How to teach English to children with dyslexia: practical tips

Teaching English to children with dyslexia

Teaching English to children with dyslexia

29.12.2022

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What is dyslexia? Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Dyslexia refers to some symptoms, which result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words.

What causes dyslexia?

The exact causes of dyslexia are still not completely clear, but anatomical and brain imagery studies show differences in the way the brain of a person with dyslexia develops and functions. Moreover, most people with dyslexia have been found to have problems with identifying the separate speech sounds within a word and/or learning how letters represent those sounds, a key factor in their reading difficulties.

What are the effects of dyslexia?

The impact that dyslexia has is different for each person and depends on the severity of the condition and the effectiveness of instruction or remediation. The main difficulty is with word recognition and reading fluency, spelling, and writing. Some individuals with dyslexia manage to learn early reading and spelling tasks, especially with excellent instruction, but later experience their most debilitating problems when more complex language skills are required, such as grammar, understanding textbook material, and writing essays.

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Dyslexic students process verbal information differently from those who do not have dyslexia.

First of all, they have shorter memory spans when it comes to processing language input. 

Have you tried to remember a long telephone number? In order not to forget the number, you have to keep the digits in your working memory and keep rehearsing them before you write them down.

The number of units you can store is your working memory capacity. For dyslexic students, this store can only hold fewer numbers. This has wide ranging effects on learning in general because students can remember fewer pieces of information at a time, whether it be instructions, how to carry out tasks, or new words in a language.

In addition to lower working memory capacity, another hurdle for dyslexic students is what is called reduced phonemic awareness

These students often have difficulties perceiving subtle differences between sounds — such as long and short vowels — and learning sound letter associations. This causes difficulties in reading and spelling both in their first language and in foreign language learning.

Tips for teaching dyslexic children

Trying to accommodate all of these differences in the class may seem like a huge challenge. But there are some simple ways of making the classroom more inclusive. There are lots of things teachers can do that don't cost any money or take up much time, which will make the classroom an easier place for students with dyslexia to work in. And other students will also benefit.

There are three main things that teachers could think about in order to make the classroom more inclusive:

  • classroom environment;
  • the way students and teachers communicate and interact;
  • content of the course, including materials. 

So let's start with the classroom environment. Some students with dyslexia may be very sensitive to their surroundings, particularly in terms of temperature, light, and noise. It may seem to most of us that a room is warm. But to some students, it may feel unbearably hot. And very bright lights may cause visual problems for some students and even headaches.

Some students may find noisy environments distracting, even distressing. So it may be worth thinking about allowing them to use ear plugs to block out the noise. 

In a similar way, too much visual information can be overwhelming for some students. It's great to have colourful displays on the classroom walls. But I would recommend keeping the wall around the board or the screen clear of other information if possible. And this will reduce the distractions and allow the students to focus on the material that's being presented at that moment.

In the case of paper materials, I find textbooks can often be too busy, with too many pictures and small exercises on a page. So to help students focus on just the bit they need to look at, a text window can be used to block out the rest of the page. And it can be as simple as two L-shaped pieces of card like this that can be moved to frame the exercise or text that the student is looking at.

Thinking first about student-student interaction, we know that working in pairs in small groups allows students lots of time to practise the new vocabulary and the structures that they're learning. 

The teachers may need to consider the talents and the difficulties of the learners in the class to ensure that the pairs and groups work well together. Depending on the aim of the activity, it may be helpful to group students with different skills together.

For example, students with lots of ideas but less confidence in writing could work with students who are good writers but less imaginative so that they all succeed. Just one word of caution – some students with dyslexia may find interacting with unfamiliar people a little bit stressful. So it may be worth considering who their best partners would be and letting them work with just a few of their classmates, at least at first.

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Moving on to consider teacher-student interaction, however you group the students, it's really important that the instructions you give are absolutely clear and unambiguous because if there are any possible different ways of interpreting what you say, you can bet that your dyslexic learners will find them. You also need to be really clear when you give feedback on their work. 

Try to find something positive to praise the students for to help boost their self-esteem.

It can be helpful for all learners in the class, not just the dyslexic learners, to know what's coming up in the session. So providing an overview at the start is good practise to let them know what the big picture is what the overall objective would be. On the other hand, the thought of completing very big tasks can be a bit scary. So breaking the tasks down into small chunks is also a good idea so that the students can focus on just a small amount of information at a time.

I know many teachers may not be able to determine the content of what they have to teach. But we can say how the material is presented.

The point about breaking large projects into smaller, more manageable chunks is just one approach that can be taken. We're also in control of the pace at which lessons go. Of course, there's a balance to be struck between keeping up a lively, engaging pace and going at a pace that students can follow comfortably.

The importance of differentiation

Students with dyslexia may process information more slowly and so need longer to think through issues and concepts. Their short-term memories are also likely to be weaker than their classmates. So they'll need lots of opportunities to recap and revise new language points.

This is perhaps where differentiation is most important. 

On this line, we can think about the tasks we ask the students to do. Do we give everybody the same task or different bits of a larger task? Another alternative is to set a task with a core component that everybody must tackle and some additional work that the quick finishers can look at while the others are still working. 

And this is where this line starts to become differentiation by materials.

We might ask the whole class to read a text and then summarise it. But we give our slower readers a shorter, less-complex text and the quicker workers a longer one. And then they can share with each other what they found out.

On the other axis we have differentiation by support, by which I mean the amount of time that the teacher spends with the student explaining, helping, encouraging, as well as other support that may be available. 

This might be other students in pair work or other adults, if you have classroom support. It might be electronic sources or the use of a dictionary. For example, you might decide to let some dyslexic students use a spell checker to take some of the stress out of writing.

And at the other end of the axis is differentiation by expectation

Now I don't mean that we should have lower expectations of our dyslexic learners. We know that our learners pick up on our expectations and tend to meet them, for better or worse.

What I mean here is that we should be realistic about how much of a text a dyslexic student might be able to read or write in a given time or how beautiful or accurate the final product might be. For each individual, we need to know how far we can push her and when to accept she's done the best she could do. This, of course, means that we have to make an effort to know our students really well and to encourage them to become more aware of their own abilities, too.

And this leads us to the final section — developing independent study skills

Many students with dyslexia will have weaker memories than average. And we can help them with language learning by suggesting memory strategies that might work for them. Time management and organisation are other areas that may need some support. And we can suggest that our learners use diaries or phone calendars to note down homework and meetings and even record short phone messages to help them remember what they need to do.

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So having looked at a few key aspects of teaching, such as the physical environment, classroom communication, interaction, and the course content and materials, I hope you'll feel that including learners who have dyslexia is not so hard. And above all, I hope you'll feel encouraged to help your dyslexic learners develop more independent study skills so that they can succeed in learning the language alongside their classmates.

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Article authors & editors
  • Olena Ukrainska

    Olena Ukrainska

    Author

    CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English, author and teacher of the course for children with dyslexia and dysgraphia

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