Monday, January 22, 2018

Dyslexia and assessment.

Here is a good video on the experience of dyslexia from the student perspective.

I'm often shocked by how poorly many teachers adapt assessments to deal with disabilities, such as dyslexia. I hosted a panel on "Dyslexia, dysgraphia and the writing experience" at a writer's conference in August, and the room was filled with parents openly weeping over how their dyslexic child had been treated in the school system. The parents were immensely relieved to see a panel of writers and editors talking about how they had managed to not just overcome/deal with their disability, but actually become successful readers, writers and editors in spite of what happened in their schooling.

I keep running into teachers who don't know what dyslexia is or how to deal with it, even though research suggests it affects about 15% of the population. They're always surprised when I tell them that the reason this child can't spell is that they are dyslexic or dysgraphic.

"I just thought they were being lazy,not making the effort to learn how to spell the word."

Well, "lazy" is better than "stupid", I suppose, which is how the peer group labels poor readers/spellers.

"Why are you making this child read out loud in front of their peers? What is the purpose of this public humiliation?" I will ask them.

"Well, you've got to read out loud. It's in the curriculum."

"Okay, but have them do that at recess or after class in private. Assessments are supposed to be confidential."

"Really? But this course objective says, 'to an audience'".

"Okay, but then give them the reading ahead of time so they can decipher it at home, learn it as a recitation if necessary, so they are able to be successful. Do not make them do a cold reading where so you set them up for a public failure."

"I don't know. That seems to be giving them an unfair advantage, somehow."

And so on, endlessly. No variation from the routine, the easy; no sense that accommodations are necessary to level the playing field. Often hints that the teacher secretly believes the child really is stupid, because how hard is it to read this very elementary book? Most troublesome are the teachers that, having assigned the child to the lowest reading group (which is of no help because they are still dyslexic and now surrounded by peers who act out with various forms of antisocial behavior because they are all being subjected to the daily humiliation of being forced to attempt reading aloud; and the reading material is so far below grade level as to kill anyone's motivation to read) keep them in that group for social studies ("well, that's mostly reading too, right?") and math and art ("Well, they might as well stay in the same group all day, right? It's just easier for everyone") even though the research is conclusive that streaming isn't useful for any student, and in the long run, not even a benefit to the teacher since it leads to more behavior and control issues.

And then there was the teacher with the fill-in-the-blank worksheet. Read the chapter, fill in the (apparently random--not even key words) blanks. When I questioned why she was making this dyslexic child read and fill in the blanks when the student (a) couldn't read and (b) couldn't write, she conceded that that might be a problem.

"I'll give the child the answer sheet. That way they won't have to read the text or spell the words."

But then, why make them do it at all? What was the possible purpose, the learning outcome, of laborously transferring random words from one sheet to another, one letter at a time? How is that an authentic assessment? How exactly did that teach this student the content or the spelling, when they couldn't actually read the sheet?

"But what do you want me to do? How can I teach the course if they don't fill in the worksheet?"

If a student teacher had said that to me, I would have failed them on the spot. Worksheets are your only teaching strategy? You're done now! But it wasn't a student I was dealing with, so okay, how to explain that they had confused means and goals. The worksheet is supposed to help students achieve a learning outcome--but somewhere along the line, completing the sheet had become the goal for this teacher, a meaningless daily productivity that the teacher could point to to say, "my students are working and learning". But of course they weren't learning at all.

Well,not the content, anyway. They were learning that they hated that teacher's subject, that school is inherently boring, that work is tedious. If the purpose of schooling is to condition graduates to the tedium of the adult workplace, conditioning them to tolerate a 9-5 routine of pointless, alienating labour, then yeah, this teacher was doing just fine. But I don't think that's why we chose to become teachers.

And don't get me started on some teachers' insistence on teaching cursive, when no adult under thirty ever uses cursive writing; and dysgraphic kids literally can't do it. It is exactly like demanding the kid in a wheelchair compete in the 100 meter race or fail phys. ed., but somehow, nothing deters these adults from pointlessly torturing and humiliating children with these learning disabilities.

Schools as we know them were built around reading and writing. I think that's still important, but I'm confused why audiobooks and instructional video and the rest are not also considered valid if they help nonreaders achieve learning objectives. Why pride of place to just that one medium of print? Why steamroller over the 15% of kids who can't read or write by insisting that that is the only way to complete assignments? It's assessment abuse.

Find other ways to find out what the student knows and can do. That is the point of any assessment. If a student cannot do the default assignment, find some other way to assess their knowledge and skills. The assessment is the means to the goal, not the goal. It's that simple.

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