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Re-learning the reading process

An alternative approach to dyslexia focuses on the individual profiles of children with learning difficulties, former teacher Martin Murphy tells Pádraig O’Morain.

Teaching honours maths and physics to children who were in danger of failing English put Martin Murphy on the path developing a system which is producing remarkable results for people with dyslexia.
Now the former Clonkeen College, Dublin, teacher has written about the subject in his book Dyslexia, An Explanation (Flyleaf Press).
At first, as he searched for an explanation as to why children who were excellent at maths, physics and chemistry should be poor at English, “my arrogant assumption was that they had bad teachers,” he says.
But when he tried to work with these children on English, he concluded that the nub of the matter was not that there was anything wrong with their teachers but that these children learned differently from others. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that all children have different ways of learning. He then put into practice an approach summed up in the following quote, attributed to American philosopher and educator John Dewey, and which he has adopted as his mission statement; “An artful teacher sees a child’s difficulty in learning to read not as a defect of a child, but as a defect of his own instruction.”
He studied the topic in the United States, Australia and other countries. Now he sees children with their parents and each child is screened for 41 different thinking skills. “No two children think in the same way, he says. We look at 41 different learning profiles. Imagine the number of cocktails you could make with 41 different bottles of spirits”.
Parents and children go away with a 28-day programme based on these learning profiles. Usually only one visit is required.

Features of the programme include putting information, including spellings, directly into the child’s long-term memory by encouraging the child to make a mental video of what he or she is reading.
This process also involves the children spelling words or doing mathematical tables backwards as well as forwards.

Does it work?

“I have seen it work with some almost miraculously,” says Christina Finch, a resource teacher at the Educate Together school in Lucan, Dublin. “Others are still having a bit of a struggle but are improved. I have never seen a child stay exactly the same or get worse.”

Murphy’s success she believes is based on his insistence that each child needs his or her own individual learning programme.
“You can’t say every child with dyslexia will learn this way or that way,” she says.
“What may work with one child will not work with another. The challenge is to find methods and techniques for each child that comes along.
“If it’s not working you have to look for a different way of doing it.”

Quite apart from bright children with dyslexia, she has seen children with borderline intellectual disabilities benefit from his method.
“The biggest benefit from a child’s point of view is self esteem. A lot of them by the time they get to me, are shattered.
“They have figured out they are not doing as well as everybody else. They get used to not listening to what the teachers say because they don’t understand it.
Doing Martin Murphy’s programme brings “a burst in self-esteem and confidence.”
That is vital, she says, because “half of my job is to get them to believe in themselves.
“Their confidence and self esteem represents such a high percentage of their ability to learn.”
“He used to dread going to school”

We would normally have dreadful summer holidays worrying about going back to school, “ says Teresa Kavanagh. “he would look at the new books, say I’ll never handle that and dump them on the floor.”

Teresa’s nine-year-old son was frustrated and demoralised by his dyslexia. Despite the best efforts of his teachers at his Co Dublin school, “we had him going to bed at night roaring crying, saying he should be in senior infants, he was too dumb for his class,” she recalls.

This summer, everything is different. Her son enjoys reading and looks forward to returning to school. What made the difference was visiting Martin Murphy last October and working through the 28-day parent/child programme he devised.

“We were nearly a full day with him,” she says. “He taught us his method of visual reading and remembering words by remembering visually rather than phonetically. He had him spelling huge words.”
Teresa and her husband were still sceptical, though. They wondered if there was some trick to it all and if the benefit would disappear as soon as they got home. But they began to work the programme and the results came through. A child who had been unable to spell a word longer than three letters was suddenly getting marks of 80 to 100 per cent in his school spelling tests.

It was the same story with his reading. His reading age has gone from about zero to seven since he saw Murphy, says his mother, and she looks forward to what another year will bring.
“We are definitely happy with the progress he has made.” Says Teresa.
“His self-esteem is huge.”

When Irene Stevenson rang up Martin Murphy about her daughter Daisy’s difficulty with reading he told her it sounded as thought Irene herself had it too, only worse.
It turned out that what Irene, over the years had jokingly called her “dyslexia problem” – words swimming on the page or a sudden inability to spell a simple word – was the real thing.

Irene’s first inkling that her very bright daughter might have a problem with reading occurred when Daisy told her she has been brought with some other students to do a test in one of the classrooms in the secondary school.
When Irene inquired she was told her daughter’s entrance exam had revealed a slight problem and the test was to check on progress
She had improved.
Nevertheless, Irene was concerned and when a friend told her about Murphy she made an appointment for them both to see him.
Now Irene is helping her daughter to work through the 28-day programme devised by Murphy but she is benefiting herself as well.
“The words aren’t jumping,” she says. As a reader, Irene “heard” what she was reading.
Using Murphy’s method, she visualises what she is reading, as a video with colour and sound. She is now enjoying her reading far more than before.
In the past, when Daisy read, she visualised what she was seeing in black and white pictures but now she, too, uses the video technique.
Daisy has gone from having little or no interest in reading – Irene has stocked the local library with books daisy wouldn’t read over the years, she says – to sitting down and reading.