'Learning to read and write at 60 inspired me to help others'
8:00am Sunday 15th September 2013 in News
GORDON Phillips struggled with dyslexia for decades before finally learning to read and write aged 60.
Five years on, he talks about designing a new literacy aid programme so no young person today experiences the same thing.
School was a miserable time for Gordon Phillips. He was caned regularly and expelled on several occasions. He does admit to being disruptive, but only due to sheer, overwhelming frustration and unhappiness.
"I just could not grasp words," Gordon, now 65, explains. While his classmates progressed, no matter how many lessons he sat through, the sequences of letters in his schoolbooks made no sense.
Even words he was familiar with verbally, his brain couldn't decipher when it came to reading and spelling.
"I was labelled 'thick'. The teachers told me I was stupid, so I believed I was," he says. "I'd throw my homework away so I didn't have to face being mocked in class."
Decades passed before he discovered the cause of his struggles - severe dyslexia.
"I already knew I had a problem, but I was only actually told I had dyslexia when I was 46, and took my youngest son Bradley, who'd been struggling at school, to be assessed. I was assessed too and we found out we were both dyslexic, quite severely so."
Thankfully, Bradley's experiences were very different from his father's. Modern awareness of dyslexia is far greater, the condition is now recognised as a learning difficulty or disability, and there is much wider understanding and support in schools. Gordon, a father-of-three from West Sussex, and his wife Hilary, 65, also arranged for extra specialist tuition for their son.
That said though, society still lacks a full awareness about dyslexia, and the condition is far more complex than simply being 'poor' or 'slow' learning and it does not mean a person has low intelligence.
Dyslexia, which affects around 10% of the British population, ranges in severity (4% are affected severely) and can affect people in different ways - for instance, Gordon later discovered he has a real knack for numbers and fantastic business nous, but with reading and writing, his brain simply cannot recognise patterns.
"These days you hear of lots of high achieving people with dyslexia, like Richard Branson," says Gordon. "But when I left school at 14, I thought, 'Oh, I'm just going to be the village idiot, of course'. They all said I wouldn't amount to much."
As it turned out, he amounted to a lot, thanks in large part to his unwavering determination and resourcefulness - tools he'd developed from a young age.
"You have to cheat a bit," he explains. "With dyslexia, you spend your life getting around problems. I couldn't read at school, so I'd spend hours memorising texts by heart.
"I didn't watch cartoons like other youngsters; instead I soaked up as much as I could from more educational shows like Tomorrow's World."
A strong competitive streak helped too, and Gordon says he developed a "brain like a computer", grilling others for knowledge and cementing a wealth of facts, figures, theories and instructions into his mind.
But when you can't read, challenges are ceaseless. Everyday things, that most take for granted, become debilitating stumbling blocks. Gordon's first job, a plumbing apprenticeship, lasted a week because he was always late, by eight hours on the first day - he couldn't read the train map or road signs and kept getting lost.
It's a problem that plagued his whole life.
"I was too shy at first, but eventually I started pretending I'd forgotten my glasses, so I could ask strangers to help me read signs."
Despite these hurdles, he built up a series of successful businesses, starting with general wheeling and dealing, "a bit like Del Boy", before starting his first business at 21 restoring vintage cars. He also carved a career in engineering and, despite not having a degree, worked for some prestigious companies, including McLaren Formula 1 and Concorde.
At one stage, one of his companies operated a young offenders' unit, which ended up having a profound impact on him - many of the young offenders couldn't read or write, and lots were dyslexic.
"I felt something very akin to them," says Gordon. "I got into one or two scrapes with the law growing up, nothing serious, but I was a difficult child, always fighting the system, that's how I felt.
"But I was privileged. I had very good parents who kept me on the straight and narrow, but many of the young offenders had a lot of problems at home, some of their backgrounds were horrendous.
"We put them through an intensive reading programme, with games, flashcards, spell bingo, and got them to read," he adds. "Afterwards they were so proud. They told me, 'I'm going to go out and get myself an education'."
Gordon passionately believes that education is a fundamental key to tackling problems like poverty and crime, and what he'd witnessed with the young offenders inspired him.
"It showed me that anybody could learn to read and write - if enough hours were put into it," he says.
Though, by now in his late fifties and a successful entrepreneur, Gordon had still never read a book, never dealt with his own business correspondence, or even written an email - his secretary did all of this for him.
So he began meticulously studying the English language, memorising words, breaking them down, decoding their structures, until, 6,000 hours later, at the age of 60, he finally had the confidence to read and respond to an email.
Conquering his own dyslexia was never the sole aim though - Gordon used his findings and research to develop Self-Learn, Read and Spell, a new web-based literacy programme, which promises to help struggling children, even those with severe dyslexia, accomplish a reading age of 12-14 years within nine months. Users work their way through levels, with a test at the end of each one. If they pass, they progress to the next level, otherwise the previous stage is repeated. Starting with short, simple words, it works on a phonics principle - using the sounds of letters to help decode and read words.
"But where it gets tricky is with longer words which aren't phonic," says Gordon, explaining that the many possible sounds for vowel combinations can be extremely confusing to somebody with severe dyslexia.
"The programme teaches them to recognise all of the possible combinations," he adds.
Users can log in with their own account, and carry on from where they got to last time. Trials in a number of schools have already had extremely high success rates, and Gordon's hoping it'll be adopted nationwide. Parents can purchase it direct from the website too.
This wasn't a business idea driven by profits, but he's currently charging £150 to schools and £30 for single home use, for annual subscriptions, to cover his costs and help towards developing the three other programmes in the pipeline - for advanced reading, grammar and comprehension.
While adults can use it too, his main motivation is to ensure that no other young people leave school facing the challenges he did. Last year, Ofsted figures revealed that one in five children leave UK primary school unable to read or write properly - and Gordon says it's crucial that the problem is tackled early, because if you wait until secondary school it'll be extremely difficult for them to catch up in time for their GCSEs.
"I think it's criminal that children are just being labelled as 'non academic', because they've got a low reading age," he says. "I've asked schools why some children are leaving unable to read and write, and they say, 'Oh, it's always been the case' - and it has been.
"But we've got to transform peoples' attitudes. We need to tune into the idea that every child can, and should, learn to read."
: For more information visit www.selflearnreadandspell.co.uk
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