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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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Supporting students with specific learning needs

Student looking confusedTo celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Michele Daloiso, author of pedagogical OUP material for Italy and teacher at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, explores ways we can support learners with specific educational needs in our ELT classrooms.

Kevin is a preschool kid. He is very smart and creative. He likes playing with building blocks and playing with his classmates. He’s also very sociable, although when it comes to sing along or act a poem out sometimes he just cut himself off from the rest of the class, or he doesn’t seem to remember the right words. Maybe he’s just a little shy. Maybe it’s just his learning style.

Kevin is six years old now and he starts struggling with literacy. The mismatch between his classmates and him gets bigger and bigger and by the end of the second year Kevin doesn’t seem to have reached the basic learning goals for reading and writing. Some teachers say he’s slow, others say he’s just lazy and disorganized. His parents take him to a specialist and find out that Kevin is neither mentally retarded nor lazy. He has dyslexia, a learning difficulty which causes trouble in some specific tasks like spelling words, reading out loud, writing by dictation. However, the speech therapist made her point very clear: Kevin is really smart, he just needs to be supported with some specific teaching strategies.

So, what happens when kids like Kevin start learning a foreign language (FL)? Well, it can be a torture or a pleasure… it depends on the quality of the support they will receive. Accommodation is necessary because the traditional FL class can cause some learning barriers, some of which are due to a conflict between common teaching practice and these students’ preferred way of learning. So, let’s see how an FL teacher could help a kid like Kevin. Particularly, I would like to discuss the four most important strategies to remember (for more information see Schneider and Crombie, 2003; Kormos and Kontra, 2008; Nijakowska, 2008; Daloiso, 2012).

First, these students are likely to benefit from structured instruction (in fact, Kevin was said to be disorganized). This can be easily achieved by setting clear language goals for each class and make them explicit, providing lesson plan outlines, summaries and revision sheets, breaking down long activities into small steps etc. Structured instruction also implies that highly structured activities will be more effective. For instance, an oral interaction exercise which requires to promptly improvise a dialogue is very unlikely to work out for these students. The activity is just too loosely structured. On the contrary, these students would benefit from a more structured oral exercise providing not only the roles, but also an explicit interaction pattern to be followed (“first ask this”, “then say that” etc.), along with some useful key-words and phrases.

Second, we need to keep in mind that an FL teacher is not a speech therapist. Students like Kevin will keep on having trouble with some specific tasks, such as taking notes, copying from board, reading out loud, spelling words, writing by dictation. I don’t think we should insist on these tasks in the FL, especially if we cannot give them the opportunity of some individual classes to help them cope with these specific difficulties. For the same reason, teachers should not penalize them for slow and inaccurate reading or spelling mistakes. It would be like penalizing myopic students because they can’t see things well.

Here comes the third suggestion. Myopic students are allowed to wear glasses.  Similarly these students should get access to specific tools.  Technology could be of great help in many ways. For instance, using their laptops for writing compositions,  students can get access to digital dictionaries and spell checkers. If students have severe dyslexia they can use text-to-speech devices and the textbook recordings as a support for reading comprehension.

Kevin is a dyslexic student, he has a language disability. What about his abilities? What do we know about his learning style? Many dyslexic students are said to have developed a global style, so they tend to “get the whole picture” of a text rather than analyzing every single detail. Therefore, they benefit from contextualization activities preceding reading or listening (analyzing a picture, learning the key-words in advance). They are often visual learners, so they benefit from visual prompts based on pictures and videos. So, the fourth aspect to remember is: labelling students according to what they are not able to do may be a good choice for speech therapists, who need to work on language remediation, but it is unlikely to be the best choice for education.  Getting to know the student’s preferred way of learning is the best starting point.

Now let’s go back to little Kevin. Now we know that he learns best in a structured way, he is a global and visual learner, he benefits from technology to overcome some weaknesses. We probably need some more information about him, but I feel this is a good starting point to successfully include him in the FL classroom and grant him some opportunity for successful learning.

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Correcting dyslexic spelling

Teacher helping two young studentsIn this guest post, Joanna Nijakowska, author of Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom (2010), explores the difficulty of spelling among dyslexic learners of English, and how the use of the red pen only enforces incorrect spelling.

Spelling mistakes constitute a notorious feature of dyslexic writing. Teachers often highlight or circle the mistakes (especially with a red pen) bringing them to the surface of the text but in that way students focus their attention on and consolidate the erroneous forms instead of learning the correct spelling.

In similar vein, writing the words on the blackboard and asking students to compare them with their own spelling attempts does not work very well with learners with dyslexia.

The occurrence of mistakes is sometimes indicated on the margin in a given line of the text; however, if we do not specify where exactly the mistake is, we make the correcting task much harder for our students with dyslexia.

Another technique is to simply count down the mistakes and give the total at the bottom of the text, often with no indication of the exact position of the mistakes. Unfortunately, even very careful looking at words and searching for mistakes cannot guarantee identifying the misspelled ones, just the opposite, it happens that perfectly well-spelled words get ‘corrected’ mistakenly.

It proves much more effective and less time-consuming to cross the misspelled word and write the correct spelling above or next to it. In that way it is the correct form which is made visible and, hopefully, integrated.

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