Literacy & Dyslexia: From Cognitive Models to Social Justice

dyslexia ep cpd literacy Jun 10, 2021
Dyslexia and literacy: Image is of a girl with book

We're incredibly pleased to share that the Literacy: A Path For All is now live. Dr Joanna Stanbridge's CPD course for Educational Psychologists covers practical tools and approaches within EP practice at levels of casework and consultation through to systemic approaches which we can support schools to create a system which works for all. 


By Dr Joanna Stanbridge, experienced Educational Psychologist, and Literacy & Dyslexia CPD course trainer with EdPsychEd. 

It will be no surprise to anybody who has known me on any bend of my career roller-coaster (think more children’s roller coaster with fibre-glass elephants on than Nemesis Inferno) to find out that I jumped at the chance to be part of designing a course on making sense of and addressing literacy difficulties. My mum specialised in supporting bilingual students with literacy difficulties to develop their reading, writing and study skills. She proudly still tells me that there is not one child who left her support who did not eventually learn to read, maybe not to read and understand Shakespeare (I’m not completely sure I do to be honest), but to be at least read to a functional level. I have been thinking and talking about this stuff for as long as I can remember.

My first foray into the world of literacy came in the form of academic research into orthographic processing looking at cognitive models of different aspects of the reading process (the part I was exploring was how letter position is encoded so that we can read words which have the same letters but presented in different orders (e.g. anagrams like senator and treason). If you have an extremely long time and nothing else to do, I can also eplxian why you can raed tihs eevn thoguoh the itenroir lttres are jmulbed up). After this PhD I knew a LOT about reading, and quite a lot about dyslexia (in the context of academic literature).


girl looking at a book


But then, after completing a PGCE, I got my own Year 5 class and realised that all my theoretical knowledge was absolutely zero help in a classroom setting when faced with a nine year old girl who was writing beautiful paragraphs with no real words in. My much lauded academic background didn’t take into account the vast array of additional emotional, social, pedagogical factors and so on which were impacting on this girl’s needs; my theoretical knowledge didn’t help me work out what to do about it. And no one who I asked for help seemed to know what to do either, not really.

So, when I started my Educational Psychology training, I found myself excited to learn more and to find out how I could help support children and young people and school staff to work out what to do about literacy difficulties. This was going to be the context in which I could bridge the academic understanding of reading development and literacy difficulties with its real-world application… but it didn’t happen. Instead, what awaited me was a never-ending gobstopper of debate about what dyslexia is or isn’t and who does and doesn’t have it. Literacy intervention was often presented as somewhere on a spectrum between mystical approaches which can only be delivered by teachers with wizard status and just doing more of what was already going on in the classroom.


question marks on a page


And then it struck me: they made the wrong bit overcomplicated (identifying who has needs – quite easy to spot as the young people who are struggling with their literacy, at the word level if referring to the term dyslexia) and they completely oversimplified the complicated bit (understanding the reading process and how to support it). If I had learned one thing from my research into orthographic processing it is that the process of reading is extremely complicated and draws on lots of elements of existing cognitive processes and lots of different areas of the brain (loathe as I am to mention brains, because the sight of a picture of a brain in relation to practical approaches to developing literacy screams gimmicky non-applicable neurobabble).

However, it is demonstrably true that we use our brains when we are reading and it is also true that because reading is not an evolutionary skill, we use lots of different parts of it during this process. Which means that there are lots of points at which the process of typical reading development can deviate and that is before you get into the impact of emotional factors, prior experience, general knowledge, vocabulary, views about the purpose of reading and so on. If you want to work out what to do about literacy difficulties, it seems pretty sensible to have a good go at working out what the nature of the difficulty(ies) is(are) so that you’ve got the best chance of effectively addressing it(them) and doing something about it(them). This isn’t about working out what the best general approach to teaching reading and writing skills is; it’s about acknowledging when those approaches are not working, trying to figure out what the barriers are and then doing something about them. It’s not mystical; it is multi-layered and takes some unpicking, but that is part and parcel of EP practice; we are good at it. And it matters.

We know that there are links between literacy levels and exclusion, we know that there are links between literacy levels and lifelong outcomes including the criminal justice system and health. We know that there are social-economic factors which predict literacy outcomes as well as recognition and access to support. We know the excruciating emotional and social toll of being isolated from a world which is built around assumptions of being able to read and being able to communicate through writing. I would argue that identifying, understanding and addressing literacy difficulties is as much of a target for social justice as any other in the EP profession, and indeed if we can get literacy right then it can only help in related matters like exclusion, participation and self-determination.  That is why when Jen and Richard asked me to put together this course I jumped at the chance.


children sat reading


The aim is that the course will cover literacy difficulties from a range of angles (including thorny and tangled areas around labelling, emotional factors, wider implications and so on). The aim is that the constant emphasis will be on what we can do about these difficulties at a number of levels (individual, whole school, whole county… whole education system? We can dream big at least) so that as EPs we can be working towards a vision in which all children’s literacy needs are identified early, addressed immediately, school staff feel confident in using assessments and addressing literacy needs and in which the system works for everybody regardless of where they come from.


Upcoming Literacy & Dyslexia course for EPs

When you consider all the cognitive and social processes that go into developing literacy skills, we find this a complexly fascinating area. 

We're incredibly pleased to share that the Literacy: A Path For All is now live. Dr Joanna Stanbridge's CPD course for Educational Psychologists covers practical tools and approaches within EP practice at levels of casework and consultation through to systemic approaches which we can support schools to create a system which works for all.  

You can access 3 key resources from this course for FREE.  




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