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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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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.