Patience Thomson had every reason to believe her children would be high achievers. Her parents and her husband’s parents were distinguished Cambridge scientists who had won Nobel prizes. She herself had taken her A-levels at 16, won an exhibition to Cambridge to study modern languages and translated Adolf Hitler’s private correspondence while working for the Foreign Office. Yet she despaired when it emerged that her son, Ben, could hardly read and write as a child.
A generation later, after Thomson had developed into one of Britain’s foremost educationists on dyslexia, Ben Thomson (her chief “guinea pig”) had read astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, become chief executive of an investment bank, founded Scotland’s largest political think tank, Reform Scotland, and now invests in food and drink companies including Planet Organic and Montezuma’s chocolate.
His mother understood better than most the different ways that dyslexic children’s brains worked because she would spend hours playing with youngsters who had the condition, which renders reading and writing difficult because of problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words.
She despaired when it emerged that her son, Ben, could hardly read and write as a child.
In those days children would feel “stupid” compared with their peers, and would even be told as much. Thomson would build up their confidence, turning her house upside down as she invented games to play. Scarves would be knitted for teddies, dolls’ houses built and puppet shows put on. She would take her pupils on nature trails and spend hours talking to them “conspiratorially”.
More than 20 years of working closely with dyslexic children taught her two important lessons. The first was to accept and celebrate children as they are and not make them think they needed fixing. The second was that any dyslexic child could potentially enjoy reading just as much as any other child. This realization led her in 1998 to found the publishing company Barrington Stoke for “reluctant readers”.
The highly colorful stories she published were in a shorter format. Illustrations were not too detailed so that the children could form their own pictures in their imaginations. The key change was that the language was more visual.
Most revolutionary of all, Barrington Stoke was advised by an editorial board of dyslexic children. One child told her to change the sentence, “I hate it when girls cry, I find it really embarrassing,” because, he said, “‘embarrassing’ is a hard word and it’s not a word we use anyhow. It would be better if you said ‘I hate it when girls cry, it makes me want to puke’.”
Thomson charmed authors, including Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen and Julia Donaldson, into writing stories for her, and knew she was on to something when she began to receive letters from grateful parents saying: “This is the first book my child has ever read from beginning to end.”
Many of the parents would be dyslexic themselves because the condition is genetic and were grateful that the books helped them to read to their children for the first time. This year Lark by Anthony McGowan and published by Barrington Stoke became the first book aimed at dyslexic children to win the Carnegie Medal, known as the “children’s Booker prize”.
Thomson played a leading role in the slow transition from the condition being perceived as a learning difficulty to the championing of many dyslexic children as creatively gifted. She liked to recall showing a child a picture of a dinosaur and asking him what letter the word started with. He replied “B”, not because he mixed up B with D, but because B stood for brachiosaurus.
She knew she was on to something when she began to receive letters from grateful parents saying: “This is the first book my child has ever read from beginning to end.”
She said that dyslexics have a propensity for lateral thinking and complex problem solving that makes their thought processes sought after in many professional fields. She was thrilled when one of her former pupils found employment as a “computer whizz kid” in the City, but liked to tell the story that he turned up several hours late for his first day at work because he got on the wrong train and ended up in Oxford.
Patience Mary Bragg was born in Manchester, the youngest of four children, in 1935. Her father, William Lawrence Bragg, won the Nobel prize for physics in 1915 with his father and Thomson’s grandfather, William Henry Bragg, for their work analyzing structures using X-rays, which helped our understanding of many substances. They were the first father and son team to win the Nobel prize, while William Lawrence was the youngest winner in history at the age of 25. Her mother was Alice, née Hopkinson, a barrister, journalist and mayor of Cambridge.
Patience was brought up in Cambridge, where her father was a professor of physics at the Cavendish laboratory. There, under his aegis, Francis Crick and James Watson worked on the research that led to the discovery of the helical structure of DNA.
Decades later, while munching a croissant in a park with her granddaughter Agnes, Thomson was asked by the child what she did in the war. She recalled putting pins on maps on the wall to show where the Allied armies had got to. “Our teacher’s husband was shot down and killed in a raid over Germany and we had to be especially nice to her. At home, the sitting room was piled high with musty-smelling clothes and blankets for bombed-out families. We propped them up with wooden clothes horses to make tunnels and secret dens.” She recited her times tables in an air-raid shelter at the bottom of the garden.
Patience was educated at the Perse School in Cambridge and from the age of 14 at Downe House School for girls in Berkshire. She sat her O-levels and A-levels together at 16 and won an exhibition to Newnham College, Cambridge (her mother’s alma mater) to read French and German.
Her future husband, David Thomson, lived next door when they were children and their families were close friends. They began dating as young adults and had only been out together four times when he proposed. The couple were married in 1959.
Her husband worked for the investment bank Lazard. He was also from a distinguished family of scientists; his father, GP Thomson, won the Nobel prize for discovering the wave properties of the electron, and his grandfather JJ Thomson won the Nobel effectively for his work discovering the electron.
David survives her along with their four children: Ben; Alice, a columnist and interviewer for The Times; Hugh, an author, explorer and documentary film-maker; and Katie, who helps to run Maggie’s, a charity that provides psychological support for cancer patients. As a mother, she had a talent for turning family traumas into adventures for her children. She formed an especial bond with her 14 grandchildren.
In 1977 the Thomsons moved out of London to rural Oxfordshire, where Patience had a notion of growing her own fruit and vegetables with chickens ranging free. She soon tired of the “good life” and volunteered at Turners Court, a local young offender institute where she discovered that many of the boys could not read or write. She turned the air blue, and caused much hilarity, at a dinner party hosted by the then chancellor Denis Healey by recounting what her first pupil told her: “Miss, he called me an illiterate c***, and no one will tell me what illiterate means.” She made it her mission to teach the boys to write a letter and enlisted her children as their pen pals. She was amazed at how quickly they grew in confidence after composing their first faltering missives.
After taking a masters degree in special education at Bangor University Thomson was determined to gain acceptance for a condition that was still dismissed as an “excuse” for middle-class parents to cover for the “laziness” of their well-educated children. She began working in a unit at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, in the days when dyslexia was still seen as a medical problem.
Her daughter Alice wrote in The Times: “Dyslexics were always sitting at our kitchen table when I came home from school. There were dustmen who couldn’t read road signs, plumbers who had learnt their trade without ever resorting to a manual and chefs who had been flummoxed by French. There was minor royalty and there were the children of Greek shipping magnates.”
In 1989 Thomson became principal of Fairley House, a rapidly expanding specialist school for children with dyslexia which is now based in Lambeth, south London. Here she used the latest techniques, such as “mind maps”, to help the children organize their thoughts.
“Dyslexics were always sitting at our kitchen table when I came home from school. There were dustmen who couldn’t read road signs.... There were the children of Greek shipping magnates.”
She campaigned for dyslexic children to be taught the study and revision skills that would enable them to perform well in exams. “She was one of the pioneers of teaching these children beyond the rudimentary aspirations,” said Bernadette McLean, past principal of the Helen Arkell dyslexia centre.
Thomson retired from Fairley House in 1997 to found Barrington Stoke with her daughter-in-law, and Ben’s wife, Lucy Juckes, who had worked in publishing for Bloomsbury. Thomson’s book 101 Ways to Get Your Child to Read (2009) became a bestseller.
Thomson was close friends with the dyslexia pioneer Helen Arkell, who had taught her son, Ben. Years later, Thomson returned the favor by using her royal connections to persuade Princess Beatrice, who is dyslexic, to become an ambassador of the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity. An avid reader and enthusiastic poet, Thomson taught her last dyslexic child at the age of 83. Conspiratorial to the end, she told her pupils that she liked speaking to them more than adults.
Patience Thomson, teacher and dyslexia pioneer, was born on September 11, 1935. She died of natural causes on November 21, 2020, aged 85