Dyslexia - Developing a Toolbox

After a parent has received a diagnosis of Dyslexia, I’m often asked ‘what is the one thing you would recommend for my son or daughter’.   Um, well, there isn’t one thing I’m afraid.  In life we use a range of tools and strategies and it’s the same when supporting students with Dyslexia.  Dyslexia impacts many areas of day to day life so there isn’t going to be one tool that does everything.  Also, Dyslexia varies in how it affects each person – information processing, information storage and retrieval, memory, speed of processing, organisation etc – again reinforcing the need for a multitude of support tools.

In our lives we use a range of tools and techniques to function daily. We use technology, our own internal tools and our support networks living our daily life. It’s the same for students with Dyslexia.

C-pen ReaderPen

C-pen ReaderPen

Human support – human support is vital for us all. We all have and need a support network around ourselves. Not having a support network makes life very hard and leaves us extremely vulnerable.  What’s important is that it is also the right form of human support.  As I’ve written about before, for SEN students, it’s vital that the human support given is about empowering the student to achieve independent working as much as possible.   Human support isn’t about doing for us. Human support is about listening and helping solve our problems and overcome our difficulties.  If we always have someone do something for us we don’t learn ourselves.

Internal Strategies -  linking nicely with human support is also our own internal strategies that help us succeed.  For students with Dyslexia they will have strengths alongside their difficulties (again see previous blog).  What’s important is that they develop internal strategies to counteract their difficulties, mentally and physically.  They have the meta cognition to understand Dyslexia isn’t who they are, that their brain is wired differently, that they have many many talents.  They also know how to overcome difficulties they have using all resources available.  That they won’t give up but also, they know what isn’t a realistic goal for themselves.  For example, their spelling levels may never improve but that’s ok because there is a technology they use for that and so their goal is to get better at using that technology, not keep expecting improved spelling personally.

Technology – technology is all around us.  There is so much available now and it is fantastic.  As a (slightly) older person, I learned to type on a manual typewriter and to be able to use the electric one was a exciting.  It’s amazing how far technology has come since then, how many of us feel lost without our mobile phones now. But in education we are sometimes slow to embrace this, particularly for students with SEN.   Many schools just ban mobile phones from being used in school but, in my opinion, this isn’t the right thing to do.  How about having a correct use procedure instead?  Banning is unrealistic and is also holding back many of our SEN students, particularly those with Dyslexia.  We shouldn’t ban just because we don’t know how to manage it.

There are so many apps available on mobile phones to help students with Dyslexia, some free and some paid for.  British Dyslexia Association and Dyslexia Scotland websites are good for information. But even just being able to use the phone to take a picture of the whiteboard is of massive use to a student with Dyslexia. To be able to set alarms to remind a student where to be and when – huge.

Tablets, laptops all make life easier for students with Dyslexia. Google and Microsoft etc, are improving accessibility on a regular basis.   But remember, there isn’t one tool to do everything.  Ideally, with regard to technology, it is a combination of mobile phone, tablet/laptop and then maybe the C-Pen Reader Pen to read printed text.

Of course, what I haven’t yet mentioned are the very simple ways to support which don’t come in the previous categories – coloured overlays/paper, low visual noise in the environment, using dyslexia friendly fonts and layouts etc.  These still have a major part to play in the Dyslexia toolbox.

So, when supporting students/people with Dyslexia, don’t just look for one thing to support/fix.  Adopt a wide range of tools and strategies.  Work with the student and experiment, try new things, ask them to investigate and develop their own toolbox that will take them through life.  Also, make sure you are providing the right sort of support – empowering.


Supporting Dyslexia in EAL Students

Did you know that the English Language is one of the hardest languages to learn? It’s really complicated! We don’t have set rules and our phonemes can be pronounced in so many different ways.  Apparently Spanish and Hungarian are easier languages to learn because they aren’t complicated. They are ‘transparent’ languages – the pronunciation rules stay the same.  English. Nope.  Think of ‘ough’.  Now think of the different ways it is pronounced – bough, cough, through, ought to name a few.   A nightmare.

Because of those difficulties, in education we often see EAL students (English as an additional language), who have no signs of SEN in their native tongue, but who begin to display Dyslexia type difficulties when learning the English language.  The issue for us is recognising whether it is an SEN need, such as Dyslexia, or simply limited knowledge of English.

When learning English, there are two stages of learning.  Basic Interpersonal Communication skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). BICS is ‘playground language’, enough to interact socially and get by day to day. CALP is classroom academic language.  CALP takes 5 – 7 years!!

BICS can be picked up quite quickly and it’s easy to assume that when an EAL student acquires BICS they are ok.  It’s even easier to presume that because a student has BICS they don’t have dyslexia. However, the CALP is the most difficult part, particularly for dyslexia.  

So how can we tell? Well assessing for Dyslexia in EAL students is difficult as our diagnostic tests are in English.  We could try to translate but that has a whole load of difficulties – ensuring correct translation and the test will have been standardised with a English Native speaking students.  How can you be sure the results are because of a learning difficulty rather than having limited English language knowledge?

There are a few tests/assessments available (free and paid for) which help distinguish SEN in EAL students.  As part of the assessment process  it should also be reviewed whether the difficulties learning EAL are environmental – e.g. poor differentiation in the classroom, not enough time receiving specific EAL support before putting into mainstream.

For older EAL students there are very few/no tests available to identify SEN that can be used to for JCQ Access Arrangements.  When I say no tests, I mean there are no tests that don’t require a certain level of English language to access them. JCQ will not award an access arrangement because of limited English language knowledge. They want to be sure that it is because of an SEN need. For this reason we have to show their difficulty isn’t because they have limited English.  Not easy.

So, bearing all this in mind, how can you support an EAL student that you think has dyslexia.  Well there is good news.

Firstly, for exams you can provide the Exam Reader Pen. This will convert text to speech which will help the student.  Hearing the word read aloud will help with comprehension. The Exam Reader Pen requires no online application. It is centre delegated, normal way of working is the only pre-requisite. The pen can also be used in the English Reading Paper.  Also consider giving supervised rest breaks. Thinking in a different language is massively tiring cognitively so allow breaks to combat excessive tiredness.

With regard to in-class support there is more good news.  Strategies and techniques for supporting EAL are of the same as supporting SEN. So the strategies for supporting EAL with SEN are the same.   There are too many to go into here but basically it boils down to……..(don’t hate me) ……differentiation.  Or multi-sensory teaching.  Using a variety of teaching styles, ensuring information is in different formats, pre-teaching key vocabulary and so on. 

When training I always stress that differentiation/multi-sensory teaching will benefit ALL students, not just SEN, EAL, and SEN EAL students.  ALL students. Research proves it.

So, when working with EAL students, expect some of them to have SEN even if they didn’t in their native tongue.