Benjamin Zephaniah called on parents, teachers and pupils to be more “collaborative” to stop children slipping through the net – and revealed he was failed by a teacher who dismissed his dyslexia.
He said: “I was in primary school reading class one day and I was struggling. I thought everyone else was struggling and I started looking out of the window at the boys playing football.
“The teacher said to me that not everyone can be good with words or reading and said I could be good at football and sent me out.
“I thought it was great at the time, but it’s only looking back that I think how the teacher had failed me.”
Zephaniah, who only began to conquer the learning difficulty after writing his first poetry book, spoke out to highlight the literacy crisis engulfing schools.
Calling for a greater sense of community in the classroom, dub poet Zephaniah said schools he has worked in throughout India and China provide a model of cohesion. The 53-year-old said it was not only the political system that drove parents, teachers and pupils in those areas to identify children who are struggling early.
He said: “They make sure no child slips behind and if there are 30 children in a class and one is struggling then the others help out. They all rise up together.”
He also raised concerns that teachers and parents are not spotting dyslexia early enough – and warned that the lack of attention is also contributing to illiteracy rates among children who do not suffer the condition.
The British Dyslexia Association said that 10 per cent of Londoners suffer from varying levels of the neurological condition, which is usually hereditary and means the brain has trouble processing language information.
About 20 per cent of London children have some form of special educational need.
Revealing his own battle with the condition, Zephaniah, who was educated in Birmingham, said he had not at first realised that being dyslexic did not mean being unintelligent: “The first time someone told me I was dyslexic, it was like they were swearing at me, I had never heard the word before. It made me a very angry person.”
He said that despite being one of Britain’s leading literary figures, he still gets an attack of nerves when asked to read in public and struggles to read “big novels”.
He receives letters from young dyslexic people, who he says often “go two ways” – either conquering their fears and flourishing or ending up in prison.
“I once signed the rights away on a record contract because I couldn’t read,” said Zephaniah. “Now kids say to me that they don’t need to read or write because they can freestyle [rap].
“I tell them they need to be able to read the contract or they will be ripped off. Lots of them are like me.”
By Mark Blunden
London Evening Advertiser
1st June 2011