The Hickey Multi-sensory Literacy Program has been shown to be one of the most effective, long-term approaches to addressing the problems that children with dyslexia face both when they are learning to read and in subsequently consolidating their literacy skills.
The program is very structured and phonics-based, but is taught differently than it might be in schools, where very often dyslexic children have insufficient time to process new learning. Instead, in the Hickey Program, children are taught at a much more measured pace, as they focus on the learning of one sound per teaching session and are never asked to read words that contain sounds they are yet to learn. These elements combined also enable more time to be spent on reinforcing learning.
Only after learning single letters and sounds in depth and detail are students equipped to progress through to more sophisticated letter combinations and sounds, syllabification and decoding of words, spelling rules, grammar and written expression. However, these take place one step at a time, allowing children sufficient time to make sense of what they have been taught and giving them opportunities to remember and consolidate their learning.
Repetition and practice are very much keys to the program, with lessons always following the same structure, while there are also explicit attempts to utilise as many senses as possible in the learning and mastering of phonic sounds.
There are seven different elements that are contained within every lesson: alphabet sequencing; reading and spelling cards; reading revision; spelling and writing revision; a new teaching point; new reading and spelling cards; and games. This use of repetition, or over-learning, is why the program is ultimately effective, as the learning goals are simplified and attainable, and overall it is structured so that pupils can learn one step at a time.
A further important element of the program is that every time children learn a new sound, they learn to write it in link writing (or cursive), sounding it out at the same time, and this improves their success at learning the sound. Research has shown that linking letters places less demand on students’ coding and motor systems, as having to lift the pen or pencil and then touch it down again in non-cursive print places a greater load on neural systems, making writing more difficult. Cursive also makes letter reversal less of a problem because the symmetry of the letters b, d, p and q is removed, meaning these letters are no longer mirror images of each other when written in cursive.
Effective teaching of the program requires that children are taught in very small groups (ideally comprising of two students) because of the intensive and highly structured nature of the lessons, which involves a great deal of interaction with and intervention from the teacher. There is also a need for commitment on the part of both students and their families in order for optimum progress to be made. Daily practising of the letters and sounds taught in lessons is essential if new knowledge and understanding is to become automatic and permanent.
For dyslexic students to gain the skills, understanding and self-belief to become confident readers who are able effectively to read to learn takes a good deal of time, dedication and willingness to commit to the program. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes or overnight transformations. However, it is entirely possible with time, commitment and effective, thorough teaching for reading to become a less strenuous exercise, and for students to be in a position whereby they have the resilience and self-confidence to achieve positive learning outcomes.