The white board and the blue felt tip pen
I have spent the last 30 years of my life trying to understand why one of my students, a Math and Biology student in 1983, came from his math into my Biology lesson almost in tears.
Why was he so upset? Apparently because his Math teacher had just got a white board and was using a blue felt tip pen!
My response was to ask him why it mattered. He told me that he had always had difficulty keeping up but this just tipped him over the edge, he was totally stressed out, ambitious the first in his family to have the opportunity to go to university, but he could see his opportunity slipping away.
We stopped the biology course and tried to work out what to do.
We were not supposed to even use the word ‘dyslexic’ in the school and actually I don’t think I had any idea what it might really mean. I do not know if my student would have been diagnosed dyslexic. If he had been, I doubt if he would have been given any relevant assistance.
I did have a boy in my class who was diagnosed as ‘Dyspraxic’, but that was a ‘medical condition’ nothing to do with his work in school, there was no assistance given to him, I don’t think he would have wanted it. I don’t think anyone would have known how to help him anyway.
When we started to discuss with the class, how he was finding it difficult with a blue pen on white, others got involved with their experiences. One guy had on his own been using orange transparent toffee papers to help him. His mother had found them in a drawer in his room at home when she was cleaning and thrown them out, telling him off for saving such stupid things.
For the first time we started to really discuss how easy or difficult each person found reading and writing. The idea of using colour was experimented with and some basic experiments done with colour filters.
The only thing that mattered was that each student did everything they could to increase their chances of achieving their dreams.
So back to 2013.
Across the UK, the USA, Australia indeed across the world there is a universal use of ‘colour’ to assist people who find reading ‘hard work’. Reading and writing on a white background is ‘normal’. We do not yet know why ‘not being white’ is easier for so many people. What is exciting to me as a biologist is that there is agreement amongst most people working in this field, that each person that ‘each person is different’. To me this sounds like a genetic origin! But genetics interacts with the environment, even more variation and confusion, so even more like real biology!
In April, in Oxford there will be a symposium attended by many of the leading researchers from across the world. This is an opportunity for real discussion and analysis, hopefully a time for moving forward.
By moving forward, what really matters is that more understanding will lead to enabling more people to read more effectively; more strategies; more effective strategies.
I want to really understand why so many people who are leaders in the world of enabling dyslexic adults who I have worked with and have benefitted so much from my work, rarely talk about what has assisted them. I want to understand how what I did with them worked so well.
At the ‘coalface’ of Dyslexia Action, in the UK, coloured filters are sold for their ‘clients’ but nowhere on their website do they refer to the use of colour. Why?
Perhaps I should just keep quiet and pretend that the emperor’s clothes are beautiful.
At a basic level, it is as if a hospital working with people with walking problems, do not talk about the benefits of using a walking stick or the use of crutches.
In the USA, the ‘International Dyslexia Association’ avoids even considering any visual aspect to the difficulties almost as if the ‘religion does not allow it’. There is a feeling that you can get excommunicated if you question the creed. I am getting that ‘emperor’s clothes’ feeling again. Hans Christian Anderson was making an important point there. A great Dane!
So let’s get back to visual attention span again. If it is as important and as relevant as Valdois and others have demonstrated then anything which increases visual attention span will be very relevant and enabling to millions. I wonder if the creed will change.
Perhaps back in 1983, I should have just told him, not to be so stupid and stop making excuses.