By Rob Potts
There’s a perennial question that keeps many conscientious teachers awake at night: how can I best support my dyslexic students? It’s a complex question, that doesn’t yield a single solution but, as with so many things in our profession, it has a simple and universal starting point: care.
I feel fortunate to have worked in schools with a high proportion of dyslexic students. Helping any student to attain heights that they may not previously have felt were within their grasp is the payback most of us crave. But when those same students include those who have previously felt like square pegs in an education system designed primarily for round holes, the rewards are even more profound.
15 useful strategies for teaching dyslexic students
1) Start by getting to know the individual child and, where necessary, focus on building their confidence/self belief. Often dyslexic children will have spent many years not having their needs adequately met and will assume (wrongly) that the difficulties they’ve experienced are their fault.
2) Don’t make assumptions. Some of your most creative, perceptive and articulate students will happen to be dyslexic. Your job is to give them the tools, support and confidence needed to work around their dyslexic difficulties and achieve their full potential.
3) Make sure your lessons are planned & differentiated to suit the needs of all learners but don’t assume that all your dyslexic students will fall into the ‘less able’ group (I hate this term anyway). Sometimes all they’ll need is the security of knowing that mistakes are ok.
4) Make sure that all the necessary resources are consistently in place (eg. if a child needs coloured overlays, they need them every lesson) but, *where appropriate*, encourage autonomy from the child in making sure they have the correct resources.
5) Identify access arrangements as early as possible. If a child is entitled to a laptop, Voice Activated Software, etc make sure this need is established as early as possible and becomes part of their day-to-day routine. This shouldn’t wait until KS4. The earlier this becomes ‘normal’ the better.
6) Avoid putting students in situations that are likely to exacerbate their insecurities or crush their confidence. For example, use a traffic light system for reading aloud in class. Some dyslexic kids will actually go ‘green’ every time and love it but for some it’s torture.
7) Make sure oracy is an integral part of the learning experience in your classroom. Invite the students to articulate their ideas, encourage them to expand and develop initial points and praise success. Then ensure that the resources are in place to allow them to reflect this understanding in their written work. If they can say it confidently, with the right support and access arrangements they will eventually be able to write it too.
8) Establish a classroom culture where barriers to learning are de-stigmatised and there’s a shared growth mindset. Being dyslexic is just one facet of who the child is and should not present a glass ceiling.
9) Important one this: don’t assume that the only dyslexic kids are the ones listed on your SEN register or that it’s someone else’s job to flag up concerns. It shouldn’t happen but some kids go years without being diagnosed or having their needs met. Always look for early signs. The sooner a need can be identified, the sooner the necessary support and intervention can be put in place.
10) This one is MASSIVE too: lose the fixation with spelling (at least as far as your dyslexic students are concerned). If a child has incredible vocabulary and you can understand what they’ve written, praise the positives. If it’s not legible, revisit your access arrangements.
11) Be sensitive to the needs of the individual when marking books. A flood of red ink may not be legible anyway and has the potential to crush fragile confidence. Always try to prioritise verbal praise/feedback and share this with parents and other key staff where possible.
12) Establish a partnership with parents ASAP. Share your high expectations with them, notify them if a particular piece of homework may be challenging and provide them with an alternative if the wheels fall off.
13) Encourage reading as much as you can. Many dyslexic kids will have been put off reading very quickly but work with parents to encourage them to persevere, taking their needs and interests into account. Audio books are not a poor relation and can be a game-changer for some kids
14) Offer meaningful praise at every opportunity and use your encouragement to empower the child to overcome not only their difficulties but also any emotional trauma caused by past experiences.
15) If any of this feels as though it could apply to all students, rather than just those who happen to be dyslexic, that’s because it should. It’s just good teaching; the only difference for dyslexic children is that the impact will be greater.
Final thought: we often use dyslexic ‘success stories’ to inspire children but do we ever stop for a second to consider why it’s often easier for dyslexic people to mitigate for their difficulties in the workplace than it is in the classroom? More to the point, when was the last time you were forced to hand-write an important letter or report?
There are countless dyslexic people making a huge impact in the world – you might even have one or two future role models in your class. Let’s ensure that their time in education is a formative part of that journey rather than an unnecessarily difficult one.