Family heads to US for dyslexia support

STATES BOUND: Emma, 17, left, Ian, 14, James and Jeni Johnstone are leaving Christchurch for the United States, disappointed in the lack of dyslexia support.
DON SCOTT/Fairfax NZ
STATES BOUND: Emma, 17, left, Ian, 14, James and Jeni Johnstone are leaving Christchurch for the United States, disappointed in the lack of dyslexia support.

Frustrated and tired with a lack of support for dyslexia, the Johnstone family are leaving New Zealand for the United States next month.

Just months before Jeni Johnstone moved from California to New Zealand in 2006, with Cantabrian husband James, their son Ian was diagnosed with dyslexia.

"We heard such good things about the New Zealand education system and we thought we were both intelligent and engaged enough to support Ian," Johnstone said.

But it was not until 2007, a year after they arrived, that the Government formally recognised dyslexia as a learning disability and began funding programmes including reading assistance and resource teachers.

"But it [the programme] did not help Ian, it is not phonetic and kids with dyslexia need to be explicitly taught chronological methods," Johnstone said.

"By the end of the first year he [Ian] hated school.

"We moved him to Discovery but unfortunately a few weeks after, the [February 2011] earthquake struck."

Ian, now 14, forged ahead at Discovery but the family soon found him struggling with too many choices at the school, where pupils set their own learning agenda.

"We moved him to being home schooled by a tutor. That is working really well, but he is a social kid.

"We looked at all the school options from local high schools to fantastically expensive private schools but there was no option out there that would suit him."

With nowhere to turn, the family looked back to the US and found dyslexia-specialist Thomas Edison High School in Portland, Oregon.

Ian will learn in classes of just eight pupils, in a way tailored to those with the condition.

Despite the move, Johnstone could not fault the Kiwi teachers who have taught Ian.

University of Canterbury professor John Everatt said New Zealand struggled to diagnose and address dyslexia.

"To be honest, we don't really understand dyslexia at an academic level," he said.

"A lot of teachers understandably find it confusing about what they should do. I think that is one of the reasons why provision varies greatly across different schools."

Everatt said teaching all pupils phonetics - the sounds of words - would go some way to addressing dyslexia.

It was also important not to label dyslexia as a disability that should not be dealt with in the mainstream classroom, he said.

The Press