Dyslexia Programme Structure
The second step is a a week or two of one-to-one intensive programme. The duration of this work is defined by the pace of the student, as well as by the goals of the client.
The third step is follow-up work the student needs to do at home with the help of their chosen support-person. For dyslexia correction this takes roughly 50 hours.
The Davis Methods Outlined
By Rose Savinson, on the special needs team at Greenwich College, London.
Davis dyslexia correction – a different approach to working with people with dyslexia.
Over the last 11 years of working with dyslexic learners, I have become increasingly aware of the need for using a variety of strategies to suit their individual needs and learning styles.
As we well know, dyslexic learners find phonological processing very difficult and are often very puzzled when we ask them to identify particular sounds within a word. We know too that short-term memory may be a problem, so that they may often fully understand a concept (such as the old chestnut of ‘their’ and ‘there’, not to mention ‘they’re’), only to have forgotten it completely the next time they come across it.
Some years back, I attended a lecture by Ron Davis and became interested in his insights into the dyslexic thinking style and his approaches to working with learners.
A few years on, having attended a series of specialist courses and tried the methods with many learners, I am still enthusiastic. Many people will have come across Ron’s theories and methods and they are also described in the new publication and website, ‘A Framework for Understanding Dyslexia’ from the DCSF. In this article, I will focus on my experiences of working with learners using Davis techniques.
The principles of the approach stem from the premise that dyslexic difficulties are an intrinsic part of the dyslexic thinking style, which favours a visual or kinaesthetic, rather than a verbal style. Some thinkers may hear little or no ‘inner voice’, so that they may not make an automatic symbol/sound connection. Similarly, people may not punctuate by listening for pauses, as they are not hearing the words as they read:
“When I am told to put a comma when I hear a pause for breath, I just see a person standing there holding their breath.”
Confusion mounts up
The reading process itself may consist of conjuring up an image, or a sense, such as touch or smell, rather than hearing the sounds of the words or letters. Hence people may experience confusion most acutely when encountering words which do not readily conjure up an image, such as ‘the’, ‘and’ or ‘of’ – in fact all the ‘Dolch list’ words which make up the mortar between the bricks of our language. Davis calls these words ‘triggers’ as they trigger confusion.
“The words of the language, as they are spoken or written, play very little part in my process of thought”
(a dyslexic adult: Morgan/Klein, ‘The dyslexic adult in a non-dyslexic world’)
There may be other triggers, for example, individual letters or symbols, particular sounds or movements, for example when writing. When a puzzling letter is encountered, the person may try to make sense of it visually by turning it over in their mind, turning b to d to p to q. Often the trigger is connected to some deep-seated experience, such as buried memories of unhappy attempts to write at school. For this reason, the letters in a person’s name may act as triggers.
The culprit - Disorientation
People may have a low threshold for confusion, especially when dealing with areas which their thinking style does not readily accommodate. As they encounter triggers, their confusion may mount almost imperceptibly, like waves, until it finally manifests itself as a form of sensory disturbance, known as moments of ‘disorientation’ which throw the mind off-track.
The disturbance is often visual, causing those familiar features such as reading miscues, tracking difficulties or print instability. It may also be auditory (sounds may appear louder or quieter, nearer or further away) or affect balance and co-ordination (dizziness, poor balance, clumsiness).
Another effect can be the distortion of one’s sense of time (causing hyper- or hypo-activity or a sense of time speeding up or slowing down). To give a personal example, I have poor co-ordination and handwriting difficulties, especially with ‘up/down’ strokes such as ‘l’, which I often omit or stumble over. I was asked to slowly write a very large, lower case ‘l’ on a flipchart. As I came to the curve at the bottom of the letter, I experienced an acute sense of balance and motion sickness.
So how do we address these issues?
I believe the reason why these methods are so satisfying is that they work together collaboratively with the learner to discover and tackle the root causes of their own individual difficulties.
The methods are wide-ranging but will always contain containing two main elements:
A) using a mental focusing technique to overcome the effects of disorientation
B) detecting and tackling the learner’s own ‘triggers’
We begin with an in-depth interview where I describe how the programme works and the learner identifies their own strengths, difficulties and goals. The learner is actively encouraged from the outset to take some responsibility for their own learning; indeed, the programme can only succeed if the learner is motivated to want to address their difficulties.
Next follows an introduction to the mental focussing technique best suited to the learner.
The first, ‘orientation counselling’ is a visualisation process; the alternative, ‘alignment’, is more kinaesthetic, better suited to someone who can sense feelings more strongly than they can visualise.
The learner then does an activity which usually triggers confusion, for example, reading. The aim is to enable them to recognise signs of Disorientation and to practise using their focussing technique to get back on track. One learner said it was like having his own personal reset button! As they progress, learners practise using this technique to ensure really accurate visual and auditory perception, balance and co-ordination.
Learners ‘fine-tune’ their techniques by balancing on one leg and catching two soft balls together, using their focussing technique to steady themselves. This is an integral part of a session, often done at the beginning to ensure that the learner’s perception is at its most accurate.
With more accurate perception, learners can begin to address the sources of their confusion. With all Davis work, clay (soft, white plasticine) is used. The learner works on triggers by making them in clay and mastering them while using their focussing technique to ensure accurate perception.
Mastering the Alphabet
The first step for most learners is to make the alphabet. While many learners will profess to know the alphabet, they will often have learnt it by rote through the ‘alphabet song’ but may not be confident with every individual letter.
The process is not about teaching phonics, but about making sure that learners feel comfortable and confident with every letter name and shape by identifying and overcoming individual trigger letters.
Working together with the learner is like a voyage of discovery, as subconscious difficulties emerge which may cause surprise. For example, one learner, David, often made errors when reading or writing the letter ‘D’, both upper and lower case. He talked about his embarrassment when trying to write his name (his surname also had a ‘d’ in it), especially when under pressure, for example, in the bank queue. This triggered off a visual disturbance when encountering a ‘d’ in print or a jerky movement when writing.
Learners start by making a capital alphabet out of clay, using a printed alphabet as a guide. As learners make the letters, I begin to identify possible problems – difficulty making a letter, an omission, a letter made smaller than the rest. Once the alphabet is made and laid out in a line on the table, learners do a variety of simple exercises – touching and saying the letter names, pointing and naming a letter and so on, all designed to identify culprit trigger letters. The most revealing task is often when they look at and say the alphabet from Z to A. Even with it in front of them, a hesitation, omission or even a change of tone can indicate uncertainty or discomfort. We then explore the possible source of confusion – is it this letter or the previous one? Are they confusing different letters? What are the similarities and differences? Learners tackle problem letters by using alignment or orientation to perceive the letter shape accurately, say its name and explore all sources of possible confusion until they feel comfortable and confident.
We are moving away from rote learning towards a deeper level of real understanding. By using their focussing skills, learners may be perceiving these abstract symbols accurately for the first time. For example, David confused the letters /i/l/t (plus the issue of capital I? lower case l?). He could never read or spell words with ‘ility’ because the letters fused together in his mind. After this work, he was delighted to be able to see the individual letters clearly and distinctly.
The culmination of this activity is to be able to say the alphabet forwards and backwards without looking. Learners do this slowly and carefully, using their orientation/alignment to overcome moments of confusion and visualising or sensing their personal alphabet. This is a huge achievement, which makes learners feel justifiably proud of themselves. We carry on by using a similar process with lower case letters and punctuation symbols.
Mastering trigger words
After this, the real fun begins as we start to tackle trigger words. As we know, words have 3 parts – the meaning / concept, the sound and the written form. The concept will come foremost (for example, we could go to another country and understand what a house was without knowing the word for it or how it was spelt). However, for these small, seemingly meaningless words, the learner may see the word itself but have no mental picture to help understand the concept. Again using clay, the learner takes a definition and examples of the word from the dictionary. An example might be ‘here’ meaning ‘in this place’. We will discuss the definition and I will encourage the learner to generate further examples until the meaning is clear and they can picture an example to model (for instance, someone holding a pen : the pen is here/ in this place). Then the learner will then make the word itself. Using their orientation/alignment, the learner will be able to look clearly at the model and the word together, say its meaning and name and so master a previously puzzling word.
How are trigger words selected?
Davis has identified words that cause most people confusion. We might start with the ones which are easier to describe and model. I prefer to work from the learner’s experience, so I select words which they may stumble over when reading or use wrongly in writing. Sometimes tackling one word leads us down a long path of exploration. Recently, a learner had tackled ‘there’, linking it to ‘here’ and ‘where’. We then moved on to ‘their’. The dictionary defines ‘their’ as ‘belonging to them’. ‘Them’ is described as ‘the object form of ‘they’. This started off several weeks’ work, making models of grammar concepts (modelling ‘I made pasta’ to show subject, verb and object) and then working through all the subject and object pronouns and possessives (I/me/us/my/mine etc).
Improving reading comprehension
In addition to working on triggers, I use a series of reading techniques to increase reading fluency. The first two steps are designed to improve left-right sequencing and whole word recognition. This is not a phonics programme. Learners cover words and reveal them letter by letter, saying letter names rather than sounds. It is a shared process: I supply the unfamiliar words and the learner sweeps their finger along the words and repeats them. Next, learners are encouraged to read the text in phrases and make a mental picture of what they are reading as they go along. This last technique works really well for punctuation too, as learners can often visualise what they have written and see where a new picture begins (a full stop) or is divided into parts (a comma. This technique helped a learner, Julie, to change her punctuation when she wrote:‘I felt my heart, miss a beat’ and realised that the picture was completely wrong.
People often ask what is special about clay. I believe it is far more than a kinaesthetic tool. A model can be adapted until a concept is absolutely explicit. A learner modelled ‘me’ using the example: ‘My friends invited me to dinner’. However, he modelled himself inviting them. After discussion, he altered the model to make it clear that he, as the object, was on the receiving end of the invitation. It is the combination of discussing, modelling, and mastering the finished model with really accurate perception which makes this process so powerful and memorable.
Mastering maths concepts
Besides working on trigger words, clay also works very successfully in addressing other difficulties, for example, maths concepts. Underlying concepts which affect mathematical understanding, such as ‘change’, ‘order’ and ‘sequence’ can all be modelled. A whole series of exercises have been developed which explore basic maths concepts using balls of clay, for example for making times tables and working out place value. This takes the learner away from a sea of abstract number symbols so that they can explore maths concepts visually and kinaesthetically. In fact, any concept can be explored in clay. For example, learners with behavioural issues may tackle words such as ‘consequence’. I have even used clay with a music student, tackling the music stave, note values and time signatures.
Alongside orientation/alignment, I introduce two other mental tools. One is ‘release’, essentially a relaxation tool to enable the learner to easily release the tension caused by over-concentration. The other is known as ‘dial-setting’ and provides learners with a way of increasing or decreasing energy level. This simple, effective technique works especially well with learners who are hyper- or hypoactive.
How is a programme organised?
Many of the practitioners working in the UK and indeed, around the world, work privately and offer intensive 30-hour programmes, usually over a week. A huge amount can be achieved during that time and by the end, learners will be able to use their newly acquired skills independently. However, they will need to continue to work on triggers (at least 80 hours) and so at the end of the week, a colleague, friend or parent is briefed to continue help. Review sessions with the Davis practitioner will be offered as appropriate. In college, I have to see learners once a week for around an hour and a half. It is important to ensure continuity, so I will not offer a programme to a learner who is only in college for a short time. Sessions may need to be longer at the beginning, as learners are getting used to using the focussing techniques and doing initial alphabet work. It is very frustrating to be at an important breakthrough point only to realise that time’s up for the week. After the initial stages, sessions can be shortened to an hour or so. In Abingdon College, some learners receive a week’s programme with a Davis specialist and then receive follow-up in college.
Preventing learning difficulties
While I work with adults, many practitioners work with children. The techniques work equally well with all ages. Most work is done on a one-to-one basis. However, in America, a programme called Davis Learning Strategies has been operating successfully for several years, with whole classes of infant-aged children. Similar methods, with adaptations made for the age of the learners and the group setting, are used. A seven-year study of this programme showed that the methods worked well as a preventative measure as there were no special needs referrals among pupils who had been through the programme. Training in DLS strategies have just begun in the UK for Key Stage 1/2 teachers and may be of interest to those who are trying to create a truly dyslexia-friendly classroom.
So should people train in Davis methods?
While techniques are described in Davis’s two books, there is nothing like hands-on specialist-delivered training. Although I understood the principles, my training has given me a breadth of knowledge and understanding and the confidence to use the practical techniques.
For further information, the 2 books, ‘the Gift of Dyslexia’ and ‘The Gift of Learning’ provide a good starting point.
The Excellence Gateway website contains Framework for Dyslexia - information, case studies and some further weblinks.