Kate Doehren explores the different ways teachers can engage and enthuse pupils with dyslexiaThe British Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as a combination of abilities and difficulties which affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling, writing and sometimes numeracy/language. Accompanying weaknesses may be identified in areas of speed of processing, short-term memory, sequencing and organisation, auditory and/or visual perception, spoken language and motor skills’.
While one in ten people in the UK are affected, it can often be difficult to identify, meaning that children and adults can struggle for years before it is detected, hindering their ability to reach their full potential. This is particularly important when it comes to children learning at school, and yet the problem may stem from peers, teachers and parents not fully understanding what dyslexia is and how best to support those with it.
Just as every person has their own preferred way of working, studying and learning, it’s important for us to be aware of the various forms of dyslexia, and how specific learning techniques can help dyslexic students learn effectively.
Identification and assessment
Throughout my time working in the education sector, I have always been fascinated by the theory behind why children find it difficult to learn to read. I’ve worked alongside many students with various disabilities and behavioural issues, leading me into my current job as Director of Learning Support (LS) at Hurstpierpoint College.
From experience, I’ve seen many students struggle with their reading, writing, sounds and words for years before dyslexia has even been suggested as a potential cause. It is, therefore, important to create a much wider awareness of the specific difficulty, how it affects people, and the types of support we can provide children and young adults in school to help them feel confident in their ability to excel in all areas of education.
When it comes to identifying dyslexia, there are a number of early indicators that many of us may not even associate with it, however it is important for teachers and parents to recognise these challenges. For example, does your child have difficulty doing up their buttons, or tying their shoe laces? Do they get their left and right easily mixed up? Do they struggle to remember sequences such as the days of the week, months of the year or even the alphabet? While, from an outside perspective, they may only seem like small challenges that many young children face when growing up, it’s important to keep an eye on their development and if these indicators don’t change, then it could be a sign of dyslexia.
It’s not uncommon for every student to hand in a piece of work at some stage that isn’t up to scratch. But when every piece of homework or classwork doesn’t make sense, or isn’t done to the standard expected, then teachers should consider these signs and investigate further.
If a parent or teacher suspects their child may be dyslexic, then a formal assessment will need to be carried out. At Hurst, we have a good system whereby students can be referred to experts in Learning Support by teachers, providing a body of evidence as to why they have concerns about the child’s learning. We then look at the evidence, and speak to the student’s other teachers to assess whether the behaviours or challenges are apparent in all classes. If issues appear across the board, we conduct an internal, standardised assessment and then make a decision on what steps to take next. The most important thing is for all the data to be captured and uploaded to our system so that any teacher can access it and understand the requirements of every student who has an LS need like dyslexia.
The label of ‘dyslexic’ can be perceived both positively and negatively by students. On one hand, it provides relief, knowing there is a reason why they may find certain tasks particularly challenging; on the other hand, students may see it as a barrier or a hindrance to their abilities. However, with the right support and reassurance this misconception can be erased.
I believe that it’s important to set expectations with students; from the outset I will tell them, ‘Yes you have a difficulty, but that actually just means that you think in a different way. You cannot use it as an excuse’. Therefore, what students learn in class should be no different. However, the way it is taught needs to be adjusted to ensure they are able to retain information and remain engaged and enthused at all times.
There are various techniques that can be used within the class, depending on the severity or type of dyslexia, and these will need to be trialled and tested. Let’s take a look at some of the most universal strategies and examples:
Positivity is key
Learning is best related to pleasant memories and feelings. Therefore, students are most likely to engage with a subject and be willing to learn, when they are feeling positive. So first things first: at the beginning of the lesson, ensure the student is in the right mind-set, and if they have any concerns or upsets, allow them to express their feelings; it will stop them from being distracted and disengaging from the tasks ahead.
Allowing them to feel comfortable in a positive and encouraging environment, will give them the confidence and self-value of achievement.
Our bodies are capable of incredible things and from a young age, children experience and actively use all their senses. For example, before we even reach our first year of age, if someone shook a rattle we would hear it. We would turn and look at it, touch it, taste it, smell it and feel it. Yet as we get older, these enquiries become limited to the use of only a few senses, and learning becomes a process of reading and writing. While for some this is an effective way to learn, it can be challenging for students with dyslexia.
In most cases, multi-sensory learning is extremely valuable for effective teaching and learning. It won’t be relevant for all teaching exercises, nevertheless, presenting information in both visual and auditory ways may be more motivating and engaging. For example, while a student may struggle to understand something written on the page, turning this into a more hands-on task involving acting, voice recording or even building, may just help them achieve that ‘lightbulb’ moment when it all clicks into place and makes sense to them.
Removing the need to process unnecessarily heavy text is paramount for students with dyslexia. Therefore, anything that involves visual content, including pictures, video clips, animated drawings, colourful mind-maps and flow charts, will be a lot more appealing and engaging for them.
There are a huge amount of study guides and resources available for students to use, both in the classroom and at home with support from parents and teachers. Investing in those that specifically follow the curriculum, such as those published by Oaka Books, will be hugely beneficial, allowing students to learn effectively through pictorial or cartoon-based imagery with simple sentences, without alienating them through the use of heavy passages or complicated structures of text.
Often, these resources will have been put together by educational specialists or those who have a vested interest in providing support. I myself have been involved in the creation of resources for dyslexic students and visual learners. Working in a school, I have been able to witness a noticeable difference in students’ engagement and attainment levels, by using a range of tools and techniques that embrace these visual and kinaesthetic elements of learning, so that we don’t alienate students with dyslexia in the way that heavy passages of texts, alone, can do.
Experiment with technology
ICT and hardware are also useful areas of support and can be an excellent way of engaging students in the learning process.
For example, instead of getting them to read or write at their desk, try sitting with them at the computer. Whereas text can appear to ‘jump around’ on the page of a book, the variety of colours and fonts available on a desktop can improve their ability to read and focus.
You could also use software on the computer to get the students to create their own visual aids and mind-maps — getting them to actively think about what they have learnt about a certain topic or subject and build their own interpretations of the information they have consumed. There are many available websites which can help with this.
Teaching the teacher
It’s often the case that information is retained most effectively when you can demonstrate your own explanation of something you’ve previously learnt.
Therefore, encourage your student to ‘become the teacher’ and explain what they’ve learnt to their peers or parents. It puts the learning in their hands, enabling a sense of ownership and confidence. This will then, in turn, create a more positive attitude as they’re likely to recall a lot more information than they may have realised!
As I’ve previously mentioned, children with dyslexia can find it hard to articulate their thoughts and what they’ve learnt. However, when encouraged to express these feelings through alternative avenues, parents and teachers will be able to get a clearer insight into what they’ve actually taken from the lesson, and how it has been interpreted.
Ultimately, what is learnt does not need to change; instead, how it is taught needs to be considered.
Both parents and teachers need to be aware and understand the challenges that dyslexic children may face throughout their educational journey and how to support them best.
Once these strategies and alternative methods have been identified, then we can feel confident in the knowledge that we are providing students with everything they need in order to reach their full potential.