The magic bullet?

  Neil MacKay Workshop Video Links

Magic bullets are highly sought after things but often fail to perform to expectations. That is clearly the case with reading accuracy, which for many years has been the preferred academic response to dyslexia. At the heart of this is the idea that if we can teach all youngsters to read accurately through the use of phonics, then the ‘problem’ of dyslexia will disappear. More on reading accuracy and phonics can be found here.

This, however, ignores the fact that dyslexia isn’t simply an issue with basic reading and writing skills, it’s an entire learning preference which can bring a broad spectrum of difference – from enhanced creativity and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking on the plus side to issues such as auditory and information processing, planning and organising, motor skills, short-term memory and concentration. Difficulties with basic skills are merely symptoms of dyslexia, so any magic bullet which hoped to ‘cure’ basic skill difficulties would need to be aimed at the root cause of these symptoms: a brain that is wired differently. And clearly that’s not practical or desirable. In fact is in an insult to talk about cures.

If we had ‘cured’ Leonardo Da Vinci we would never have seen the Mona Lisa; if we had ‘cured’ Albert Einstein we might never have discovered the Theory of Relativity; and New Zealand would be a much less interesting place had the education system managed to ‘cure’ WETA’s Richard Taylor, the late maverick motorcycle designer John Britten or many other inspirational and successful New Zealanders. Click here to view ‘Inspiring New Zealanders’ webpage.

Debate on defining dyslexia is another red herring. While we appreciate that a narrow focus on definition is important for academics in terms of creating absolute clinical parameters for research and isolating variables, it should not be the main agenda or become an excuse for inaction. This just results in ‘paralysis by analysis’. The focus for all of us on the frontlines of teaching should be constructive action and change, based on the huge body of research and experiential evidence that already exists on dyslexia.

Overall, it is important to understand dyslexia as a learning preference and work with, and support, students from this preference perspective. Put simply, this means understanding that dyslexics think differently, and so naturally prefer to receive, process and present information in the way that makes more sense to them.

So is there a magic bullet? We would say the new teaching paradigm comes pretty close. Backed by the new National Curriculum and self-managing schools environment – this ‘notice and adjust’ approach offers commonsense and practical advice which can make a real difference for all students, dyslexic or otherwise. This approach is about replacing ‘one size fits all’ thinking with individualised learning based on learning preference. And it is particularly appropriate to New Zealand education right now, given that the spirit, ethos and philosophy of the National Curriculum reflects the fact that equity in education comes not through treating all students equally, but through recognising and accommodating difference within the classroom environment.

These changes begin with a committed school principal, often supported by an emotionally engaged ‘champion’ from within the staff, who together can take the whole school on a journey towards making best practice common practice, so that no child is left behind. A whole school policy is an important step towards this. Further valuable resource information on school and classroom changes is encapsulated in the Dyslexia Foundation’s 4D | 4 Dyslexia programme, which provides access to national and international framework of learnings, insights and advice in this area. Find out more at


Back to top

©Copyright Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand. All rights reserved.
Content may be reproduced with permission of DFNZ, contact