How do pupils with dyslexia, or specific learning difficulties, learn best? Rebecca Jenkin offers active strategies to support dyslexic pupils and make a difference to their experience and outcomes at school
|There have been times in my teaching career where I’ve struggled to support dyslexic pupils. When I did my teacher training, I don’t think dyslexia, or specific learning difficulties, was even mentioned. In recent years, working as an English co-ordinator in a middle school (where more and more pupils are identified as having dyslexia), I have had to find information and discover what works best in the classroom. This certainly does not make me an expert – far from it – but I now try to support dyslexic pupils using effective strategies that seem to make a difference to their educational achievement, attainment and happiness at school.|
What is dyslexia?
The word ‘dyslexia’ comes from the Greek dys-, meaning difficult, and -lexia, meaning words or language. Dyslexia affects information processing skills (receiving, holding, retrieving and structuring information) and the speed at which information can be processed. It has an impact on the skills that many pupils take for granted – reading, writing, using symbols and calculating.
Dyslexia is not linked to low intelligence. The term indicates a kind of mind that learns in a different way from most other people. The condition appears in all age, race and social groups. I have noticed over the years that dyslexic pupils are often more likely than their peers to have other positive talents, such as creativity, lateral thinking and good visual and spatial skills. I have found dyslexic pupils to be efficient problem-solvers, and they often have good social and verbal skills. I have been able to make a difference in my classroom by harnessing these positive talents. I have found that children can secure knowledge in their long-term memory when the learning is made personal and meaningful. I have used patterns for text types and tried to give pupils the big picture by using a more holistic approach. Often, I link reading and writing to what the pupils are actually interested in, which I find generates enthusiasm and a positive attitude to learning.
Dyslexic children can find it difficult to acquire literacy skills, and they often encounter a lot of anguish and trauma because they find learning difficult. As teachers, we can take steps to alleviate this by making sure that we fully integrate a dyslexic child into the classroom learning environment; that we try to make the child feel secure and comfortable in order to develop their confidence and raise their self esteem. If we create a positive climate, the child can feel successful and valued.
In the classroom
In the classroom, start by preparing an outline of what is going to be taught in the lesson. Use a laminated timeline and write the lesson outline using simple key words. It is important to be explicit – dyslexic learners are often very literal.
Always finish a lesson with a resume of what’s been taught to help pupils make the shift from short-term memory to long-term memory. It is important to break tasks down into small, easily remembered pieces of information. Too much writing can be confusing, so if the pupils are copying from the whiteboard try to use a different colour pen for each line. If possible, have the text copied for the dyslexic pupil onto a small board in the colour that the pupil finds easiest to read.
An additional way to help dyslexic learners with their writing is to offer models for written work.
Writing frames and scaffolds can be used to help with planning, structure and organisation. If possible, encourage dyslexic pupils to use an audio tape or mini-disc recorder. This can be useful to help them organise their writing by recording their initial thoughts and ideas. Audio tapes can be used as a record of the child’s verbal, rather than written, account. Try to find ways that help pupils compose without too many constraints – for example, using a computer. Consider using a scribe.
If you are teaching an older year group, I recommend talking to the dyslexic pupil about how they prefer to learn. Learners do not always know how they learn best, so I sometimes have to suggest an approach and encourage the learner to evaluate whether or not it works. As teachers, we need to be very flexible in approach when working with a dyslexic child so that they can find the method of working that suits them best.
When working with extracts from texts or a class novel, it is helpful to give the pupils the extracts to be studied before the lesson so that they can familiarise themselves with the text. Invite the pupils to highlight key points and underline unfamiliar vocabulary. This certainly makes the pupils I teach more confident in class; many of them volunteer to read aloud to the whole class. Dyslexic learners find that using a coloured acetate or overlay on the page can help them to read more fluently and improve comprehension.
Some dyslexic pupils find it difficult to check and proof-read their work. Aim to offer direction and give the pupils plenty of opportunities to practise. From the experiences I’ve had, I recognise that the dyslexic child needs to be able to separate the two processes of writing and reading. Allow time after a writing task before asking the pupil to proofread the work. Often, the process of proofreading will need to be carried out more than once. The first time, encourage the pupil to look at content and organisation; the second time, ask the pupil to focus on grammar, expression and sentence structure. The final check should focus on spelling. Dyslexics find it difficult to correct their spellings spontaneously as they write, but they can be helped to look for errors that are particular to them. Avoid rewriting pieces of work as this can dishearten a child who has put a lot of effort into the original piece.
Promoting good organisational skills
Homework should always be written on a board so that pupils can copy it down correctly (use a pen in the colour preferred by the dyslexic child). To help organisation, never leave setting homework until the end of the lesson so that the instructions are hurried. Dyslexic pupils often have poor organisation. Give them time to put away their books and worksheets so that the right materials are taken home. Depending on the school’s homework policy, try to only set homework where it will be of real benefit to the child. Set a limit on the time to be spent completing homework, for dyslexic pupils a task will generally take them longer than a child with good literacy skills.
I have a buddy system in my classroom which pairs more able children with less able children. The buddies’ numbers are written in the front of pupils’ homework diaries so that if they are not clear about any aspect of the homework, they can ring their buddy and check what they have to do, rather than worry all evening or complete the work incorrectly. Encouraging a daily routine can help develop the child’s independence, responsibility and self-reliance. Stick a laminated sheet in the homework diary where a daily checklist for the pupil can be recorded to refer to during the evening.
Providing the pupils with coloured, labelled folders and dividers can help them to organise their work for different subjects. The more creative dyslexic pupils like to personalise their folders with drawings that mean something to them. This gives them ownership and makes them generally more enthusiastic about using the folders.
One of the most positive ways to raise self esteem is through how you mark work. Try to give credit for effort as well as achievement so that a dyslexic child who tries hard gains self-assurance. When marking creative writing, give credit for the context. Positive comments in pencil or green ink are much less off-putting than work covered in red ink.
Having fun and enjoying learning
Brain Gym activities, a series of simple movements developed to enhance whole-brain learning, are enjoyed by all pupils. Brain Gym is said to make all types of learning easier by processing all parts of the brain, through movement. I often incorporate these activities, which are widely available online, into my starters, so that pupils feel warmed up and ready to learn. Since I’ve been incorporating more Brain Gym in my classroom, the performance of dyslexic pupils has improved.
Everyone can benefit
Teaching dyslexic pupils highlights the need for more varied learning within a classroom. Often the strategies used, including structured and systematic techniques, can be of value to all learners in the class. Use a range of multi-sensory approaches with auditory, visual and kinaesthetic elements that serve to reinforce each other. Try to see the whole child, and understand their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding a pupil’s particular difficulties can enable a teacher to adopt teaching methods and develop strategies to help the dyslexic child to be fully integrated into the classroom.
Teaching dyslexic pupils highlights the need for more varied learning within a classroom. Often the strategies can benefit, and be of value to, all pupils