Last week, the students in our house went back to school and university, but only one of my groups of students had started back after the Easter break. This meant that I had the luxury of time to attend the British Dyslexia Association’s 11th International Conference. The conference took place over three days, and each featured unmissable speakers – how to choose? In the end, it didn’t come down to choosing an exact combination of keynote speakers, research presentations and workshops, but to my availability, as I ended up unexpectedly working on the other days.
The conference this year was held in Telford. Geographically, I knew where this was, thanks to many car journeys between Welsh roots and an early childhood home in the north of England. Regular rail and driving routes weave through the towns and countryside of the Welsh Marches. Family connections to the railways and a father who has always shared his love of all things engineering meant that I had some idea of the area’s history, but I was unprepared for the onslaught of brown signs pointing out sites of historical significance and other tourist attractions. This part of Shropshire merits more careful exploration…
The exhibition space was much as expected, with suppliers of assistive tech software and hardware, education resources, publishers, assessment materials, the usual suspects. The pace was calmer than I’ve experienced at the TES SEN Show or the National Education Show, less crowded than the Welsh Autism Show. It most closely resembled last year’s Autism Show.
Friday morning’s keynote was from Professor Manuel Casanova, who talked about his research into the relative strengths of the neurodivergent brain: dyslexia can promote puzzle solving skills, autism promotes location and isolation of details. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering what this model means for dyslexic, autistic individuals…
I was interested to hear Dr Dominic Griffiths present the findings of a project with Dr Kathleen Kelly of Manchester Metropolitan University and the BDA’s own Liz Horobin. The project is an ambitious programme of cascaded training to teachers at primary and secondary school, and to FE colleges, to help teachers to identify learner’s neurodiversity-related learning differences and enable support during day-to-day academic situations.
I have consulted the project’s resources since they became available in 2016, and often use the checklists and recommend the training, so it was heartening to hear participant teachers feedback that easily implemented changes such as considering the font, layout and colour of presentation and handouts, minimising copying, simplifying instructions and the provision of prompts had immediate, positive impact on students.
One Year 7 child who had been in detention most days since beginning secondary school had found the adjustments made for him made an enormous impact. He had not been given a detention following the project’s start and was making good progress in lessons. His words: “It has changed my life.” If your school has not accessed the training available via this project led by the BDA in partnership with the Dyspraxia Foundation, Dyslexia Action , Helen Arkell, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Patoss, please urge staff to check it out here.
Next for me was a workshop on the impact of dyscalculia and dyslexia on maths anxiety, led by Clare Trott and Hilary Maddocks. I have written about my own experience in this area, and do what I can to support my students and share ideas with fellow teachers. It was interesting to hear how others working in higher education support their students who find themselves overwhelmed by the unexpected mathematical content of their degree courses. Here’s their slide illustrating the effects of maths anxiety (I feel nauseous just reading it)
During the lunch break, there was time to view an impressive selection of posters related to international research, which was fascinating. It was great to have the opportunity to speak with the researchers, too.
The afternoon began with a riveting keynote from Professor Simon Fisher: A genomic perspective on speech, language and reading. I was enthralled.
That was followed by an excellent workshop from Dr Lindsay Peer CBE and Pauline Grant, who explained the difficulties faced by children with dyslexia and hearing loss or auditory processing disorder. Those in mainstream settings can miss out on simple support that might make all the difference. Even with support, a specialist teacher for the deaf may not understand dyslexia-related needs, and a dyslexia specialist may not recognise hearing-related difficulties. Dyslexia assessment for such children requires careful selection and administration of tests, and reporting must acknowledge the potential impact of hearing loss. I look forward to the publication of their handbook with support ideas for parents and practitioners to help children overcome these barriers to reading.
My final workshop of the day was with Olive Hickmott. We heard how she has been turning dyslexic and other neuro-divergent strengths into skills to improve literacy and numeracy. Her method of employing yoga-style grounding techniques with mental imagery is likely to be one that many SpLD specialists employ almost unthinkingly in their multi-sensory teaching. (Or maybe that’s just me!)
The last keynote of the day was by Professor Linnea Ehri, who explained the role of orthographic mapping in sight word acquisition, spelling and vocabulary. This was very close to home, as anyone who has attended one of my lectures or webinars, or read my blogs on literacy development and support will realise.
I was sorry not to get the chance to speak with the Copdpast’s Sean Douglas in the flesh – whenever I saw him he was deep in discussion or facing a camera – but I was really pleased to finally meet Katrina Cochrane face to face!
It was a busy day, but well worth the journey!