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I don’t think the student is dumb, it may be the teacher


DAGUA – At a rural evangelical church secondary school in East Sepik, there was a particular student who, despite her best attempt at learning, just could not get things right.

She would sit at the back of the classroom, attentive and well behaved, but, when it came to testing and scores, she was always at the bottom.

Subject teachers would complain, scratch their heads and ask why she couldn’t understand and perform like her classmates. After two years of sitting inside the classroom without any special help, the student failed all her Grade 10 exams and disappeared for good.

Just as in schools around the world, Papua New Guinea has dyslexic students but, because of the ignorance of authorities and teachers, they are not adequately catered for.

Some years later after the event I just described, while I was sitting through an Indian produced movie, ‘Like stars on earth’, it struck me that the events portrayed were similar to the experience of the student at that rural school.

The lead character in the film also had difficulties learning and writing. And like the female student of my experience, the character in the movie was also called “dumb” and “a waste of time and money”.

This 2007 movie explores the life of a boy, Ishaan Awasthi, who has learning difficulties. He performs poorly in tests, his writing is illegible, he is disobedient and easily distracted and cannot be understood by family and friends.

As a result it is no surprise that he has very low self-esteem.

But things improve for Ishaan when his art teacher takes an interest in him and is able to identify his problem and help him to overcome his learning difficulties.

The teacher’s empathy and willingness to help Ishaan find meaning and ease his learning difficulties struck at my heart and my mind. The film opened my eyes to the learning disability called “dyslexia”.

Recalling my time at that rural school, I would have done more to help the student if only I had known about dyslexia and the stigma that goes with it.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that presents difficulties in acquiring and processing language. It’s seen particularly in lack of proficiency in reading, spelling, and writing.

It is an “invisible” disability that causes sufferers to feel isolated and inadequate. In short, it’s a struggle for sufferers.

Currently, there is no information or articles on dyslexia available for Papua New Guinea. There exists a great need for knowledge of this disability especially in the school system. But most people are not even aware of it.

The National Department of Education has no policy to cater for dyslexics. Teachers in the education system are ignorant of it. And, because of this, are unwilling to put in the extra time to help dyslexics in the classroom.

Parents also are ignorant and cannot understand why their child is underperforming and often disruptive.

It is likely that some of the students we characterise as “slow learners” are dyslexic. Most of these young people flop at school and are seen as failures or drop-outs.

Papua New Guinea is fortunate to have organisations that help people with physical disabilities like the Catholic Church-run Special Education Resource Centres which include the Callan Service and Mt Sion Blind Centre.

These are important organisations that play a major role in training and integrating people with physical disabilities back into the communities.

Dyslexia, on the other hand, affects people who have no outward disabilities. It is invisible and sufferers are left to fend for themselves in life.

Dyslexia cannot be cured, but sufferers can be helped to overcome their disability and live normal lives.

We certainly need more awareness of dyslexia and other related learning disorders in Papua New Guinea.


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Michael Dom

As a child I had some difficulty reading and was placed under special supervision.

It worked. I got hooked into books, then got in trouble for reading under my desk during class time.

But I'm still useless at maths.

Probably why I pretty write well but don't make much money from it.

Albert Ipako

Primary school teachers are trained to identify students suffering from dyslexia and dyscalculia.

The process of guiding a student with special needs needs meticulous planning and cooperation between the class teacher,the student with his/her parent/s or guardian/s and a specialised Special Education officer.

The student to teacher ratio in all public schools is one reason a teacher might not be able to commit him/herself to a student with special needs' Individualised Plan.

Another reason is the class teacher's content knowledge (or lack thereof) of what Special Education is. If it is the first and not the second reason mentioned above,it could be the availability of and accessibility to an established Special Education Center.

After a child is identified as suffering from either or both learning difficulties mentioned above,the class teacher profiles this student and together with the parents and a Special Educations officer they create an Individualised Plan for the child.

Six years ago when I was teaching at an urban school, I identified a student with dyslexia very late in her grade (Grade 8), meaning that she slipped through the grades without being picked out. I could only imagine how she got on-the pressure of her parents forcing her to school against her abilities.

I contacted the only special education center in Lae but they could not help me much as they deal with "physical" disabilities only. I called the parents in but they were uncooperative, accusing me of "thinking their child is 'longlong".

The girl left school without proper help. Now she's out there in the world going through her life without proper basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Garry Roche

There has been debate about whether or not eyesight may be in part a cause of dyslexia. Some more recent scientific research suggests that while most people have a ‘dominant eye’ (like being right-handed or left-handed), those with dyslexia are more likely to have both eyes equivalent. Apparently this lack of a dominant eye can cause confusion in reading similar letters e.g. ‘b’ and ‘d’. I wonder if by covering the weaker eye a person with dyslexia could read more accurately?

Raymond Sigimet

Michael, I believe there is a sizeable number of young (including adults) PNGeans suffering from dyslexia within our school system. It needs more reliable research into this condition. I did a search and couldn't find any information concerning dyslexia in PNG.

Michael Dom

Thanks for this article, Raymond.

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