Dyslexia Awareness Week: Supporting Pupils with Dyslexia in the Classroom
In this blog, Karen Pilling, a SEND expert, deputy head and SENCO, explores a variety of tools and techniques that teachers can use to make their classrooms more inclusive for children and young people with dyslexia.
The British Dyslexia Society organises an annual event called Dyslexia Awareness Week, which aims to improve the lives of people with dyslexia. Every year, the Dyslexia Society selects a different theme, and this year's theme is "uniquely you." This recognises that each person with dyslexia has a unique experience. During the event, the Dyslexia Society provides resources and information to help people in the community talk about dyslexia.
What exactly is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that affects one in ten people in the UK. Whilst people know that it affects reading, writing, and spelling, it isn’t always recognised that this is due to people with dyslexia having difficulties processing information. Thus, tasks such as following travel directions, distinguishing between left and right, telling time and memorising lists and sequences can also be challenging.
There’s been a wealth of research about the causes of dyslexia, and it’s shown that people born with dyslexia have neurological differences. Despite being born this way, the adaptive nature of our brains means that some of these difficulties can be improved with different teaching approaches; this is known as ‘neurological plasticity’. Most commonly, people with dyslexia have difficulties with phonological processing, meaning they find it difficult to hold numbers and/or letters in their head and then put them into writing.
Dyslexia is not related to intelligence, but it can significantly impact a child’s learning. It’s thought to be genetic and hereditary – 49% of adults with dyslexia have a child with dyslexia. It’s common for people to have both dyslexia and ADHD, and it’s suggested that between 20% to 40% will have both.
Positives of dyslexia
It’s important to remember that dyslexia is a neurological variance, not a deficiency. There are a number of positives to thinking differently. Many people with dyslexia have strengths in areas such as seeing the big picture, solving puzzles, finding the odd one out in complex patterns, and abstract and critical thinking.
How can we support children with dyslexia in school?
There are several ways to support children with dyslexia in the classroom. As dyslexia affects information processing, information will need to be communicated differently so that they can understand it. Examples of best practice are:
- using visuals, which can help children to understand what’s being asked of them
- using uncomplicated language and giving one instruction at a time
- giving children extra time to answer a question in order for them to process what’s being asked of them. Due to the difficulties children have in processing, it can take much longer to complete work, so don’t expect as much output or worry too much about neatness for a child with dyslexia
- pre-teaching can help the child understand a topic, which will allow them access to the less bespoke approaches used in whole-class teaching
- listening to the teacher teaching from the front of the classroom can be challenging for children with dyslexia, so it can be easier for them to process information if you sit at their table or teach in a circle on the carpet
- sitting a child with dyslexia at the front can help them to maintain focus and ask questions when needed
- learning aids such as post-its, whiteboards, and handouts of the lesson’s PowerPoint can help children to capture important reminders that they can refer back to throughout the lesson
- copying from the board can be particularly difficult for children with dyslexia, so providing handouts with important information highlighted is much better
- using rhymes, mnemonics and regular verbal reminders can help children with dyslexia to retain information
Ways to support reading
Many children with dyslexia struggle with visual distortions; this can range from gaps between words seeming too wide or too narrow to words jumping around on the page. Colour backgrounds, overlays, and reading rulers can help to reduce the effects of this and reduce the reflection from black writing on a white surface. As children with dyslexia struggle with the phonetic approach of decoding words, it’s important to teach children mental strategies for reading and phonic decoding strategies, such as shapes of words, whole-word recognition, and multi-sensory approaches. Additionally, since children with dyslexia can find reading challenging, they may sometimes become avoidant. It’s therefore really important to ensure that any texts are at the appropriate reading level and that any reading books are linked to the child’s interests to encourage reading for pleasure.
Paired and buddy reading can help a child with dyslexia to build confidence in reading. When reading with a child with dyslexia who may struggle to read a word, give them time to try and read the word themselves. If they continue to struggle, read the word for them to help continue the flow. If using a whiteboard, change the background to a pastel colour and ensure that all text is at least font size 28 (12 for handouts). All text should be left justified. There are a variety of online dyslexia fonts available (i.e., OpenDyslexic) in which the letters are larger at the bottom.
Ways to support writing
As stated before, one of the main difficulties for children with dyslexia is retaining information and then getting it down on paper. For a child with dyslexia, listening to the teacher’s input, devising their own ideas, and then starting to write their ideas down can be really challenging. Here are some ways to help with this:
- Use task boards with visuals to remind the child of the activity
- Teaching the child to plan writing using writing frames, mind maps, and reminder post-its helps to chunk the information and stops it from becoming too overwhelming
- Using lined paper can help with visual distortions, as well as using bold text to emphasise a word (as underlining or italics can make text become more distorted)
- Learning aids on the table (word maps, phonic flashcards, or reminders of how to spell tricky words) can help the child with spelling
- As reading too much text can be challenging for children with dyslexia, using close procedures (handouts with blanks) or handouts with chunked information can help reduce overload
- Always remember to allow extra time for a quick brain break followed by proofreading what they’ve written. It’s really helpful for children with dyslexia to get into the habit of checking that what they’ve written makes sense
Ways to support with numbers
People are often unaware that children with dyslexia often also have challenges with numbers. As with the use of visuals for reading and writing, practical resources and visual aids can help children with dyslexia to learn number facts such as times tables or number bonds. By the same token, any opportunity for choral learning, mnemonics, or rhymes can really support the learning of number facts for children with dyslexia. This can also help children with dyslexia who struggle with the sequencing of time, such as days of the week and months of the year. It’s also useful to teach children how to complete multi-step problems by numbering them and crossing them out when completed.
Ways to help improve self-esteem
One of the biggest areas of difficulty for children with dyslexia can be low self-esteem. Children often feel conscious that they aren’t as good as their peers in certain areas, so they will try to mask their difficulties and internalise that negativity. To reduce this, it’s important not to be overly critical or negative about areas they find difficult. For example, avoid asking why they haven’t written more in the lesson or asking them to read out loud (unless they want to).
Where possible, allow the child to read with a staff member or a buddy, and not in front of a group. Ensure that you give positive feedback at every opportunity, especially when the child displays some of the positive traits of being dyslexic. They must experience success and have positive role models of successful adults with dyslexia (such as Roald Dahl and Richard Branson). If you feel that a child is starting to struggle with their self-esteem, give them some additional therapeutic support to counteract this.
It's likely that there are children in your class with diagnosed or undiagnosed dyslexia, since it affects 10% of people. As with all children with special educational needs, it's essential to understand their strengths and difficulties to support them to achieve success and reach their full potential. The theme of this year's Dyslexia Week highlights the fact that we are all unique, and having dyslexia can present challenges, but it also shapes experiences and perspectives.
The National College offers a range of webinars and courses on supporting children and young people with dyslexia. If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.
British Dyslexia Association, How can I support my child? - https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/advice/children/how-can-i-support-my-child/reading
Defeat Dyslexia, Top 10 tips for reducing dyslexic visual distortion, 2016 - http://www.defeat-dyslexia.com/2016/03/top-10-tips-for-reducing-dyslexic-visual-distortion/
Understood, Possible causes of dyslexia, 2019 - https://www.understood.org/en/articles/dyslexia-possible-causes
British Dyslexia Association, Dyslexia Awareness Week - https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/support-us/awareness-events/dyslexia-awareness-week