We could say that dyslexia is as much of a learning difficulty as a teaching difficulty, and not only in the English classroom. There are more and more children diagnosed with dyslexia in their L1, and this concerns EFL teachers just as much as any other subject teachers. Before looking at ways of dealing with dyslexia in your classroom, we need to understand it from various asepcts.
Dyslexia defined by the International Dyslexia Assosciation:
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin.
It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. (...)
Studies show that individuals with dyslexia process information in a different area of the brain than do non-dyslexics.
Many people who are dyslexic are of average to above average intelligence.
Many researchers suggest that we should deal with dyslexia under the category of 'learning difficulties'. Eva Gyarmathy suggests we think of dyslexia as a 'special way of processing information' and the type of dyslexia we are most likely to encounter is 'the children's answer to an education that is inappropriate for their abilities' (Gyarmathy, 2007).
In order to identify and and deal with dyslexia, we have to fully understand the weaknesses and strengths our dyslexic students have. Successful dyslexics are aware of their weaknesses but they focus on their strengths to deal with learning challenges. Unfortunately there are students whose dyslexia is unidentified, and they might feel frustrated, ashamed and slower compared to other students. We cannot say that dyslexia is present only with young learners as students are diagnosed in high school or at university.
How can we deal with this?
1 It might sound evident, but first talk to the parents, the special education teacher or psychologist in your school. You might have missed some information about your student.
2 Although you cannot personally test your students for dyslexia, you can notice if a student has recurring difficulty dealing with certain tasks. Pay attention to reading, processing information in a text, finding information in a text, the speed of reading, writing tasks and copying exercises from the board. If any of your students experience a series of difficulties dealing with these tasks, you can suggest a dyslexia test.
As teachers we need to use the right classroom strategies and choose the right materials for our dyslexic students, and our non-dyslexic students will also experience the benefits of our efforts.
- perception of directions, orientations, relations (Gyarmathy, 2007)
- sequential abilities, step by step information processing (Gyarmathy, 2007)
- phonological abilities/awareness
- processing language-based information
- global/holistic learning: they see 'the big picture', 'the whole' first
- visual thinking: they use pictures to process information and find solutions
- creativity, vivid imagination
- multimodal learning
Strategies for dyslexic students
1 Visual approaches
- Use flashcards and illustrations.
- Draw pictures to illustrate new vocabulary.
- Use colours to highlight new vocabulary or sentence structure.
- Use mind maps to organise information
- Resource book: Teaching Young Learner's to Think by Herbert Puchta and Marion Williams
- Use activities to develop your students' mental imagery
- Resource book: Imagine That! by Jane Arnold , Herbert Puchta , Mario Rinvolucri
- Use visual art
- Resource book: English Through Art by Peter Grundy, Hania Bociek and Kevin Parker
2 Multimodal approaches
- Use audio, visual and verbal materials.
- Use songs, chants, raps in your classroom. Resource book: Grammar Songs & Raps
- Use the audio recordings that come with graded readers.
- Play memory games.
- Play interactive games.
- Role plays.
Just like with your non-dyslexic students, recycling is a key to success with dyslexic students. However, you might have to repeat and recycle instructions and new vocabulary. When you are reading with your students, repeat the text several times, and let your students recreate the answers, sentences and paragraphs by repeating what you say.
5 Boost your students' confidence
Your students might feel frustrated and disappointed because of their responses, and their processing time might take longer.
- Use activities to build positive self-esteem.
- Resource: Seeds of Confidence by Verónica de Andrés & Jane Arnold
- Never make your students think that the class is waiting for them because they are slow.
- Be creative and forget about classic grading: praise your students for coming up with a creative solution or using visual clues to find an answer.
Further reading strategies for young readers
- Try shared reading and read aloud.
- Choose short stories with lots of illustrations.
- Choose stories your students can connect to because of their interests and experiences.
- Let your students act out what they are reading.
- Show your students how to follow the text with their fingers, point at illustrations, stop to talk about the visuals.
- Listen to the audio recording of the story.
- Use books with open fonts. Reading difficulties such as dyslexia are often very sensitive to particular typefaces.
For the Helbling Young Readers we carefully choose our fonts and design the text layout to ensure that our stories are accessible to as broad an audience as possible. We also use thicker paper, a plain evenly spaced font, wider line-spacing and carefully calibrated line lengths so to significantly reduce the visual stress experienced by many readers who suffer from reading difficulties.
- Bienge, Hannah. 'Learning a second language when your first is a struggle'. IATEFL Brighton 2011
- Geva, Esther and Farnia, Farnia. Assessment of Reading Difficulties in ESL/ELL Learners: Myths, Research Evidence, and Implications for Assessment.
- Gyarmathy, Éva. Guidelines to English teaching programmes for dyslexic individuals
- An Index of Successful Dyslexics by the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity