'He has found his voice': the benefits of early intervention for students with dyslexia

Riley Dougherty is back in the swing of things after his mother Christine Clancy's research prompted a dyslexia diagnosis.
Riley Dougherty is back in the swing of things after his mother Christine Clancy's research prompted a dyslexia diagnosis.  Photo: Justin McManus

Riley Dougherty was diagnosed with dyslexia in July. For his family, especially mum Christine Clancy, the news came as a relief.

Finally there was an explanation for why Riley, 9, was so frustrated with school. A reason behind his difficulty finding the right words, which was impacting on his wellbeing and engagement with classmates.

Mrs Clancy said signs were there from prep but for years they went without a diagnosis. By grade two, Riley still hadn't mastered the alphabet or numbers. His vocabulary was limited for his age and he looked scared every time a pen and paper was placed in front of him.

Until Riley Dougherty was diagnosed with dyslexia, his school experience was one of frustration.
Until Riley Dougherty was diagnosed with dyslexia, his school experience was one of frustration. Photo: Justin McManus

"I kept saying to the teachers that there's something going on, he's struggling," Mrs Clancy said. "People said 'he's a boy, let him develop' or perhaps that it was down to a delay in his inner-ear development."

By the start of grade three Riley's confidence at school was crumbling and Mrs Clancy began reading about dyslexia. It sounded so familiar. She returned to the school and was told there was nothing they could do.

"I felt completely on my own," she said.

After further research, she hired Kate Bertoncello, a Multisensory Structured Language tutor, who worked with Riley once a week. Accredited by the Australian Dyslexia Association, she also tested him and then recommended he be referred to the association for assessment.

The results confirmed Mrs Clancy's suspicions; Riley had dyslexia.

His ongoing weekly sessions use the MSL technique, a diagnostic teaching method which follows a systematic structure that is built on in each class. It worked.

"I cannot describe the different child I now have," Mrs Clancy said. "There are no angry outbursts anymore, he can talk about things and his social world has come along in leaps and bounds."

She says Riley is also sleeping better and is more engaged - he even picks up books and has a go at reading paragraphs.

"He has found his voice," she said.

Next month Riley will be one of 97 children to participate in what is believed to be Melbourne's first dyslexia camp, organised by Ms Bertoncello.

For four days students will participate in morning classes in small groups. Afternoon activities include billycart making classes, chess, yoga, robotic Lego building sessions, circus activities and on the final day, a disco and karaoke session.

Ms Bertoncello said she decided to organise the camp as a way of reassuring her eight-year-old son Darcy, who has dyslexia, that he wasn't alone.

It worked. Within days of posting camp information on the Dyslexia Victoria Support group's Facebook page she received over 100 messages from parents wanting to enroll their child.

The camp, at Brighton's St Joan of Arc Primary School from January 16, has drawn participants from across Victoria, as well as from NSW and Tasmania.

"That shows you that there is a real unmet need out there," Ms Bertoncello said.

A sellout, the camp has another 20 students on a waiting list. Demand has been so great, Ms Bertoncello is planning a second camp for 2017.

About 10 per cent of the population has dyslexia - roughly the same rate as asthma. However low awareness is compounded by schools and teachers often being ill-equipped to recognise the signs and work with dyslexic students.

Bentleigh West Primary School teacher Sarah Asome was named Outstanding Primary Teacher at the 2015 Victorian Education Excellence Awards for her work with dyslexia in the classroom.

"There is definitely a lack of knowledge within schools," she said.

Many teachers don't have the knowledge or training to pick up on the red flags that indicate dyslexia. These include struggling to identify words that rhyme, difficulty with word sounds and finding the right words or flipping words: instead of "facepaint", they might say "paintface".

She said early intervention was vital. If students are not at grade three level by the time they finish grade two, there is a 75 per cent chance they won't reach benchmark levels during their school years.

For Christine Clancy, Riley's diagnosis has been a double blessing. She has since discovered she is also dyslexic and she often sits in on Riley's tutoring classes.

"It's no big deal. Now that we know what it is, it is easy to fix," she said. "It just requires the right approach."