Schools must create an ethos which enables learners with dyslexia to achieve, writes Jules Daulby
Many learners with dyslexia are quite aware of their strengths and the needs they have to meet to ensure success. Ownership of their learning is particularly evident when specialist teachers have been involved; this is because part of the role is to ensure a child knows why they may not be reading and writing like their peers and what strategies can be used effectively. There is also value in teaching metacognition. How do I learn? What helps me make it stick? How can I help myself? Such self-awareness will help all children but it can be even more valuable if a child has a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) such as dyslexia.
Issues which make academic life harder include having a poor verbal memory, meaning they may only remember the last thing you say, and slow processing of information which can make it feel like the lesson is on fast forward, leaving students struggling to keep up. These same learners are then often taken out of class for interventions, making it even harder for them to catch up on subject knowledge. It’s no wonder many children with literacy difficulties become frustrated and marginalised in a system which rewards things they can’t do and doesn’t enable them to show what they can do.
Teaching children to read and write is important, yet if school segregates students with literacy difficulties too often, this will disempower them. Boosters are fine if used sparingly and rigorously, but leaving students languishing in eternal interventions with no plan for how a pupil can independently access a curriculum in mainstream lessons is problematic. The student will feel less and less part of the school community and lose any belief they had in their abilities, focusing instead on their lack of literacy skills, believing they are “lazy” and/or “stupid”. Other schools may not use any interventions, but neither will they provide technology or readers and scribes to allow someone who can’t read and write to achieve in class. Ultimately, a student can be left in literacy-based lessons with no barriers removed and set up to fail.
When things go wrong for a child with literacy difficulties, it is likely to be due to a lack of whole school systems in place to support them. If a learner cannot access text and struggles to record their knowledge in a way which is commensurate with their understanding, they require reasonable adjustments in the classroom to remove this barrier and allow success in another way.
Students I have taught and assessed with dyslexia often name individual teachers who “believed in them”, ones who asked what they could do to help and others who made them feel valued in the classroom rather than a hindrance to their performance data. Many pupils I speak to describe teachers as either liking or disliking them, though usually this is not the case, it’s just how they are made to feel; perception is an interesting concept in education but whether it is in tune with reality or not, if a student feels like no-one cares, it can make or break their academic development. Individual teachers can therefore make a difference to a child but without a whole school ethos which is designed to enable children with dyslexia to succeed, many will fall through the net and, at worst, end up in a local pupil referral unit, despite not needing to be there. Students with SEN and disabilities are seven times more likely to be excluded from school and the majority of them will have literacy difficulties; it’s a serious problem in England and one which, where leadership embraces adjustments and inclusive strategies, can be improved dramatically.
A culture in which students have ownership of their learning is key. When a teacher asks, “How can I help you learn?”, a confident answer with knowledge of their difficulties and strengths should be expected. The solution may involve extra time, a laptop, being able to take a photograph of homework on the board, small changes to enable access to the curriculum and an ability to record their knowledge. Reasonable adjustments for students with dyslexia should be ubiquitous in the school and celebrated when a child can ask for them independently.
Top tips for creating confident dyslexic learners:
- ensure students have ownership of their difficulties and strengths and are able to communicate them to others; the school also has to listen and act
- teachers should constantly explore with the student their knowledge of what helps them learn
- metacognitive strategies, including those linked to dyslexia, can empower a student to know how to learn independently; regular staff training on literacy difficulties and dyslexia is essential
- make learning relevant to help students make links and transfer knowledge; teachers generally know how well this can help children with SEN and finding “ways in” to subjects should be part of the planning process
- repetition is important; there’s often a belief that children with dyslexia and other SEN need lessons jam-packed with excitement; though relevance and interest are great learning motivators, what is often required is repetition to build knowledge and confidence
- over learning until something becomes automatic can be very useful
- modelling is crucial; teachers should ask what they are working towards and they should model answers in class and give accessible examples of work for students with dyslexia to access
- develop a student’s motivation by helping them to build on small but regular successes
- challenging tasks should be presented “little and often”
- multi-sensory techniques can be very engaging; see it, hear it, speak it and write it
- building a narrative around the subject aids memory
- technology can remove many literacy barriers; top tech aids include text to speech, dictation, word prediction, electronic graphic organisers and contextual spelling/grammar checkers.
Working with parents
An essential part of a school culture which supports a learner with dyslexia to succeed is partnership with parents. It is likely that a literacy difficulty is genetic and therefore other members of the family may have similar issues with learning. Involving parents in what helps the child is vital; they may see how their son or daughter copes with homework, using technology, for example, or finding other ways which help them. These methods might be transferable into the classroom or communicated to teachers, so they can employ similar strategies at school.
Enabling children with dyslexia to learn despite them having a non typical approach to literacy does not mean having low expectations; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. These students spend most of the time in mainstream classes and until (or if) their reading and writing abilities are comparable with their peers, adjustments must be put in place. The key thing reported to me by children who struggle with literacy, though, is how they are made to feel. Perhaps the single most important question from a school and its teachers for these learners is “How can we help you to learn?” Listening and acting on their advice communicates to the learner that they’re valued and that their success in education is important.
Jules Daulby is Director of Education for The Driver Youth Trust, a charity campaigning for better outcomes for those with SEN and literacy difficulties: