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Selecting, Adapting and Designing Materials for Learners with Dyslexia | Jon Hird

ELT publishers are more and more producing material appropriate for learners with dyslexia. This mainly consists of ‘dyslexic-friendly’ reading texts and tests, which are available from teachers’ resource sites. However, to gain maximum benefit from such material, it is important for us as teachers to have an awareness of what dyslexia actually is, how it can impact on learning, and the implications of this for material design.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is primarily a result of issues with working memory, which put simply is the ability to hold and recall information long enough to perform an operation using this information. There may also be issues with other related functions such as focus (avoiding attention displacement and distraction) and effort (remembering to remember). As a result, the fundamental issue for most learners with dyslexia is difficulty processing and remembering information. Other typical characteristics include difficulties with maintaining concentration and remaining on task. As well as affecting many everyday activities, dyslexia affects general learning and in particular the acquisition of literacy skills.

Issues with literacy

Literacy issues tend to manifest initially mainly at word level in terms of word recognition and spelling. However, in most cases, a typical learner with dyslexia will over time ‘catch up’ with his or her non-dyslexic peers in terms of word recognition and spelling. However literacy issues may remain, but are more likely to be with sentence and then paragraph and essay level processing, planning, and organisation. Reading can also be hindered in a number of other ways. A dyslexic learner may find his or her eye drawn to other letters or words, or other distracting elements on the page, and he or she may easily lose their place in a text. Long multi-clause sentences may be problematic in terms of maintaining focus and remembering and processing the content. And the actual design, layout and font may be distracting and make the text difficult to follow and process.

Material selection, design, and adaptation

Modifying and adapting page design and the layout and format of texts and other language exercises can be a real help for a learner with dyslexia. However, while the majority of dyslexic learners are likely to have broadly similar issues, an adaptation to material that may work for one learner may not work for another and indeed may even have a negative effect. For example, for every dyslexic learner who finds images or other graphics on the page helpful in providing context, there may be another for whom they are a distraction. But however we adapt the material, one key principle that will benefit almost all dyslexic learners is to reduce the processing load. This can be done in a number of ways such as providing the learner with shorter and simplified reading texts and reducing the word count for their written work. For language activities and exercises, we can reduce the number of items in an exercise and/or the number of exercises or activities the student needs to do. We can also simplify the items by removing any extraneous content and focusing more just on key language or by modifying the item in other ways. Changing the exercise or activity type or its format can also help.

In my ELTOC webinar, we considered in more detail approaches to the design of materials such as texts, exercises and tests suitable for dyslexic learners of English. We looked at examples of available dyslexic-friendly ELT materials (such as those below) and also considered how we as teachers can identify potential difficulties with material and if necessary adapt existing materials and produce our own.

Click here to watch a recording of my webinar!

High Spirits, Oxford University Press.
High Spirits, Oxford University Press.
Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World, Oxford University Press.
English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia, Oxford University Press.

Jon Hird teaches English at the University of Oxford and is a teacher-trainer and ELT materials writer, with a particular interest in grammar, EAP and dyslexia, and learning English. As well as adapting material for learners with dyslexia, his recent books include Oxford Learner’s Pocket Verbs and Tenses, Oxford EAP, Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World and English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia. Jon has a dyslexic son.


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Being a dyslexic English language teacher | Philip Haines

As a child I had difficulty reading and writing and some teachers would make me feel less than intelligent which often led to anxiety and low self-esteem, if I thought my limitations were to be exposed. This was especially true when I had to read aloud, which was the perfect opportunity for the rest of the class to observe my apparent stupidity. I was subsequently diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 15.

Having experienced language difficulties as a child, the thought of being an English teacher never crossed my mind. However, when I moved from the UK to Mexico my only real job prospect was English language teaching. I started as an English teaching rather reluctantly, but soon found that I was quite good at it. I believe that this is partly a consequence of my dyslexia. I can see three ways in which dyslexia has helped me as a language teacher.

Patience

The fact that some people need to devote a lot of time and effort to learning has always been obvious to me. If a student needs to hear, see and practice a piece of language many times, then it is my job to provide that for the student. If in the following classes more work is needed, then I accept this as being perfectly normal. Learning takes as long as it takes and getting frustrated doesn’t help anybody, least of all the students who need the most support.

Strategic awareness

As an adult I still can’t spell very well, but like many dyslexic adults I have developed strategies for remembering certain spellings. Non-dyslexic people seem to learn to spell with little conscious effort. I, on the other hand, have to approach the spelling of most words with a deliberate strategy. This has given me a level of strategic awareness for spelling that most non-dyslexic people have never had to develop. I incorporate these strategies into my teaching when needed.

Creativity

Although creativity is not exclusive to the dyslexic mind, I have a fairly good level of creativity, which comes partly from having to develop learning strategies. Also as a child I found comfort in the arts and crafts because my learning difficulties were never exposed. It’s so true that we become good at what we enjoy, and more often than not that’s because we devote more time and effort to those activities. In this context, my creative abilities had a chance to develop. Being creative in teaching has its advantages because it helps the teacher respond to the ever changing dynamics of the classroom. It also makes you feel comfortable with the creative process, which inevitably involves getting things wrong many times before finding the right solution. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, creativity in the classroom makes for a more engaging and fun teaching and learning experience.

Interested in inclusive teaching? Our latest position paper offers teachers some great tools and strategies for teaching students with learning difficulties. Click here to take a look.


Philip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.


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Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift? Part 2: Teaching Strategies

Teacher helping dyslexic studentMarie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist, and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). Following her first article on dyslexia, where she looked at what dyslexia really is, she now returns with strategies for teaching dyslexic learners.

In my previous article I looked at the problems learners with dyslexia might face in the English classroom. In this blog, I will share some teaching strategies which can help these learners in the key areas of sound/letter recognition, working memory and confidence.

Problems with recognition of sounds and letters

1. Think in colour

Learners with dyslexia have problems matching the sounds of English to the written word. Use different colours to show the patterns of words, to break down the sounds into manageable chunks. For example, boat, coat, moat.

Some learners will benefit from writing or reading in certain colours, or using certain colours of paper, or certain types of colour transparent overlays which can be put over the reading page. Encourage the learner to experiment to find a colour that works for them.

2. Hear it, see it, feel it

Multi-sensory teaching helps learners to consolidate sound and letter recognition. For example: 3D letter shapes can be used to practise keywords; letters can be traced in sand or clay; words can be made physical by making letters from the body.

Understanding time is a problem. It can help to get learners to stand in different places on a timeline to illustrate tenses and aspect.

3. Visualise

Teach learners how to visualise words. Learners with dyslexia need to develop their own internal visual dictionary. Encourage the learner to imagine the word up high, visualising it rather than sounding it out. They hold the word as a photo in their mind. Write new words on the learner’s right of your board, up high. This encourages learners to access their visual memory.

Problems with working memory

Working memory is the part of the brain which allows us to hold information recently given to us and to act upon it. Learners with dyslexia have problems with their working memory, they often say that words quite literally fall out of their heads.

1. Instructions, instructions, instructions

Remembering instructions is very difficult for some learners. We need to work on giving instructions in all senses, using visual cues and gestures. Check understanding of instructions by giving an example and getting an example back from learners.

2. Teach reading strategies

Learners with dyslexia find reading comprehension difficult because they quickly forget the paragraph they just read. Show them how to recognise topic sentences, how to use colour to highlight keywords, encourage them to stop regularly and ask themselves “What have I just read?”.

3. It can be fun

Use memory games to develop working memory. For example, put words on the board, rub one word out, ask learners what word has been rubbed out.

4. Draw it

Use mind maps – they give learners with dyslexia the big picture and help them to condense information in a meaningful way.

Problems with confidence and self-esteem

Despite our best teaching efforts, learners with dyslexia often lose confidence about learning. They can feel stupid and frustrated when their progress is slow.

We can work on this in class in different ways:

  • Teach learners how to access positive states for learning, e.g. remembering a time when they felt confident, keeping the confident feeling as they try their reading
  • Let the learners explain to the rest of the class what it is like to have dyslexia
  • Work with their strengths, for example, use activities where learners have to create new solutions to problems
  • Use audio recordings, encourage learners to record their answers
  • Mark work for content, not always for spelling
  • Don’t label their slow progress as being lazy
  • Praise skills other than literacy, for example, give a reward for the most creative learner
  • Use drama activities to help learners express their thoughts and show their creative ability

Above all, encourage your learners to view their dyslexia as a learning style rather than a learning handicap. Celebrate difference!


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Teaching young learners with special needs – tips from a fellow teacher

Student with raised handKaren Frazier, co-author of Let’s Go, shares her top tips for helping children with learning disorders in the English classroom.

Every ELT teacher has experienced a moment when he or she wonders what else can be done to help a student who seems to be struggling in class. Trying new activities and methods may work, but sometimes the student continues to have problems. This may suggest the student has some underlying disability. It could also mean that the student is struggling primarily because the language is different from the student’s first language or because of issues related to acculturation.

In either case, what can a teacher do in class to help this student?

1. Get to know your student.

He or she wants to be just like the other students, not thought of as only a student with differences. Find out what the student really likes to do (favorite activities, books, music, games, etc.), and what the student wants to do (at school, outside, dreams, etc.). Then include those likes and wants in the class activities and lesson themes.

2. Find out about your student’s life experience (family, language and school experience).

A student who has had a positive school experience and who is confident in his or her first language (L1) will have better success when learning the second language (L2). He or she actually relies on knowledge from the first language to help in learning the second language.

If you are teaching students in an ESL environment, where everything in the school and the community is in English, you may have students who behave like they have learning disorders; however, we must keep in mind that a student who has just moved to a new community may be experiencing culture shock. This can have a significant effect on how the child deals with learning a new language. Feelings of being overwhelmed by sights and sounds that are different can cause the child to withdraw and/or experience ‘response fatigue’, the inability to respond because they cannot handle any more new and different stimuli. So it’s important to get to know more about your student to help you determine the best way to teach that student.

3. Create an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement where all students feel supported and can learn in different ways.

Every student should feel welcome and valued. To help a student with special needs, seat the student near your desk so you can easily give assistance as needed. When individual speaking is necessary, have that student stand near you for support. Also, encourage all your students to get to know each other through in-class activities and projects they do together. Have your class work in small groups and pairs, playing language games, creating stories and role-plays, etc. This is good for students with learning disorders as well as for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. Working together with a supportive group or partner, that can share ideas, can make a significant difference for these students. Positive pairing helps the student with a difference or disorder feel productive and confident. It minimizes that feeling of being different.

4. Use plenty of visuals in your class.

Teacher and student cards with a picture and written word for vocabulary words are ideal. This is especially important for students who have hearing disabilities. Since they do not hear well, they need to focus on the written words to help them learn right from the beginning. Have students play games, in pairs or small groups, using small cards, each with a picture and a word to build knowledge in a playful way. Place pictures around your room with words that students can refer to as needed for support.

5. Introduce and practice new language using a multi-sensory/multi-modal approach.

Students with learning disorders, and all students learning a second language, need to have visual, auditory, and kinesthetic input. This multi-modal approach can help the student practice and reinforce the new language in a variety of ways. Dialogues and songs and chants, with repetitive lyrics, that focus on the rhythm of the language are also beneficial. Students with speaking disorders tend to have fewer problems with language when they are singing or speaking rhythmically (with a chant). Students more easily learn to say new words and language in songs because most of them generally enjoy music and focus on learning the song. Clapping the rhythm also helps both those with speaking as well as hearing disorders.

6. Half-class drills are very useful when practicing new language.  

As a large group of students are talking together, no one feels as if they stand out. Have half of the class ask the questions and the other half answer.  Practicing like this, without having any student feel singled out, reduces stress and allows time for all students to develop muscle memory and confidence, before having to speak alone. This is especially important for students with learning disorders or disabilities.

7. Use fun materials, based on students’ likes and experience.

To encourage students who are struggling, find or create short stories about famous people who have overcome disabilities and setbacks. Inspire your students to believe that they can also triumph in spite of challenges they face.  Use magazine pictures of strong and inspiring characters to make popsicle-stick figures. Then place sight words on the figures and have students make sentences with them. Do projects where students create simple stories using their favorite TV or game characters. Always encourage your students to share their experience and viewpoint in what they are doing so that they link their learning to what they already know.

8. Use assistive technology to help provide differentiated learning opportunities for your students.

Digital resources for students often contain stories, which a student can listen to and read over and over, at their own pace. This gives students a chance to practice words and language that they might not be able to completely absorb during the in-class activities. Online practice also provides the students with a way to practice listening and new language on their own, in the privacy of their homes.

English Language Learners (ELLs), like the general student population, may have any one of many learning disorders, including visual impairment, hearing impairment, dyslexia or delayed language development. If they face these challenges, it will be evident in both L1 and L2. So it is important for us to carefully understand and evaluate a student’s complete language and life experience when one is struggling with learning English and provide extra support for that student when needed. As we work with our students, we must also be aware that students who are newcomers to our area, or students who did not choose to be in English classes, go through an adjustment period. During this time, they may actually exhibit behaviors that are similar to those found in a student with a learning disorder, such as distractibility, lack of focus and concentration in learning, rejection of and a distance from the new language and community. Given time and plenty of encouraging support from us, and their classmates, students with special needs will be able to learn English.

Register now for Karen’s free webinar on 12 December, 11h30 GMT to get more tips and strategies you can use when teaching students who have language learning disorders in speaking, hearing and reading.

Want more free articles, videos and lesson plans from Karen and her Let’s Go co-authors?


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Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?

Student being helped by teacherMarie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist, and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). She will be hosting a webinar entitled “Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?” on 9th and 18th October.

What do Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Muhammed Ali have in common? They all found school and teachers difficult. Thomas Edison’s teacher sent a note home when Thomas was 6, which said “He is too stupid to learn”.

These successful people had dyslexia. Their teachers didn’t know much about dyslexia. They labeled them lazy and stupid. You may have students with dyslexia in your classes and not even know it. Often these learners are labeled slow, lazy, or daydreamers. It’s not true. In order to help these learners, we, as teachers, need to understand more about it.

What is dyslexia?

As you read this, are the letters clear to you, are any moving around, blurred or reversing? Bropaply not. (Probably not.)

For a learner with dyslexia, reading a simple paragraph of short words is slow and agonizing, even worse if they are asked to read it aloud. Reading comprehensions are difficult because the learner forgets what they have just read.

Dyslexia is an information processing difficulty, primarily affecting reading, spelling and writing. In English, students have problems with phonological processing (linking sounds to words), visual processing (seeing words and letters) and working memory (remembering what has just been said). The learner can also have problems with organization, sequencing and number skills.

Signs that a learner in your class might have dyslexia include:

  • Written work is poor compared to their speaking ability
  • Reading slowly, hesitantly, and misreading words
  • Difficulty matching sounds to letters
  • Seeing and writing letters as flipped or reversed e.g. ‘b’ as ‘d’ or ‘p’
  • They say that letters move around or are blurred on the page
  • Forgetting what they have read or just been told
  • Problems being punctual
  • Daydreaming or seeming to ‘switch off’
  • Easily getting tired when reading or writing

But what’s the real problem?

The main obstacle for many of these learners is not dyslexia. People with dyslexia can succeed in life. For many, the main problem is that difficulties in class can cause them to lose confidence. They label themselves slow and stupid. They become demotivated, misbehave, give up, or become stressed.

Typical learners’ comments are:

“I thought I was stupid; I couldn’t keep up; the teacher didn’t care.”

“I ask them to explain; they explain again using the same words; I don’t understand and they get angry.”

Teacher encouragement and support is vital for these learners at these times. It is very important not to jump to conclusions about the meaning of a particular behaviour and to try to understand why it’s happening.

The gift of dyslexia

Dyslexic thinking has strengths. Learners with dyslexia are holistic thinkers; they see the big picture, make new connections. They are creative, with good 3D spatial reasoning. They succeed in the arts, become entrepreneurs or work in areas requiring innovative thinking. It’s important to work with these strengths in our learners, allowing opportunities for creative, big picture thinking. The English curriculum provides plenty of scope to do this with projects, problem-solving scenarios, drama and stories.

And a final note…

Remember that you have great influence over these learners’ lives. You don’t need to be a specialist teacher, but you do need to work with your learners to understand why they are having problems and give time, support, and encouragement.

A final example from history – “His teachers said he was mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift in his own foolish dreams.”

That foolish dreamer was dyslexic and…

his name was Albert Einstein.

We need dyslexic thinkers. Let’s try to keep them turned on to learning!

For more on dyslexia and teaching strategies, join my upcoming webinar entitled “Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?” on 9th and 18th October, and read my follow-up blog, which will be posted in a few weeks’ time.