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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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5 Myths About Teaching Learners With Special Educational Needs

Group of friends in a circle from belowMarie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). She has worked extensively with pupils with Special Educational Needs and trains teachers in this area.

Do you have learners with special educational needs (SENs) in your class? Have you had any training for teaching these learners? Probably not.

In many countries across the world governments are promoting a policy of inclusion for learners with SENs. However, there is often a gap in training and resources for teachers to implement this. This has led many teachers to feel anxious and insecure about their teaching skills. There are some common fears and misconceptions which make a lot of teachers anxious.

5 myths that make teachers anxious

  1. You have to be a specially trained teacher to teach learners with SENs
    Not true. Good teaching strategies will benefit all learners. Good classroom management and a positive attitude are things every teacher can have.
  2. It takes a lot of time and extra planning
    It doesn’t have to. If you already plan your lessons with a variety of activities and use a mult-sensory approach, you do not need to do lots of extra planning.
  3. You can’t do fun, challenging activities
    Not true. See beyond the label. Learners with SENs are individuals with their own personalities and strengths. Discover your learners’ strengths and build on these in your classroom activities.
  4. Other learners suffer because of having learners with SENs in their classes
    Not true. Other learners benefit from developing understanding and acceptance of differences.
  5. Parents of learners with SENs are challenging for teachers
    This does not need to be the case. These parents have often had to struggle to get help for their children. They can help you to understand the issues and develop strategies together which work. See them as allies, not critics.

So what works?

You already have lots of classroom management skills which will help learners with SENs. Like all learners, they need clarity, consistency, understanding and a multi-sensory approach to learning. In the case of learners with SENs, these things are absolutely vital.

8 top tips

  1. Instructions
    Make these clear, concise, give them on a step-by-step basis. Check by giving an example and getting an example. Give in different senses – for example, have visual cues such as an ear for listening and gestures to reinforce. Avoid the use of sequencers, such as ‘before you do this,’ and give the instructions in the correct order.
  2. Use positive classroom language
    Say what you want learners to do, not what you don’t want them to do. For example say ‘Look at the board’ rather than ‘Don’t keep turning around’.
  3. Use visuals to reinforce rules and routines
    For example, have a traffic light system to show when the whole group is going off task. Use visual cues to let learners know the order of activities in the lesson.
  4. Think about your learners needs and have a seating plan
    For example, hearing impaired learners will need to sit near the teacher, learners with ADHD need to sit away from distractions such as windows and radiators.
  5. Learn from your students
    Ask them what helps. Get to know their strengths and interests.
  6. Use a multi-sensory approach
    For example, have learners step out the word stress, draw the word stress, sing the word stress. Get feedback in different ways, for example, use individual mini whiteboards where learners hold up their answers
  7. Create a positive environment where learners help each other
    For example, have a buddy system where learners sometimes help those with SENs. Use activities which develop empathy such as guessing about people in the room.
  8. Work with parents and other professionals
    Focus on what works, not the problems. Do more of what works.

Above all, see your learners as people and not as labels. And enjoy learning with them.