dyslexia. Unless you call it what it is, they won’t be able to give it the intervention it requires because the teachers will still think that it is the child that is lazy.
What is Dyslexia Nigeria doing to help?
We are basically concerned with tackling dyslexia. In doing that, we train teachers. We have in-center training that people can come to. We also go to schools and do in-school training. We try to train teachers. We also do screening and assessment. We do word to word tuition. Sometimes, the child has elapsed so much that they require specialist intervention for children that require it. Then we try to do awareness campaign. We hope that schools will call us for training to train their teachers. We are also trying to organise free training for teachers in public schools. We are hoping to do that in October which is the Dyslexia Awareness month. The more support we get, the more we will be able to do more.
What are the Implications of not detecting dyslexia early?
The implication for the child, the family and the society is high. The child will fall into spiral of failure and low self-esteem. It will strike out the motivation to learn and society will pay for it. Some of them drop out. If you imagine that some of the best brains are dyslexic, it is the whole world that has a problem, not dyslexics because they make the whole world about reading and writing. Most of our best brains are going to be lost if we don’t do anything.