Service for the County of Gwynedd

I had not been serving for long on the Word-Blind committee when the University College of North Wales, Bangor (as it then was) decided, as part of its expansion programme, to create a Department of Psychology and to appoint a professor as its head. I applied for this post and was successful.

In those days funding came from the government via a body called the University Grants Committee. I remember shortly after my appointment that its chairman, Sir John Wolfenden, visited Bangor and made clear to the college senate that the government had no wish to dictate to universities how they should spend their money. I was fortunate to have been able to spend most of my academic life with these funding arrangements. In the 1980s, however, all this changed: universities were told to apply to industry and elsewhere for funds to support their research. The result, not surprisingly, was that criteria for what was valuable in research were determined largely by market forces and by researchers' ability to convince the appropriate committees that their proposals were of value. It is symptomatic of the changed climate that, shortly before my retirement, I was told that, in addition to being head of the Department of Psychology, I was now head of a 'Cost Centre'!

If I had had to convince the educational establishment of the time that research into dyslexia was of value, I do not think the dyslexia research at Bangor would ever have got off the ground - much of my time would have had to have been spent in making (probably unsuccessful) applications to grant-giving bodies, whose educational advisers could well have been hostile at the very mention of the word 'dyslexia'.

Fortunately, however, in the 1960s and 1970s, as head of the Psychology Department at Bangor, I was left free to investigate any topic of my own choosing without any interference from the government. My academic colleagues on the college's faculties and senate were invariably supportive, and although I continued from time to time to publish books and papers in areas other than dyslexia - particularly on the philosophy of behaviourism (Harzem and Miles, 1978) and on the philosophy of religion (Miles, 1959, 1998) - dyslexia research occupied by far the largest part of the time which I had available. As I said earlier, I was never an 'ivory tower' academic, and it seemed to me that dyslexia was an area where there might be interesting practical applications.

During my early time at Bangor I had wondered if I should make a study of juvenile delinquency. There were, however, no prisons in the immediate neighbourhood, and as my experience increased I came to realise that trying to rehabilitate offenders called for skills which I did not possess.

After my year at the Tavistock Clinic (1953-4) it was also clear to me that psychotherapy a la Melanie Klein was not for me either: some of Klein's ideas seemed to me very wild and speculative (compare my comments on psychoanalysis in Chapter 3). On one occasion at the Bangor Child Guidance Clinic I ventured on an interpretation of a child's feelings in terms of sexual fantasies - I asked the child tentatively, 'Was it anything to do with going to the toilet?' The result was a totally blank response; I was given no indication that my proffered interpretation of the child's feelings had in any way touched on something important in her life. I am not of course disputing that, in the right context and with the right clients or patients, people's lives can be transformed by psychoanalysis; nor am I disputing the importance in most contexts of happy human relationships. I am saying only that for purposes of understanding dyslexia the psychoanalytic approach does not seem to me the best way forward. In contrast, my experiences with dyslexic children and their parents and with dyslexic adults continually convinced me that I was on to something. For example, when I gave talks to local Dyslexia Associations and described some of the behaviours which I believed to be manifestations of dyslexia, I could tell that the audience were nodding in approval, as if to say, 'This is exactly what we have found in our child.'

On one occasion I had written a report which had been passed to an educational psychologist in a neighbouring county, and I received a letter - not exactly hostile but certainly exhibiting scepticism - asking what in detail were the tests which I had used. I invited her over to sit in on an assessment and explained in advance that many dyslexic teenagers had difficulty in learning their 'times tables'. The girl whom we were to test came into the room shortly afterwards, and before we had spoken for many minutes she volunteered, 'I have such difficulty in learning my tables.' I heard a gasp from my colleague who was sitting beside me; later she went on to do highly skilled work in the dyslexia field. Looking back on the episode it occurs to me that without the dyslexia concept as it then existed in my research - it included difficulty over learning 'times tables' - the possibility of predicting that someone would come into the room and announce that they had difficulty in learning 'times tables' would have been extremely remote. In that respect dyslexia was a powerful concept, whereas I had found no such powerful concepts either in the study of delinquency or in some other branches of psychology, such as the study of intelligence.

I continued with the methods which I had been using with Brenda and Michael (see Chapters 1 and 2). From the mid-1960s it was possible, as I indicated in Chapter 4, to form links with St David's College, Llandudno. Some of their boys used to come to Bangor for remedial teaching and sometimes assessment.

By 1970 I had sufficient confidence in what I was doing to submit for publication a small book of 70 pages (Miles, 1970). In the preface to this book I refer to some of the controversies over dyslexia and write: 'If this were a purely theoretical issue there would be little justification for heated argument. In practice, however, my experience is that when the value of the term "dyslexia" has been disputed or not recognised, the result has often been an appalling failure even to appreciate what the problems of these children are, let alone to press for adequate remedial facilities.'

I am in no doubt now, just as I was at the time, that, if dyslexic children are to be helped, an understanding of their distinctive needs is essential.

I did not believe that if children were taught to read they would necessarily learn correct spellings, but my hope was that if they were taught to spell this would thereby improve their reading.

The basic procedure was that the pupil should have a notebook (their 'dictionary') in which words were written down in families. The first page contained three-letter words (consonant, short vowel, consonant), with the words bag, beg, big, bog and bug. I had used these words with Brenda and again in the paper which I had submitted at the conference at St Bartholomew's Hospital eight years earlier (Miles, 1962). In due course the teacher could move to consonant blends - clap, strap, step etc. - and consonant digraphs - sack, sock, suck etc. The long 'a', the long 'i' and the long 'o' were then introduced, and the pupil was encouraged to listen for the difference between, say, hat and hate and told that where the vowel sound was long an 'e' had to be added. I found that, in the case of the children whom I was teaching - most of them, admittedly, were bright - the words 'consonant' and 'vowel' and the words 'long' and 'short' (applied to vowels) could be explained at quite an early stage.

Vowel digraphs were then introduced, such as 'ee', 'ea', 'oa' and 'ou'. At the appropriate time other word families could be introduced, such as butter, gutter mutter. I also thought that it would be helpful to show how the same root could generate different word forms, for instance wait, waited and waiting.

I remember that on one occasion I visited a school where the headmaster suddenly wrote a word on the blackboard, saying, 'Who can read this?' The word was 'POISON'. It occurred to me, therefore, that there were a few words which children in the interests of their own safety needed to read by any means open to them: the words which I chose were 'danger', 'poison', 'toilet' and 'police'.

I realised that if dyslexic children were told simply to learn spellings these would not be remembered for any significant length of time - at most for long enough for them to pass a spelling test and thus deceive their teacher into thinking that their spelling was better than it actually was.

At no time during the lesson did I expect the pupil to be able to spell a word unless I had shown him or her how to set about it. I might encourage them to generalise, for instance by pointing out that if they could spell might and light they could also spell bright, but, generalisation apart, I required them to spell only words which had the same pattern as those already in their dictionary. A few pupils had difficulty in recognising when words rhymed, but this was rare (see Miles, 1993a, Chapter 18 for some evidence from my records).

At the end of On Helping the Dyslexic Child (Miles, 1970) there were exercises in which the words to be spelled were chosen either to test what the pupils had been shown in the most recent lesson or to revise words which had been shown in earlier lessons. An important principle was not to give them too much to attend to at the same time. In the case of bag, beg, big, bog and bug, for instance, the 'b' and the 'g' would look after themselves, and this would leave the pupil free to concentrate on writing the correct vowel. It was in fact possible to extend this policy still further by asking the pupil simply to make a judgement of same/different. Thus if a child wrote 'p' for 'b' or vice versa I would say, 'bat-pat - same or different?', randomly interspersed with 'bat-bat - same or different?' My experience was that dyslexic children, though they may well write 'p' for 'b' or vice versa, could detect differences between confusable letters when these differences were pointed out to them.

It was clear by the late 1960s that requests from parents for help for their dyslexic children were on the increase. At an early stage Aline Wiggin, a retired headmistress of a primary school, joined me in the teaching. I had always gone on the principle that 'diagnosis without treatment is unethical', and when people came from a distance I always tried to put them in touch with someone in their locality who could do the teaching. Despite my training at the Tavistock Clinic I was never opposed to the idea that parents should teach their own children in the absence of suitably experienced teachers, who were very rare birds in the 1970s. On some occasions I used in a light-hearted tone of voice to present the parents with the analogy of a husband teaching his wife to drive a car. A laugh, of course, does wonders to ease feelings of stress, and I would suggest that even if parent and child fell out with each other from time to time during the lessons this was a small price to pay for helping the child to achieve literacy.

The major breakthrough came when I was joined in the work by my wife, Elaine. She was a qualified teacher who had also received special training in philology. She realised that if we were to make progress on the teaching side those who did the teaching had to be properly trained. By this time the demand for lessons was growing. Our response was to invite a number of qualified teachers - many of whom had young families and wished only for part-time work - to join our team and teach for three or four hours a week. In the early stages we used to meet at our house and exchange ideas on how best to solve a problem which had arisen in the case of a particular child. This was a very valuable opportunity for us to learn from each other.

An incidental advantage accruing from the fact that the dictionary and sentences used in On Helping the Dyslexic Child had a fixed structure was that if for any reason the pupil had to change to a different teacher the teacher who was handing-over the pupil could explain to their successor precisely what stage in the programme the pupil had reached, for instance, 'We have done the "ea" words but not the "ow" words.'

After a few years Elaine and I published a jointly authored book (Miles and Miles, 1975). This book was later combined with Miles (1970) to form Miles and Miles (1983a). In the two later books there was some modification to the choice of sentences for revision. In addition both books had chapters on the teaching of arithmetic - an area to which we both later devoted considerable attention (Henderson and Miles, 2001; Miles et al., 2001; Miles and Miles, 2004).

Miles and Miles (1975) also had a chapter entitled 'Problems of morale', which reflected our growing awareness that our teachers should make clear that they understood the pupil's difficulties, or at least were prepared to try to understand by listening to the pupil's own account of them. It is possible for dyslexic children to undergo inner turmoil without their teachers - or even their parents - being aware of the fact.

In this connection we quoted the telling words from Sir Walter Scott's The Pirate: 'the most cruel wounds are those which make no outward show'.

In both the two later books there were also chapters entitled 'Word-beginnings and Word-endings'. There were suggestions for teaching handwriting; there was an account of the 'doubling' rule - that if a short vowel is followed by a consonant that consonant is usually doubled - and it was pointed out that, with a few exceptions, long vowels or pairs of vowels are followed by 'ch' and short vowels by 'tch'.

In all three of these books the pupils were asked to construct their own dictionary and were introduced in a systematic and structured way to letter-sound correspondences. The overall aim of the books was to provide common-sense guidance for those parents and teachers who recognised the existence of some kind of problem but were unsure how to proceed. We went on the principle that dyslexics were weak at memorising but strong at generalising, and we tried to create the conditions in which their ability to generalise meant that there was less to memorise.

Ann Cooke also contributed a very valuable book for teachers (Cooke, 1993, revised version 2002).

Originally, by arrangement with Dr Gareth Crompton, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Anglesey, dyslexic children from Anglesey were taken by taxi to the Psychology Department at Bangor for their lessons. On Elaine's initiative, however, it was arranged that teachers from the Dyslexia Unit (which was part of the Psychology Department) should visit the pupils in their own schools and teach them, usually separately, occasionally in pairs, in any room which the school had available. The norm was one lesson per week, although in special cases this was increased to two. When the counties were reorganised in 1974, the teaching arrangements were extended to the whole of the new county of Gwynedd.

From 1973 onwards it was possible to collaborate with the college's School of Education in providing courses on dyslexia which could form part of a Master's degree in Education or a Certificate of Further Professional Studies. Lecturers from the Department of Psychology, Education and Linguistics provided an academic background to the courses.

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Adult Dyslexia

Adult Dyslexia

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