As both a classroom teacher and tutor, I have come across many children with dyslexia over the years. These children are sometimes perceived to be low ability children, and sadly often find themselves in low sets for English. However, these children are actually often extremely intelligent,and one indicator of dyslexia is a disparity between a child’s oral work and their written work. Yet with the correct support and interventions, these students can go on to achieve excellent academic results.
What is dyslexia?
It is rather difficult to pin down dyslexia to one specific definition. In a way it is similar to autism, in that students tend to fall on a spectrum, with different degrees of struggle. It emerges due to initial difficulties in childhood with decoding letters and sounds when learning to read, and it can develop into more severe problems with reading and writing as the student progresses through primary and secondary school.
Dyslexia and Irlen’s Syndrome
A common myth is that dyslexic people read words backwards. This is not the case exactly, it is more that as dyslexic students struggle to decode the letter sounds, words become jumbled up. This can also lead students to write letters back to front, for example writing b and d the wrong way around. This is often a sign of Irlen’s Syndrome, which affects approximately 50% of people with dyslexia. There are many steps that can be taken to support students affected by this. Colour plays a big part, and students often find their reading ability greatly improves when work is presented to them with certain colour backgrounds. I have found blue backgrounds and overlays in particular make a big difference.
Line spacing is also very important. Work for dyslexic students should always be presented with at least 1.5 line spacing. The font choice is also important. Sans serif fonts such as Arial tend to work better, as they are usually better spaced out and easier for dyslexic students to decode. Some students also benefit from using their ruler as a guide, so that they focus on one line at a time, rather than being overwhelmed by too much text at once.
Giving dyslexic children tasks in the classroom (or at home)
When working with dyslexic children, it is important to break tasks down as much as possible, in order to avoid overwhelming the student. Tasks should not take a student more than ten minutes at a time. This does not mean they cannot attempt complex tasks, but for example a writing task can be broken into planning time, writing the introduction, writing the next paragraph and so on.
Tasks should also be varied so that they include a multisensory approach. Dyslexic students are often highly creative, and thrive when they are allowed to use different skills and present work in more unconventional ways. They may respond well to visual stimuli and the opportunity to present work orally. For example, they could record a monologue as a character from one of their set texts, and create a graphic novel rather than writing out a story.
When giving instructions, again care should be taken to break them down and not overwhelm the child. They should not be too long, and it may be useful to highlight key words. Another helpful tip is to get the student to repeat the instructions back to you, in order to check how well they have been processed.
Dyslexic students should not be asked to copy out large amounts of text wherever possible, and instead should be given text printed off and asked to highlight words. It can be useful to provide a glossary of key words at the beginning of the lesson as well. Furthermore, avoid asking dyslexic students to read aloud in front of others if they are not willing to. It can be incredibly overwhelming and can cause them a great deal of distress.
Spelling and Writing Tasks
Spelling is unfortunately always going to be an area of concern for dyslexic students, but there are techniques that they can use in order to improve. Dyslexic students often see things in different ways, and this can be used to help them with spelling. For example, mnemonic devices can be really effective, as can drawing an outline around the word and learning the shape of the word.
Spelling is a key part of the English Language GCSE, but it is not the only skill students will be assessed on. There are many other areas where students are able to gain marks, and dyslexic students often benefit from support in areas such as structure and organisation of ideas. Writing frames are a useful tool for this. They help students to shape their ideas and again can be a way of breaking longer writing tasks down into sections.
Modelling is also an effective way to help all students, not just those with dyslexia. This is a technique I have used very successfully in my online sessions with students in lock down, as the student is able to see me construct model exam answers and we discuss the techniques I am using as I go. Students can see how I break it down into stages, and this then makes them feel more confident about attempting them independently.
This is of course a huge area, and there are intensive programmes of intervention that specialist dyslexia teachers will provide in order to support these students. This is just an overview of strategies that all teachers and parents can use to support a dyslexic child, and they form part of a plan to ensure that these students achieve their full potential and do not get left behind.
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