How to identify and support students with dyslexia

David Imrie

David Imrie is a biology teacher and SENCO at Ashcraig School in Glasgow and has been helping children with learning difficulties since 1996, and uses Read&Write Gold literacy support software to support his students with revision and in the exam room.

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Dyslexia is defined as a disability in the Equality Act 2010. Essentially, it affects reading, spelling, writing and numeracy, and students often process information slowly and have poor short term memory.

As a teacher you work closely and directly with students, delivering lessons and making observations. If you have identified that a student in your class is dyslexic, you can easily adjust your teaching methods by using classroom aids to support them.

Spotting the signs early is crucial, because if you can limit the impact of dyslexia on the learning process, you can ultimately limit the impact it has on that student’s self-confidence.

This recognition will place a focus on how lessons are planned and taught, and will turn classes into a more inclusive environment.

How to recognise dyslexia

Does one or do a number of your students:

  • Struggle when it comes to reading out loud in the class?
  • Tend to become withdrawn and isolated, sitting at the back and not participating?
  • Look confused when language is spoken too quickly?
  • Appear a lot more exhausted at the end of the day compared to the other students?
  • Excel in non-literacy areas, like drama or art?
  • Struggle with learning foreign languages?

If the answer to most of the questions is ‘yes’, then it is important to take action and ensure that you are equipped with the necessary training and materials to support those with learning difficulties.

Supporting students with dyslexia

When planning your lesson, take into consideration the following points to help dyslexic students with their tasks:

  • Layout - ensure that documents given to dyslexic students only contain instructions needed for the exercise and avoid including any unnecessary detail that they may find distracting. All materials for dyslexic students should have a clear layout, short sentences with uncomplicated structure.
  • Illustrations - images which help exemplify each sentence or unfamiliar words are really useful. By spacing out the instructions and adding a diagram, students can follow it without having to understand every word – this is called ‘reading for meaning’.
  • Background colours – avoid using white as a background because it can be too ‘dazzling’ and therefore distracting. Changing the background colour to green or a pastel shade will help the reader. Colours work differently for individuals so don’t be afraid to test colours with your student to identify what works best for them. Software such as Microsoft Word used in most schools is a good resource for background colours.
  • Fonts – experiment with fonts to find out which one your students find easier to read. You can download a free specialist font such as ‘OpenDyslexic’ which can run on Microsoft software. This font adds gravity and weight to the document and makes each letter appear thicker at the bottom. Students who find characters invert or ‘swim’ should try using this font.

Again, you should remember that one size does not fit all and you should try it with your students to see what works best for them. I personally use the Verdana font but there are schools in Glasgow that use the ClearType font as it is supposed to be easier to read. Arial is also a good all-rounder. Font sizes 12-14 are good but some students respond better to larger fonts.

Text readers and supportive technology

Technology is an important tool that can be used to support dyslexic students with their reading and writing and there are several options that teachers can use to help them address their literacy difficulty. However, you should note that dyslexia in one student can be quite different to another and it is important to try a combination of these methods to find out what works best for them.

There are a variety of text readers available including a free version developed by a teacher called WordTalk designed to run on Microsoft Word. It can be set to read one word at a time, one paragraph at a time or continuously. It can also convert text to MP3. Students can record their own voice as an audio comment which is great for capturing their ideas straight away. Similar to Word, when using text readers the background can be changed to the preferred colour.

Dyslexia Awareness Week begins on Monday 14th October. The aim of the week is to highlight other aspects that dyslexic people have difficulty with, such as short term memory, maths and organisational skills, as separate from the commonly known difficulties with reading and spelling.

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