Dyslexia is thought to be one of the most common learning difficulties and appears to be more common in boys than girls. In the UK, one definition of dyslexia is when there is a differential of two or more years between literacy skills and chronological age, assuming average or above intelligence and general cognitive ability.
There seem to be a number of causes of dyslexia and the way it affects an individual can vary greatly. Recently, and across many countries, it seems that parents, schools, education authorities and governments are becoming more and more aware of a requirement for provision for dyslexic learners in the English language classroom.
Even though dyslexia is a very complex issue and generally requires a carefully managed approach for each individual, there are ways we as non-experts can help a dyslexic learner. So, here are 10 ways of helping dyslexic students in the ELT classroom.
1. Understanding dyslexia
Be aware of what dyslexia is. Dyslexia is essentially about information processing. Dyslexic people tend to have issues with working memory and may have difficulty processing and remembering information they see and hear.
This can affect general learning and in particular the acquisition of literacy skills. Dyslexic learners thus have difficulty in learning to read and/or write despite normal intelligence and conventional instruction.
2. Looking for the signs
Be aware of the signs that a student may be dyslexic. A typical dyslexic student may not fully participate in class, have difficulty concentrating and remaining on task, or be slow, disorganized and forgetful.
3. Literacy issues
Be aware of the literacy issues that a dyslexic learner may have. These may include a substantial gap between oral and written abilities; generally poor, 'creative' or phonetic spelling; poor and inconsistent handwriting and poor sentence and paragraph structure. He/she may also write slowly.
4. Associated issues
Be aware of any other associated issues such as dyspraxia or dyscalculia, which possibly affects around 50% of dyslexic learners, and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).
5. Setting up tasks
In class, give short, concise instructions and ask the student to undertake one task at a time. If possible give the student more time to complete a task. And if appropriate, allocate a peer-helper.
6. The importance of handouts
Give handouts of any whiteboard work. Dyslexic learners generally have difficulty following and copying from a whiteboard.
7. Less is more
Minimise the processing load when doing exercises and activities. Focus on key and core language. Keep new language to a minimum and provide plenty of review and consolidation.
8. The right kind of material
Use material which is well-structured, clear and with a linear and logical, predictable progression. Try to avoid exercises which involve jumping about (eg, backwards and forwards, from box A to box B etc).
For example, classic ELT exercises where verbs at the end of a sentence are put into the correct tense earlier in the sentence could be challenging for a dyslexic learner.
9. Rewriting texts
If possible, rewrite texts. Reduce the word count and focus on key ideas. As much as possible avoid sentences ‘going over’ onto the next line. Have double spacing between lines. Use a larger, dyslexic-friendly font without serifs. Use tinted paper (eg, off-white, cream or a soft pastel colour).
Above all, try to be aware of and sensitive to each individual’s precise issues. Be understanding, patient, encouraging and build confidence.
And remember – the sensitivities, classroom management approaches and materials that can help the dyslexic learner will also largely be appropriate for a range of associated learning issues.
Jon Hird is an ELT writer, international teacher trainer and tutor at the University of Oxford. His particular areas of interest include grammar, EAP and provision for learners with Dyslexia.
Find out more about Jon at jonhird.com or follow him on Twitter @jonhirdelt.