Any given Danish school class usually has two dyslexic children. Their dyslexia is usually discovered too late, and many receive far from adequate help. Two enthusiastic teachers from southern Jutland have now decided to change that. With almost a million kroner in support from the Egmont Foundation, they are exploring new ways to help dyslexic children out of their dead-end situation – and offer them a new chance in life.
By Niels Nørgaard
Carl is dyslexic. The fair-haired, 12-year-old boy has just started 6th grade at Esbjerg Realskole. He shines with a happy boyish energy and is looking forward to school – and to learning something new every day. But his daily life has not always been like this – quite the contrary. During his early school years, lessons were often a nightmare. For Carl, the letters simply did not link up.
It was not until 4th grade that an observant teacher got Carl to take the test that showed he had dyslexia. The revelation was the first decisive step to changing Carl’s life. Today he can smile, but remembers all too well those first, tough years of school.
‘Argh – when I was little and didn’t know I was dyslexic, going to school was a real downer. I felt so bad. When the teacher looked for someone to call on, I just thought: “Please don’t ask me!” And then the teacher picked me anyway, and that’s no fun at all,’ Carl says.
While many Danish pupils feel they get a break when a substitute fills in for a regular teacher who is ill, Carl feared this sort of disruption. Because, of course, the substitute teacher was unaware of his massive reading difficulties.
‘Having a substitute teacher wasn’t nice at all. It was a bit better when we had our own teachers, because they knew I found reading hard,’ Carl recalls.
At school he is now making progress by leaps and bounds. Plenty of psychological support and intensive teaching input coupled with technical aids have enabled Carl to make the best of his dyslexic mind.
After first taking a rigorous week-long course, Carl has now received 18 months of dyslexia training at Havnegade in Esbjerg, where the Work Integration Social Enterprise Ordblindetræning is located. The company was started by two schoolteachers, Thomas Mose and Mikael Højbjerg, whose vision is to revolutionise the battle against dyslexia in Denmark.
Dyslexic children are in psychological pain
Over the past few years the two teachers have given Carl and more than 1,000 other dyslexic children, mainly from the region of southern Jutland, insight into their disability. Thomas Mose and Mikael Højbjerg have taught them about the countless tools and computer and smartphone programmes available to help them have a better school day.
Now the two are ready for the next step. They want to enable dyslexic children from less affluent families with parents that lack psychological resources to obtain free help of the kind that Carl and other dyslexic children are receiving.
‘Essentially we want to help all children with dyslexia. That is our overarching vision. Some parents can afford to support the project and pay for their children themselves. Others can’t. That’s why we’ve designed this pilot project in Esbjerg, which will give 50 children from vulnerable families free, intensive dyslexia training for the next six months,’ says Thomas Mose.
‘I can certainly understand that dyslexic children are in psychological pain. They compare themselves with the other children in their class. That’s why motivation and self-confidence are key concepts that we want to give the children on our courses. To make them feel they have a brighter future,’ says Mikael Højbjerg.
Over the years the two teachers have not only continued their professional development and specialised in helping children with dyslexia. They have also given more than 8,000 Danish teachers instruction in how to meet the needs of dyslexic children in school classes. Alongside this work, the two passionately committed teachers have written and published materials, books and digital programmes for dyslexic children – as well as developed their business, which currently has more than 10 employees.
As Mikael Højbjerg and Thomas Mose see it, the financial support from companies, local authorities and, not least, foundations, will play a crucial role in making dyslexia training an offer available to all vulnerable children nationwide. The first foundations have offered support and provided funding for the first 50 children to participate in the pilot project. The Egmont Foundation is doing its part with a grant of almost one million kroner for the project.
Taking up the battle against modern poverty
The ambition to develop a nationwide programme for dyslexic children dovetails perfectly with the Egmont Foundation’s new strategy for its charitable work. Its goal is precisely to protect children and young people from modern poverty – lack of learning and life skills.
For this reason, the Foundation is contributing actively to the project, both financially and by offering guidance, as programme manager Andreas Hjorth Frederiksen points out.
‘We want to support initiatives and projects that underprop our chief objective of ensuring that, by 2030, all young people are in a position to take a youth education programme and create a good life for themselves. But to achieve this, we must do everything in our power also to help children with dyslexia, because we know every single school class has about two such children,’ Andreas Hjorth Frederiksen emphasises.
‘Dyslexia is often discovered far too late. Unfortunately, barely one in two young people with dyslexia currently embarks on a youth education programme,’ he observes.
Andreas Hjorth Frederiksen points out the dearth of national players who can take up the fight to provide teaching for dyslexic children. At Ordblindetræning in Esbjerg, the Egmont Foundation has found an approach that builds on the values and methods in which the programme manager believes.
‘With the Egmont Foundation’s “Spireprogram”, a “seedling” programme aimed at new social entrepreneurs, we hope to support both new players and new ideas. Ordblindetræning uses a combination of voluntary work, local networks and joint initiatives with businesses that appeals to us. They also work in the school setting and with parents,’ says Andreas Hjorth Frederiksen.
At Ordblindetræning, Esbjerg, Carl prepares himself for another hour of intensive training. Before he leaves for his dyslexia class, he has time to tell us he wants to be a coastguard and later a police officer. Michael Højbjerg and Thomas Mose nod. Like Carl, they believe he will get where he wants to go.