Dyslexic Children in Jamaica Need More Support: Guest Blog Post by Wayne Campbell

I am happy to introduce this guest blog post by young educator (and blogger) Wayne Campbell. Wayne and I recently obtained Certificates of Merit for our blogs at the Press Association of Jamaica annual awards. Here is a thoughtful piece about an educational issue that is often overlooked in Jamaica. And I wonder why phonics is not often taught in schools nowadays? I encourage you to follow Wayne’s blog at http://www.wayaine.blogspot.com (I wish he would switch to WordPress – I will try to persuade him!) 

All children can learn, all children must learn. Taken at face value this is true. However, upon closer examination those who know better are very much aware that there are many learning challenges that hinder children from learning. Jamaica’s education system is faced with many challenges but perhaps the most prevalent barrier to education is dyslexia. According to Dr. Susan Anderson, a special education expert, dyslexia is the most common learning disability in Jamaica.  Dyslexia in many instances is genetic and runs in the family.

Dyslexia affects up to 17 per cent of a given population. Despite average to above average intelligence, children with dyslexia have difficulty learning to “decode,” or read words by associating sounds and letters or letter combinations. Students usually have difficulty recognizing common “sight words,” or frequently occurring words that most readers recognize instantly. Examples of sight words are “the” and “and.” Children with dyslexia also have difficulty learning how to spell, sometimes referred to as “encoding.”

Recent research suggests that there are two main features of dyslexia. First of all, people with dyslexia have weak phonemic awareness. This means that they have difficulty hearing the fine distinctions among individual sounds, or phonemes, of the language. Disturbingly, phonics is no longer taught in many of our educational institutions which clearly compound the issue at hand. Dyslexic students also have difficulty rhyming and breaking words down into individual sounds. Phonemic awareness relates directly to learning to decode and to spell words. In addition, it takes longer for children with dyslexia to “process” phonemic information, or to make connections between sounds and letters or letter combinations.

Alarmingly, not much data is available in Jamaica regarding the percentage of students with dyslexia. In fact I cannot think of any support group for students and parents who are dealing with this problem. Apart from those teachers who specialize in Special Education the vast majority of our teachers are not adequately exposed in order to diagnose students who display symptoms of dyslexia, such as the inability to recognize letters, difficulty with rhyming, difficulty listing words that begin with the same sound. Many dyslexic students have trouble learning to recognize words, have difficulty learning to decode unknown words, read slowly and/or in a word-by-word manner, are reluctant to read, and write far less than other children.

According to the Dyslexia Association website of Trinidad and Tobago, dyslexia is defined as a congenital organizing disability which impairs hand skills, short term memory, and perception, so inhibiting the development of a child’s literary skills – particularly reading, writing and spelling, and sometimes numeracy. In its effects, dyslexia can range from slight reading or spelling difficulties to complete illiteracy. Other symptoms of dyslexia include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading which can impede vocabulary development.

Interestingly, both sexes are affected by dyslexia at equal rates; however, boys are more likely to act out as a result of having a reading difficulty and are therefore more likely to be diagnosed early. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to try to “hide” their difficulty, becoming quiet and reserved. Many of our students from as early as the primary level display severe behavioral disorders, stemming from their frustration levels and their inability to cope at the required educational pace due to poor reading and comprehension skills.  In many instances our schools are not equipped and resourced to adequately deal with such students. As a result teachers become frustrated and the use of corporal punishment is sometimes applied in order to correct what is oftentimes confused with behavioural disorder. It is not uncommon for these students to be labeled as ‘bad’, since dyslexia is oftentimes confused with behavioural disorders.

The time to intervene is now so as to reduce and or prevent the number of students with are bullied, teased and who face much discrimination and ridicule from both peers and adults due to dyslexia.

The way forward to address the issue of dyslexia includes Scaffolding. Scaffolding is one such strategy that can be used to help black males become engaged with content in their texts (Palincsar & Schutz, 2011). Scaffolding techniques may include, for example, direct instruction (e.g., my turn-your turn model), making connections to students’ prior knowledge, and teaching vocabulary by using visual aids (i.e., graphic organizer). Teachers’ learning from students is another very useful instructional strategy. By asking specific content questions, teachers can encourage students with dyslexia to participate in meaningful conversations that stimulate learning and their motivation (Miller & Faircloth, 2009). Another effective strategy is think-alouds. This strategy requires students to extract, construct and think about the content, which facilitates their knowledge. Think-alouds tap a metacognitive process where students monitor their reading before, during, and after reading (Baker & Beall, 2009). This instructional strategy can provide valuable insight and information about what cognitive strategies students are using to comprehend text. The foundational framework for think-alouds is the constructivist idea of gaining knowledge.

The Ministry of Education should consider granting scholarships to teachers to pursue studies in Special Education so that more students who are affected by dyslexia can be diagnosed. Poverty plays a significant role in the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia. Students from the upper class who are dyslexic will most likely be diagnosed at an early stage and treated thus their learning will be slowed significantly. Conversely, students from the lower socio-economic background will take a lower time to be diagnosed thus jeopardizing their learning process.

We need to pay urgently attention to our students, especially our boys, many of whom continue to under-perform at all levels of the education system.   With early intervention and a structured programme in place dyslexic students can live rewarding lives. All children can learn, however, some children require more support and scaffolding.

Wayne Campbell, M.Sc., is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. waykam@yahoo.com and

Twitter @WayneCamo





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