Education Guardian News
Treating dyslexia with exercise has long been controversial, but a new study in Birmingham may convince the sceptics. Phil Revell previews its results
Tuesday July 16, 2002
Bernard, Hasna, Nicole and Kumal are doing their exercises at the Prince Albert primary school in inner-city Birmingham. The exercises have names - the lizard, the octopus, commander, tortoise, windmills. It looks a little like a junior t'ai chi class. The kids are enthusiastic.
"When we do the commander we have to pretend we're in the army," says Bernard. "They made us feel dizzy at the start," says Nicole. "But I like doing them, it's fun."
What the children do not know is that these stretches and balancing movements are part of an experiment into exercise-related approaches to learning difficulties. The theory is that successfully standing on one leg is intrinsically linked to reading ability. "It may sound far fetched," says Sally Goddard Blythe, who is supervising the Birmingham study, "but the science is well established."
Goddard Blythe is based at the Institute for Neuro Physiological Psychology (INNP) in Chester. Along with Peter Blythe she has been researching exercise-related approaches to learning difficulties for more than 20 years.
Her approach is based on the theory that learning difficulties, including dyslexia, can be caused by retained infant reflexes. These primitive reflexes aid the normal development of the foetus in the womb, but Goddard Blythe argues that retention of the reflexes beyond infancy will hinder the child's brain development.
Crucially, hand-eye coordination could be impaired, as could the functioning of the inner ear, but both of these are essential for reading. Children with learning difficulties often hold a pen with a fist, an indication of a lack of fine motor control. These children find reading difficult because they lack the combination of head control and balance needed to follow a line of text on a page.
"Imagine trying to read a book on the back seat of a car where the drive involves a long series of winding roads," says Goddard Blythe. "That's what it feels like."
The exercises being trialled by the children in Birmingham mimic the early stages of infancy, when a child's normal crawling and stretching movements kick-start the development of the brain, and establish the foundations of the motor skills required for reading. This isn't a new theory. Physiological explanations of learning difficulty focusing on balance have been around for some time. In the US, Dr Harold Levinson began working in this area 30 years ago in New York. Levinson is currently director of the Medical Dyslexic and Attention Deficit Disorder Treatment Centre on Long Island.
Levinson and the Blythes were therefore a little surprised when the TV current affairs programme Tonight with Trevor McDonald described another exercise-related treatment for dyslexia as "revolutionary" and "groundbreaking". The January broadcast followed two families as they underwent treatment at a dyslexia treatment centre in Warwickshire.
The DDAT centre - the initials stand for dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit treatment - is run by millionaire Wynford Dore. His interest in the problem was sparked when his dyslexic daughter attempted suicide. In the 90s Levinson worked with Dore at Leamington DDAT centre. Dore freely acknowledges the contribution made to the DDAT approach by Levinson and other academics.
But the Granada documentary did not acknowledge anyone else's research. With captions that offered the possibility of a "miracle cure", the programme talked about a "revolutionary breakthrough" in the treatment of dyslexia. Rachel Kerry, the DDAT research director, was filmed saying: "It's remarkably simple and I don't understand why no one has done it before."
The documentary was the subject of several complaints to the Independent Television Commission, complaints that have yet to be resolved. Wynford Dore didn't complain, but he says the DDAT team expected the programme to be an hour long and to go into more detail. He doesn't accept that his approach follows the same path taken by other researchers.
"The science is quite different," he says. "We've taken different pieces of the research jigsaw and pieced them together."
But the damage has been done. The Granada team's cheap and cheerful approach to their material may have reinforced the prejudices of many special needs teachers, who are reluctant to accept that exercise-related approaches to dyslexia have any validity.
In the weeks following the broadcast the letters page of the Times Educational Supplement featured writers who complained about dyslexia "crackpots". A recent Observer article wrote off exercise-related approaches, quoting the head of a private school that specialises in dyslexia. "It's such a shame that parents go down these avenues," Jackie Murray, head of Fairley House, an independent school for dyslexic children, told the Observer's Geraldine Bedell.
One of the difficulties is the lack of fully validated, peer-reviewed research in the area. Most dyslexia treatment is of individual children. Wynford Dore's approach has been with individuals, as has most of the work of the Chester institute run by the Blythes.
Both charge for the treatment: DDAT treatment costs over £1,000 a time. The accusation has been made that researchers have a financial interest in publicising their successes and that any success may simply be due to the "halo" effect, where any focus on the individual is likely to result in a change in behaviour.
"Almost any intervention will have some effect," concedes Professor Rod Nicolson, a psychologist at Sheffield University. "You will see an improvement in morale and self-esteem."
All this makes the outcome of the experiment in Birmingham even more interesting. Prince Albert school was funded to carry out the research by the Birmingham Core Skills Partnership, a government-funded initiative designed to raise standards in Birmingham schools.
The experiment did not focus on children with dyslexia; instead teacher-researcher Sarah Bertram did the exercises with an entire class, over a full year.
The year 3 class included many with special needs. Children were tested at the beginning and end of the programme using recognised dyslexia tests alongside the INNP neurological tests to measure retained reflexes. There was a "control group" of children of the same age, who had the normal school support for special needs - but none of the exercises. The results were assessed and validated by Dr Fiona Fylan of York University, an expert in the field, with no connection with the school or INNP.
Her evaluation says that the results are "significant" and show a marked difference between the control group and the target group of children. A dyslexia test showed the exercise group to have made twice as much progress as the control group and the neurological tests revealed enormous gains for the intervention group - with only normal progress for the other children.
Reading scores across the whole group have been less conclusive, but Sarah Bertram has seen "remarkable gains" for children who had identifiable special needs.
"At this stage I am convinced that this has a place in the school curriculum," says headteacher David Brodie. "I am asking for the exercises to be continued." Wynford Dore also has group trials in progress and expects to be able to publish results in the near future.
No one is pretending that this is a panacea, a cure. In Birmingham, David Brodie sees exercise-related approaches as something that would run alongside classroom-based support for children with reading problems. But Rod Nicolson has a vision of a future where pre-school children would be automatically tested for developmental problems that could affect their reading.
"The big advantage of the exercise-related approaches is that they are simple and you can take action before the child has experienced reading failure," he says. "We need to see the government carry out a proper evaluation of these techniques."
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