What Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that affects the way that information is processed by the brain. It is included under the umbrella of neurodiversity, a term used to describe differences in the way different people’s brains work.
Although dyslexia mainly affects the development of literacy and language-related skills, it can also impact the way that a person organises and remembers information. Dyslexia is likely to be present at birth and affect the person throughout their life. Dyslexia is one of the most common types of neurological differences and is estimated to affect around 10% of the UK population. The condition often coexists with other learning difficulties or neurological differences, such as ADHD or Autism. It is not known exactly what causes dyslexia, but there is thought to be a genetic element to its development, meaning that someone is more likely to have it if one of their parents is dyslexic.
Dyslexia is characterised by difficulties in the following areas:
- phonological processing – the ability to recognise phonemes (speech sounds) from their written symbol;
- rapid naming – naming things such as numbers, letters and colours on sight;
- working memory – the capacity to temporarily hold information, such as verbal instructions or directions, to be able to use it for further processing;
- processing speed – the time taken to interpret and understand information;
- automatic development of skills that may not be in line with an individual’s other cognitive abilities.
It is important to note that a diagnosis of dyslexia is not indicative of a person’s intelligence. People with dyslexia, despite experiencing difficulties with written language, often show great aptitude in other areas. As every person is unique, individual experiences of dyslexia vary from person to person.
Supporting Students with Dyslexia at Secondary School
Most students with dyslexia will likely have received a diagnosis before they start secondary school, so you should be aware of any students in your classes who may require additional support. However, there are some common signs to be aware of in the classroom that may indicate the need for a diagnostic assessment.
These signs include:
- a poor standard of written work compared to verbal ability;
- difficult-to-read handwriting with poorly-formed letters, or neat handwriting but written very slowly;
- confusion of capital and lower-case letters;
- difficulty taking notes in lessons;
- struggling to complete tasks on time;
- being easily distracted and struggling to stay on task;
- being hesitant or taking a long time to read text out loud;
- losing their place easily while reading.
Students with dyslexia may also appear forgetful and disorganised, for example forgetting equipment needed for lessons or missing deadlines for homework. They may also seem excessively tired due to the extra effort and concentration needed to keep up with their peers in these areas. Some of these signs may also be an indication of other types of neurological differences, for example ADHD, which commonly coexists with dyslexia.
Communication with other members of staff in school will allow you to determine whether any issues observed are isolated to your lessons or common across all subjects. If indications of dyslexia are apparent in a number of areas, the student may need to be referred for a diagnostic assessment. A diagnosis of dyslexia is needed as evidence for exam access arrangements, such as a reader, a scribe or extra time. It can also be useful for the individual to access reasonable adjustments later in life, for example at university or in the workplace.
During a diagnostic assessment, a series of tests are carried out to identify areas of strength and weakness in:
- reading, writing and spelling;
- handwriting and fine motor skills;
- underlying learning skills, including phonological awareness, speed of processing and memory, speech and language, and auditory processing.
If a student is diagnosed with dyslexia, there are a number of strategies that can be used to support them in the classroom. These strategies can still be applied even without a formal diagnosis of dyslexia.
- Create a supportive classroom environment. Increasing awareness of learning disabilities and neurodiversity can help to make students with dyslexia feel understood and supported. This includes ensuring that other students are aware that their peers may have different learning needs and that they take this into consideration when working in pairs or small groups.
- Differentiate tasks. Providing a range of differentiated activities for learning subject content can aid students’ confidence in demonstrating their understanding of the topic. For students who take longer to complete written tasks, consider whether the same outcome can be achieved through a cut and stick activity or by providing sentence starters. Similarly, rather than requiring students to take excessive amounts of notes in lessons, could you print out the key learning points for them to stick in their book to refer back to later? You could also make use of alternative technology, such as typing, speech-to-text software or audio recordings, for students to record their work.
Beyond offers a range of resources for different topics, allowing you to select the activity most suited to your students’ learning styles.
- Allow extra time for reading and writing. There will be situations where it is necessary for students to produce a longer piece of written work, and most students will be expected to be able to write for themselves when it comes to GCSE exams. However, if it is possible to provide additional time in lessons for students to complete written tasks, this can help to take the pressure off those who struggle to process information and get their thoughts down on paper. This could be done by having an extension task available for students who have finished the main task, while not rushing those who require additional time.
- Use dyslexia-friendly fonts and backgrounds for resources. Use sans serif fonts with a larger font size for dyslexic learners. Avoid presenting written text in all capital letters – lower case letters tend to be easier to read for continuous text. Avoid unnecessary use of underlining and italics as this can make text appear crowded and make it more difficult to read. For PowerPoint presentations, use dark coloured text on a light-coloured (not white) background, with sufficient contrast between the background colour and the text colour. You should avoid using excessively patterned or busy backgrounds. Some dyslexic learners will also have a preferred paper colour for printed resources. You can also add a coloured filter over PowerPoint presentations to accommodate for these learners.
Beyond resources are created with dyslexia style guidelines in mind, so you can be sure that your lessons are suitable for all learners.
- Reduce cognitive workload. When presenting tasks to students, keep instructions as clear and concise as possible to reduce processing time. Breaking down tasks into chunks and giving students these instructions one at a time can help to reinforce working memory and prevent students from becoming overwhelmed. It can also be helpful to provide a checklist for tasks, as well as visual aids to support processing of information. Explaining an activity verbally and asking students to repeat the instructions back to you can also help students to understand what is expected of them and allows you to recognise where further support may be needed. You should use your professional judgement when using this technique as some students may feel uncomfortable being called on in this way.
- Focus on the positives. Many young dyslexic people struggle with self-esteem and think of themselves as unable or unintelligent. By reframing their way of thinking using praise, they may gain confidence and participate more in class activities.
- Celebrate diversity. Make use of time in lessons and elsewhere in school to celebrate neurological differences. This might mean including references to inspirational people with dyslexia or other learning needs in your lessons, or creating displays in your classroom to celebrate neurodiversity. You could also invite guest speakers into school to inspire students, or ask students with dyslexia to speak to their peers about their unique strengths and challenges if they are confident to do so.
You can find a range of resources to celebrate neurodiversity, including dyslexia, on the Twinkl website.
What Else Can I Do?
Collaborate and communicate with other teachers and your special educational needs coordinator (SENCo) for specific strategies that work for individual students. In addition, maintaining regular contact with parents to share progress, strategies and resources can help to make students feel supported and encouraged at school. Discuss strategies with the student, parents and any other members of staff that may have worked with them in the past to make sure you are doing all you can to support each individual student. If they have a learning plan with the school, make sure you have read it thoroughly and incorporate any suggestions mentioned to support your students.
Do you now feel more confident in how to support someone with dyslexia? If you’re looking for further information, we have a great range of helpful blogs here! You can also subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.