It’s not fear/fair! Trying to spell, Kiwi-style, when you’re dyslexic

News News & events

12 Sep 2017

Ara Adult Literacy tutor Barbara Dixon specialises in teaching dyslexic adults. With her team she makes a huge difference in people’s lives, giving them tools that open doors to work or study.

Kiwi speech makes her job a little more interesting.

“Coming from the UK, I noticed that New Zealanders spoke differently to the way I spoke when I first arrived and it affects the way dyslexic adults spell immensely,” she said.

During research for her Masters in Adult Literacy and Numeracy, Barbara came across research from the University of Canterbury suggesting that different age groups are affected differently. “People who are aged 50 and above are not likely to be affected at all because their school teachers tried to teach them standard Queens English, but people 30 years and younger are far more likely to speak the New Zealand way and that does really affect their learning to spell.”

“When I first got here someone asked me for a ‘pin’ so I gave them a safety pin but they wanted something to write with (a pen). That’s a tiny little example but there are so many because English spelling is done around the English accent. It’s all good. I love these differences, but it does affect learning to spell.”

The pronunciation is not the only challenge – like every language group, New Zealand has its own invented words. “Also affecting spelling are certain words that New Zealand has, which no one else has, such as ‘bach’, referring to a holiday house, from the word ‘bachelor’ – because it was originally a bachelor pad. Students were writing ‘B-A-T-C-H’ when they wanted to refer to a ‘B-A-C-H’.”

Barbara set to work creating a resource that is now available in book form and on Moodle.

“I went through my students writing for six months to identify the commonest mistakes to do with homophones and homonyms. I introduced the resource last year and it proved very popular. It was designed for step 1 and 2 students, but we also have step 3 and 4 students, who requested a more difficult version. We are developing that now. Each student has an individualised study plan.”

Barbara finds that many of her students have diagnosed or suspected dyslexia or dyspraxia, which can make reading and writing more difficult. Some are already studying or working and come to the night class for specific assistance while others attend full time for six to nine months to build reading, writing and spelling skills.

“There are at least six different kinds of dyslexia. I was originally told there were four types but I came up with six while doing my research and we have strategies for each type. So when a student comes to us, as a team we identify their weaknesses and strengths.”

Barbara knows the challenges her students face; she also has dyslexia, although she didn’t reveal that to the university until she had completed her Masters. “It was harder for me – it is always harder for dyslexic people - but I just had to put in more hours than anybody else; so no television, no social life, just 3 ½ years of ‘I’m going to get this’.” And she did – with merit.  

At Ara, Barbara is able to make real differences to others’ lives. “I had a guy pop in the other day to tell us he had just got an apprenticeship with AirNZ as an aeronautical engineer. I went ‘yeee!’ We have students on the nursing course, business course, social work course, one on a degree course at Te Puna Wanaka…”

For others who are employed, many manual jobs now require reading and writing skills – machines have screens flashing warnings that need to be read; systems demand reports to be emailed or texted through. It’s all literacy.  

“We get ex-students frog-marching their friends and family in. We had one the other day, a social worker. He said, ‘thank you so much, I now have this and this qualification and here is one of my clients - he needs your help’. Perfect!”

Many people don’t realise how widespread dyslexia is. “When I was doing my masters I was writing a blog and I had people saying, ‘why do you have so many dyslexic people in your class? I teach adult literacy and I don’t think I have any’.

“I’d think, ‘whoa, you need to learn how to recognise dyslexia because it is something like 15 to 20% of the population’.”

“It’s important because dyslexic people can become marginalised and how are they going to survive? An enormous proportion of people in prison are dyslexic – here and in Europe as well.”

“For some students, it could be their last chance. It is not a quick fix but it does work. I love my job!”

Adult literacy programmes at Ara are comprehensive and free of charge. Students are further supported through learning services, the career centre, library services and the Next Step Centre for Women. For more information phone 0800 24 24 76.