Some Ideas about Teaching
Teaching Dyslexic Pupils
Terry. I am hesitant to
shoot my mouth off to you because – teaching in a school for dyslexics – you
will almost certainly know more than me about both the problems and
solutions! What I write below, therefore, is more aimed at the general
History teacher struggling with one or two dyslexic pupils than at an expert
Problems with Output
Also, I must admit at KS4 I have never really overcome the output problem.
It is possible for any able dyslexic to overcome the reading problem with
motivation, time and the correct teaching. The spelling is an annoyance, but
ultimately doesn’t matter unless the proportion of unrecognisable words
grows too great for the examiner to be able to make sense of the script. The
output problem, however, is much more than problems with spelling. Most
1. have just as
great problems with grammar as with reading, and simply can’t put their
ideas into written form.
2. choose to
write ‘babyish’ sentences with very simple words which they know they can
produce, and tend to avoid sophisticated or intricate words and arguments.
written output very slowly – the choice is either a lot which looks awful
and reads atrociously. At Greenfield I give out red smiley ink-stamps to
dyslexics. They use it at the end of pieces of written work they have tried
their best with. It means: ‘dyslexic pupil who has tried their best’.
4. often –
because they have a processing SpLD (it depends where the SPLD lies in their
brain) – are not much better at spoken output than they are at written
output. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE THICK; it just means that they can’t
express their idea and intelligence in written or spoken form. However, this
kind of pupil will inevitably struggle in a GCSE exam, even with an
5. often have
co-morbid problems (eg dyspraxia/ ADHD) which add to the problem of
producing written work.
1. In exams –
extra time and an amanuensis.
2. In lessons –
use alternative forms of output: e.g. visual presentations/ drama and other
forms of kinaesthetic expression). Also make sure that the pupils are given
‘thinking time’ before they are asked to comment or present.
3. Coursework –
consult your moderator to see if he will accept alternative forms of output
(e.g. videos/ tapes)
4. Text -
produce your own simplified version of text and sources. Don't worry if you
change the source beyind recognition; stay tru to the meaning and produce it
in a form they can read.
Using History to Remedy
Giving advice on teaching children with dyslexia is really hard because
people differ so very much about what dyslexia is.
Types of ‘Dyslexia’
When I did my SpLD diploma I was taught that dyslexia is exclusively
dysphonetic dyslexia – ie children who can’t brain-process phonemic
information. In reading, the mark of this is a pupil who can’t read new
words when he comes to them, can’t ‘split them up’ phonetically to work them
out, but (after a little work) can remember the ‘word-shape’ when reading
the word later in the passage. If able, this kind of pupil CAN learn to read
quite well simply by rote-learning thousands of word-shapes. He responds to
flash-card work, and word-learning mechanisms like tracing round the shape
of the word. The Dyslexia Institute and reinforcement exercises like those
in Toe to Toe/ Alpha to Omega deal with this kind of pupil by making them do
loads of phonetic work, building up their phonetic knowledge step-by-step,
bit-by-bit. ALL dyslexics have difficulty with spelling, but with this kind
of pupil, the Look-Say-Cover-Write and typist-techniques such as
say-it-like-it’s-written (‘con-sti-too-ti-on’/ ‘k-nif-i’) fail utterly.
While I was doing my diploma I worked with a ‘dyslexic’ pupil who just
didn’t fit this pattern at all. It was clear that he had ‘visual dyslexia’ –
ie the brain had problems processing the necessary visual information as it
read and spelled. I am pleased to say that ‘visual dyslexia’ nowadays has
much more general credence academically, though I couldn’t tell you the
overall state of play on the debate. Typical of a ‘visual dyslexic’ is that
he is quite good at decoding words phonetically, but – having done so more
or less laboriously once in a passage, his brain fails to acquire the
‘shape’ of the word, and he has to re-decode it every time he meets it. This
child needs lots of remedial work on word-shapes, tracing round the outside
of the word etc. Flashcards are a continuing nightmare and embarrassment,
because he can NEVER remember them.
As I have assessed and worked with dyslexic pupils in my own school,
however, I would be prepared to say that I have never met any dyslexic pupil
who did not have problems with working memory (visual, auditory or both).
Working memory is that bit of your brain at the front which – if I were to
say, for instance: ‘take the letters A E I, assign each a numerical value
according to its place in the alphabet and add them together’ – does the
necessary calculations and manipulations.
If you have a lot to do with dyslexic pupils, it is also worth checking out
their ability with sequences (ask them to say the months of the year) – a
weakness here can be the cause of lots of problems, not only with reading
and spelling, but also with logical thinking and arguing.
It is also worth while doing a Perceptual Speed and Accuracy test (some
pupils are not dyslexic at all, they are just slow at appropriating and
processing/ on the other hand, the dyslexic pupil who is scores highly on a
PSA test is almost always an ‘angry dyslexic’ – they can see it, but they
get so cross because they can’t then ‘get’ it).
You can find out your pupils’ individual problems/ strengths and weaknesses
simply by observation, or by testing. The point is, however, that you can
then not only teach the History in a way which gets round the pupil’s
dyslexia, but which USES the history to address the dyslexic’s problems.
History and Dysphonetic Dyslexia
It is essential to select a text which the pupil can read at 95% success.
Anything below this is ‘frustration’ level. I cannot stress this enough. If
he is failing to read more than one word in 20, he has no chance of
appropriating the passage’s meaning successfully – even with a teacher
telling him the words he don’t know. For many pupils, my Hodder History
Foundation series has an appropriately limited vocabulary and a systematic
approach to vocabulary addition, but you must test read it with your pupils
to see of it is easy enough. If it isn’t, then you must go easier, probably
by writing your own.
Read round as normal, and establish understanding by asking questions ‘every
which way but’.
There is nothing wrong with making the text so easy that the pupil can read
it all without error. That is how you are reading this(!) and that then
frees you up to appropriate the meaning and think about the ideas I am
When you have found a text that is easy enough, you will be able to work
with the words which the pupil doesn’t know. First of all, DON’T try to
teach him all the words (you will confuse him). Secondly, don’t make a
random selection of ‘words for this topic’. A dysphonetic child will find it
utterly impossible to learn ‘feudal’, ‘knight’ and ‘sword’. He might,
however, manage to learn and remember: ‘might’, ‘tight’, ‘bright’ and
Forum regulars will know that I am a real advocate of ‘routine’ for Special
Needs classes. After you have read the passage with your class, I would
ALWAYS have a short ‘Literacy-Bite’ with the pupils, where you play
word-games with them. You can make up relevant games very easily. But make
sure that they are all about the words you have selected, and that they re-inforce
the phonetic element you have selected (e.g. ‘ight’ is pronounced ‘ite’/ –y
words go to plural –ies’/ etc). if you were being VERY clever, you could go
to the child’s withdrawal tutor, and find out what phonetic elements they
are working on (this will be especially easy if they are working on
something like Toe to Toe). You will easily be able to find appropriate
words in your next history lesson which repeat this work and build on it.
When it comes to the ‘Output’ part of your lesson, make sure that you offer
appropriate alternatives from which the child can choose. I find no problem
in making one of these alternatives copying something – if the child enjoys
it and can do it well, it will build up confidence and self-esteem and it
costs you nothing in terms of preparation and effort. Another alternative
that dysphonetic dyslexics can enjoy is a cloze exercise. Often, their
skimming and scanning (ie visual) skills are quite good, and they can locate
the answers in the text and prove they understood the work without having to
do any free writing at all. If you make the third alternative any form of
free writing, make sure you give a VERY fierce frame, and make either
yourself or a TA available to write spellings on the board on demand.
Even when pupils are GCSE standard, you can give them a ‘standard frame’ for
most answers they will meet. In the AQA exam, paper 1, two of the questions
are sourcework questions. The same form of question comes up year after
year, so you can give them a frame for extraction from a source, for
accuracy of a source etc., where they simply have to fill in the details
from the source and from their own knowledge.
Dysphonetic dyslexics often enjoy non-writing forms of expression, such as
spidergrams, diagrams and dramatic representations.
History and Dyseidetic (Visual) Dyslexia
Again, choose a text the pupils can read at 95% accuracy. But this time, you
are looking out for different things. The graded introduction of words in
Hodder History Foundation is less appropriate here; these pupils can decode
quite well. They just can’t appropriate. So, read round as normal and
establish understanding by asking questions ‘every which way but’.
However, when you come to your ‘Literacy-Bite’, you will need to work in a
different way. There is no need to be consistent phonetically – they are
quite good at that! Instead, all the emphasis needs to be on the word shape.
Look with the pupils at where the vowels are, at how many letters hang down
below the line, or stand up above the others. Draw the shape of the word,
either as a series of rectangles (one for each letter), or as a border round
the outside of the letters. Rub out the letters within and see who can
supply the missing letters etc.
In a class with mixed problems, don’t worry. The dysphonetic dyslexics will
LOVE these games – they’ll be really good at them! (Just as the dyseidetic
dyslexics will enjoy the phonetic games for the dysphonetic dyslexics.) As
long as you have created an atmosphere of mutual support and joy in each
others’ achievements, you will be able to work with those who find it
difficult, whilst celebrating the success of those who find it easy.
When it comes to writing, you may find that the dyseidetic dyslexic is less
happy to copy, and hates the scanning associated with cloze exercises. He
may well be happier to bash away on a bit of creative writing, as long as
you understand that the writing and grammar will be dreadful!
Dysphonetic dyslexics also often enjoy kinaesthetic forms of expression,
such as dramatic representations, but you may well find that they dislike
drawing, especially if they have co-morbid dyspraxia.
History and Working memory
This is THE critical issue, and it CAN be improved. I often start lessons
with a version of I Went to Market, where pupils have to complete an
ever-lengthening sequence of tasks to earn their exercise book. This is an
area where History can shine, and every teacher should have a quiver-full of
memory and learning games.
This becomes especially vital at GCSE. In the AQA exam, paper 1, a third
question is always a simple ‘describe’ question which simply needs factual
recall. If the pupil can score highly on these and the two sourcework
questions (as above), they can reach grade C level before they even have to
try to answer the final discussion question.
I have also written something on the forum about
revision and dyslexics
Posted on: Nov 24 2004,