Hello, I’m Anne Margaret. I’m an English language teacher, as well as a dyslexia tutor and assessor. As you may already know, you’re almost certainly going to have some students in your class at some point who have specific learning differences, such as dyslexia. Each of these students will experience learning in his or her own way. They’ll find some things easier and some things harder than their peers. And some may show some of the characteristics of other specific learning differences, too, such as ADHD or dyspraxia.
Trying to accommodate all of these differences in your class may seem like a huge challenge. But today, I’m going to talk about some simple ways of making your classroom more inclusive. There are lots of things you can do that don’t cost any money or take up much time, which will make your classroom an easier place for students with dyslexia to work in. And other students will also benefit. In this talk I’m going to look at three main things that teachers could think about in order to make the classroom more inclusive– firstly, the classroom environment, secondly, the way students and teachers communicate and interact, and thirdly, the content of the course, including materials.
Teachers can also play a very important role in encouraging dyslexic learners to develop more independent study skills. So I’ll say something about that, too. 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 or perhaps even personal stereo systems to block out the noise with quiet music.
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. A simple way of helping students produce clearer handwriting is using a slope to rest on. And this keeps the paper in the eye line and supports the hand and the wrist in the writing position. Writing slopes are available to buy, but a simple folder or file can be used just as well. Also, remember that some dyslexic students may need a little more space than other students in order to work comfortably.
This might also help them not to get in the way of their peers and, therefore, build better relationships with them, which leads us on to the issue of communication and interaction in the classroom. 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. 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. Mention any improvement that you see before being really clear about just one or two things that they could work on. It’s not necessary to point out every single error that they’ve made. But do try to offer concrete strategies for working on the things that you do point out. 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. There’s a lot more that could be said about managing individual lessons inclusively. But for now, I’d like to turn to considering the course as a whole. I know many teachers may not be able to determine the content of what they have to teach.
But we can still have a large say in how the material is presented. The point I’ve just made 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 lessens 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. 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.
Although this has become a bit of a buzz-word in education lately, there still seems to be some uncertainty about what it really means in practise. So here’s what I think. Differentiation can be thought about in four dimensions along two axes. 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 me onto the final section of this talk– 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.
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.