Useful tips for teachers and parents
In every class in mainstream schools there is likely be at least one student who has dyslexia. These students are as intelligent as their peers but they have difficulties in the specific areas of reading, writing, spelling, short-term memory and often organisational skills. In other disciplines they will perform normally or excel.
People with dyslexia tend to be creative and imaginative, with original approaches to problem solving and a sense of design. They usually have high emotional intelligence and empathy for others. They are good verbally and may be excellent orators. At school, however, they are too often categorised by their problems and not by their talents. This can lead to them feeling undervalued and being in the bottom sets. With low expectations and not enough provision, many will underachieve at school and become frustrated, depressed and disillusioned.
The adults in their lives, both teachers and parents can make a huge difference to their educational experiences, well-being and eventual success. Some key considerations that can help dyslexic people to succeed are discussed below.
All adolescents worry about workload, exams, body image and relationships, but students with dyslexia may also have a history of underperforming at school and struggling to do things that their peers find easy. They may regularly have failed exams or achieved disappointing results and feel embarrassed, dejected and lacking in self-confidence. Some become resentful and disengaged whilst others feel that they are just “stupid”.
Teachers and parents have a vital role to be upbeat and encouraging and to generate a positive “can do” attitude. Letting the student know that their academic potential and ability is recognised will make a huge difference. Their problems will not go away but alternative learning methods can generally be found to enable success. It is important to keep these sensitive young people buoyant and cheerful as they will need to work hard and face periodic setbacks to reach their academic goals.
How dyslexics think and process information
People with dyslexia think very rapidly, make lateral connections and often see thoughts in pictures. They tend to be imaginative, holistic thinkers and they get bored by too much fine detail. They are more right brained and are therefore less good at sequential, analytical thought processes.
We all learn by taking in and processing things that we see, hear or experience. Most people have a preferred channel but a dyslexic learner needs to have greater multi-sensory input and hands-on experience. They relish a variety of techniques involving colour, images, sound, experimenting, craft, drama, inventing or playing games and anything which makes learning fun.
Addressing their main challenges
Hesitant, inaccurate reading is the hallmark of dyslexia. Pages of small print text are daunting and often unintelligible. There is often a real dread of being asked to read out loud.
Generally, children with dyslexia love stories but dislike the mechanics of reading. Reading aloud to them will encourage a love of books. Story tapes can also be useful. Introduce them to books with easily accessible content and a good story line.
Reading English literature set texts is intimidating and it is often worth getting an audio version so that the student can hear the whole story before looking at the text in detail. Revision guides can also be helpful.
The ease and accuracy of reading lesson material can be helped by printing worksheets on different coloured paper or using coloured overlays. Most students have a preferred colour. A reading ruler may also help to prevent line jumping. Well-spaced text in a large, clear font is easier to read and dyslexics enjoy diagrams or cartoons to break up the page. Problems of reading out loud can be avoided if teachers give advanced warning so that they can prepare a small piece. Parents can give support by listening to reading at home to help confidence. Many dyslexics are very good actors but just need time to prepare.
A common dyslexic mistake is misreading questions and instructions, especially in stressful situations such as exams. Students should be encouraged to relax and read instructions slowly at least twice, underlining or highlighting key words or numbers. Some dyslexic students will qualify to have exam questions read to them, either by a person or using text to speech software
Slow writing speed with poor spelling and punctuation is typical, although the content can be good. Letters such as “b” and “d” may be reversed and capital letters can be used randomly.
Copying from the board is likely to be inaccurate. Words or whole lines may be missed out and in some cases the writing may become illegible when tiredness sets in. Errors in spelling, chemical formulae and numbers are common and dyslexic students are generally unable to process information at the same time as writing it down.
Try to reduce the volume of writing expected. Teachers can give out clear printed notes for important material. These should be well spaced out and not overwhelming. Coloured paper should be considered. If preferred, there can be gaps to fill in single words or short answers.
Sometimes students prefer to type on a word processor. Alternatively, audio recording is possible either to write up later or to transfer to notes using voice-to-text software.
Whilst dyslexic students can learn spellings for specific tests, they will often forget them again. Spelling can be erratic, especially if they are concentrating on the content of written work. Typical indicators of dyslexia are not hearing the sounds within words (phonemes) – for example “bloon” for “balloon” – letter reversal (such as “brian” for “brain”) and confusion of the consonants “b” and “p” and “g” and “k”. The same word can be spelled several different ways in the same passage.
Use multi-sensory methods to teach important spellings: chanting or singing, rhymes, clapping the letters, mnemonics, or quirky phrases. Vocabulary lists for key topic words are useful.
Short-term memory and organisation
Dyslexic students often have poor short-term memories and easily forget instructions, directions and details. They also find it hard to revise and retain information.
Revision can be aided with techniques which transfer information to the long-term memory; making up rhymes, songs, games, mnemonics, colour coding, or some computer revision programmes can help.
Planning essays and coursework is very intimidating as a holistic dyslexic will see the enormity of the whole task and be overwhelmed. It is helpful to divide it into smaller manageable chunks with interim deadlines so it can be tackled sequentially. Mind maps or essay grids may help to gather the initial flurry of lateral ideas so that they can then be organised into a sensible order.
Simple memory aids such as sticky notes and reminders on phones can be useful, as can an illustrated school timetable showing equipment needed for lessons or identifying when work needs to be handed in.
Plans of the school layout or local maps may help to prevent the student getting lost. A poor sense of direction and an inability tell left from right can also be symptomatic.
Maybe most important of all, celebrate successes of dyslexic students and praise their talents and strengths. They have unusual and creative minds and the potential to become leaders of tomorrow with the right encouragement and support today.
Diana Hudson runs inset training for teachers and mentors teenagers and adults with dyslexia. She is the author of Specific Learning Difficulties: What Teachers Need to Know, published by Jessica Kingsley: