Dyslexia in higher education



Rhiannon Packer asks if late dyslexia diagnosis is preventing pupils from reaching their potential

According to the British Dyslexia Association (BDA), ten per cent of the British population may have dyslexia, meaning that there are likely to be three pupils with dyslexia in every school class. It is currently estimated that four per cent of students in higher education (HE) have a specific learning difficulty (SpLD). While some will have been diagnosed in school, there are a number of students every year who, realising that they are struggling more than their peers, seek dyslexia diagnosis at this stage. If nearly a tenth of the population may have dyslexia, yet only four per cent of students enrolled on HE courses have SpLD, what has happened to the rest?

Many will have opted out of university to focus on apprenticeships or go straight into work. However, if students with dyslexia have not received a timely diagnosis, this can have a serious impact on their self-esteem and confidence in terms of academic achievements. When dyslexia remains undiagnosed it can influence an individual’s wellbeing: many experience a sense of failure, which can lead to lower feelings of self-worth.

Diagnosis at any age can be empowering, as it offers an explanation for the difficulties experienced and enables individuals to seek support for their struggles. Not having a diagnosis can cause pupils with dyslexia to feel they are not good enough academically, and may discourage them from applying to HE.

The importance of an early diagnosis

Identifying dyslexia at an early stage helps pupils get a clearer picture of their own needs and areas in which they require support. Ideally, identification should be as early as possible, but earliest diagnosis usually occurs around the age of eight, when pupils are expected to be reading and writing quite confidently. If teachers in primary schools can identify characteristics of dyslexia, they can provide the appropriate interventions that may not only reduce the impact of dyslexia, but also ease the pupil’s transition to secondary school. They can also ensure pupils receive the right support in the following years and stages of their education.

The challenges of dyslexia

Dyslexia is complex and difficult to identify. More often than not, there are overlapping or co-occurring difficulties in aspects of language, motor-coordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation. This could be attributed to an overlap with other conditions such as dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Symptoms are on a continuum and dyslexia can impact learners in various ways and to different degrees. SpLD and neurodiversity are used as umbrella terms in acknowledging the overlap.

Early signs an individual might have dyslexia are delayed speech development compared with other children, difficulties with expression and understanding rhyming words – though of course these factors might be due to other causes. Signs of dyslexia become more apparent as the learner begins school and starts to focus on learning to read and write. These can include: confusion with letter and number recognition, such as “b” and “d” or “6” and “9”; unpredictable and inconsistent spelling; difficulty with sequencing, such as learning the days of the week or months of the year; reading slowly or making errors when reading aloud; being able to explain well orally but experiencing difficulties when transcribing to paper.

Challenges faced by learners with dyslexia include maintaining the same working pace as their peers, time management and organisation. These difficulties can lead to frustration and potential disengagement from learning.

Aiding independence

Some students struggle to adjust to university life. In HE there is a focus on independent learning; it is the student’s responsibility to prepare and submit work by set deadlines – a marked contrast to the guidance and support provided in schools. To help pupils with dyslexia and to encourage them into academia, we need to support them in their independent learning, making them more confident in their own abilities. An earlier diagnosis can start this process, as pupils can adapt their learning style to their own learning needs.

Being aware of the potential signs of dyslexia in primary and secondary school means early diagnosis is more likely. This can help build pupils’ confidence in their academic abilities and potential.

Supporting learners

It is essential that schools meet the needs of learners with dyslexia (whether they have a diagnosis or not). While specialist interventions and tailored support focussing on the individual needs of the learner are important, a number of small adjustments incorporated into every-day practice can make a big difference. Here are a few useful examples.

Use a dyslexia friendly font in texts, such as Arial or Comic Sans, and avoid using cursive scripts or fonts like Times New Roman. Make sure that presentations have a coloured background and if possible ensure all handouts or photocopies are off-white. Chunk information where possible, so that learners are not overwhelmed with information. Develop a multi-sensory approach when teaching, so that the pupil’s brain can take in, process and store information in a variety of ways, and make more connections. This aids the transfer of information from the short-term to the long-term memory.

Other useful strategies include: pre-teaching key vocabulary; exploring word derivations and explaining connections between words; modelling good language, both orally and in writing; and exploring different spelling strategies to encourage learners to remember how to spell tricky words. Of course, these adjustments are beneficial not only to learners with dyslexia but to all learners. They can help all educators to develop effective strategies to support learning.

About the author

Dr Rhiannon Packer is a lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University’s Cardiff School of Education and Social Policy, specialising in additional learning needs. She is currently carrying out screening tests on children’s eye movement, using new technology that could lead to earlier and more precise dyslexia diagnoses.




Rhiannon Packer
Author: Rhiannon Packer

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