Practical Strategies for Students with Dyslexia

The Mona Lisa.

Q:What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Tom Cruise all have in common?

A:They were all dyslexic. While dyslexia presents a range of challenges, with effort and an understanding of strategies that can be used, these challenged can be overcome over time, and can even be a strength. ‘Dyslexia in Secondary School’ by Jenny Cogan and Mary Flemming, and ‘The Gift of Dyslexia’  by Ronald Dell Davis outline some of these challenges, and offers practical techniques that can be used to help. There’s so much useful information out there about dyslexia, and I recommend you learn more about it. Here, I offer a starting point and a summary of some of the ideas these great books suggest.

Reading

The Challenge: People with dyslexia will be occupied with decoding words and the pronunciation of words, and they may not remember much of the information, meanings and connotations in what they read.

The Strategies:

  • Practise reading aloud in private, not in a classroom setting, where there will be pressure to decode and pronounce words properly
  • Encourage students to visualise the text in images. This can be done by: explaining what they should specifically be looking for in a text, verbal recapping of events at regular intervals, then  discussing the whole, and attaching pictures to a text using drawing or ready-made images, e.g. putting pictures in the correct order to show a plotline, drawing a cartoon strip as a text is read to them then asking them to recall the story without the pictures, annotating character drawings
  • Break texts down into the senses and discuss each of these
  • Use colours to represent moods or different parts of the text
  • Make abstract problems link to real-life situations e.g. maths should be learnt in terms of slices of cake or money, not just numbers.
  • Difficult terminology can be linked to an image ‘amps’ in science reminds the student of the humps or ‘umps’ on a camel’s back. Subject specific terminology needs to be focused on before they are included in a task e.g. words with multiple meanings or connotations, homophones and figurative language
  • Practise decoding example exam questions prior to an exam so that students focus on what is being asked, rather than  struggling with decoding the question

Mind-mapping

The Challenge:

Many people with dyslexia have difficulties with remembering an auditory or language-based sequence of events or words. They also can get frustrated when asked to multitask using too much information.

The Techniques:

  • Spider diagrams for bringing together ideas
  • Number ideas in a sequence, discussing links between ideas
  • Include colours and striking images where possible
  • Mind-mapping on the computer may be more appealing to students as they can create neat boxes with clear handwriting
  • Always discuss the mind-map afterwards and try to recall it without the map in front of the student

Computers

The Challenge:

Some students with dyslexia have genuine hand-eye or language-co-ordination difficulties that cannot be overcome with practise. By the time dyslexic children reach secondary school, their handwriting skills are pretty well-formed and difficult to change. They often find it difficult to re-read their own writing and the efforts used in forming neat, legible handwriting and remembering basic grammar can distract them from using their other creative talents and intelligence.  Computers can illuminate this frustration and allow students to develop other key skills.

The Techniques:

  • Allow the use of word-processing  –  this is a learning tool, not a hindrance to improving spelling
  • Students may apply to use a computer in exams: exam boards will ‘make every attempt to respond positively to requests for candidates to use computers’, however they will need evidence from an educational psychologist or qualified teacher
  • Encourage the student to go back over his work and check for mistakes before handing the work in – this is a skill he may have previously found difficult when editing work in his own handwriting
  • Touch-typing illuminates the need for the student to look down at what he is typing, which means he is multi-tasking less and can concentrate more on what he is writing, rather than how
  • GCSE Bitesize has interactive activities and revision notes broken up into chunks, often with audio clips, which are good for revision http://www.bbc.co.uk/eductaion/revision
  • Autocorrect in Word (Menu bar – tools – autocorrect) is designed to correct common mistakes and can be programmed to correct subject-specific vocabulary and extend abbreviations
  • Creating power point presentations allows students to convert written information into a more visual medium with colour, images and graphs. The student can then present the slideshow verbally, turning the pictures and prompts back into words

Note-taking

The Challenge:

Students with dyslexia may find it difficult to keep up with note-taking in class, their notes may be messy or incomplete, and they may be concentrating solely on the task of copying down from the board, and not retain any of the information from the lesson.

The Techniques:

  • Help students to organise and file notes
  • Teach abbreviations where possible
  • Encourage the student to use mind-maps, tables and bullet points

Essay Writing

The Challenge:

Like many other students, students with dyslexia often find the wording of questions difficult and fail to answer the question. In English, they may re-tell the story of a text, without including a deep analysis of a text in relation to the question. They may find planning difficult without having someone there to help organise their ideas, and may be anxious about how to begin, and how to structure essays. Timed essays may not allow enough time for a dyslexic student to complete the task to the best of their ability. Dyslexic students tend to write as they speak, and may not adapt their style easily to a specific purpose, or they might have problems maintaining a register throughout their response.

The Techniques:

  • Identify which writing skills are not automatic for the specific student, e.g. can they: create believable characters, vary their style, organise ideas clearly, use appropriate word choice, grammar and correct spelling, and organise paragraphs?
  • Practise interpreting exam / essay questions, including identifying the key words
  • Practise using a type of mind map that works for the student and purpose
  • Teach essay structures that fit the task e.g. using PEE paragraphs, mnemonics etc.
  • With students who have problems with timing in exams, it is best to first, identify the issue: understanding: do they find it difficult to decide on a question, do they panic because of stress, or daydream? Remembering: does worrying about time make them forget their points? Do ideas wander once they have written one point? Organising: does a muddle of ideas prevent me from writing? Do they rush in and run out of ideas fast? Writing: does worrying about handwriting, grammar and spelling slow down the writing process? Do they have problems with checking work due to poor handwriting?
  • Beforehand, help the student draw a pie chart showing the timings of different tasks
  • Make it clear to the student beforehand whether handwriting, grammar and spelling will be marked
  • Have students take in a watch that they are comfortable reading (maybe digital)
  • Different writing styles can be taught, and it should be made clear which exam questions require which style

Revision

The Challenge:

Revision is essential for any student who has difficulty remembering information, key words and approaches to exam questions. Parents naturally can be anxious about how effective the child’s revision is, and students with dyslexia may have disorganised notes, or find organising an effective revision routine difficult. As visual and auditory learners, dyslexic students may find reading notes alone an ineffective and frustrating way of revising.

The Techniques:

  • Parents should plan revision time in advance, and in collaboration with the student. They can help with verbally testing the student after revision sessions and talking through approaches to exam questions
  • Revision notes should be organised in  advance, and an adult could check that they have everything they need for the correct syllabus
  • Short sessions of around 20 mins are usually more effective
  • Help students to change information from one mode to another e.g. text to taking, pictures, diagrams, power points, posters, quizzes, games timelines, cards etc.