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The dyslexic English teacher

dyslexiaJennifer-WebbThis article is authored by Jennifer Webb, Head of English at Appleton Academy in Bradford, West Yorkshire. It was originally posted on her own blog.

It was only after I had got through GCSEs, A levels, an English degree and my PGCE year that I discovered I am dyslexic. My particular brand of dyslexia manifests itself in letter, number and colour recognition.

In other words, I misread words, struggle to recognise spelling errors (including my own), read more slowly than average, and have struggled for years with my handwriting. The fact that I am an English teacher just adds to the fun.

Now, I am not a SENCO, and apart from my own experiences and observations, I have no formal training or expertise in dyslexia. However, I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on how my dyslexia has impacted on my teaching, and the many things I’ve learned from working with dyslexic students. Dyslexia is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ problem: it manifests itself in many ways, and something that works for one person may not work for another.

It’s also important to recognise that dyslexia is a sliding scale; some people are only very mildly dyslexic, and this may not really impact on their everyday lives, whereas some people with very severe dyslexia need to make adjustments to almost everything they do, particularly in an educational environment. There is a multitude of dyslexics in between these two extremes, and they are all unique.

Some people are only very mildly dyslexic, and this may not really impact on their everyday lives, whereas some people with very severe dyslexia need to make adjustments to almost everything they do

This post will not be revolutionary – nothing is new, and there are far more informative sources out there about the condition, the science, and best practice. I hope that what is here might simply provide some insight into what life is like for ONE dyslexic, and some strategies which work for me in a real classroom setting.


1. Good days and bad days

Me
I am worse when I’m tired, so I try to work when I’m fresh (early morning or late at night after a nap… ). Every day is different – sometimes I am really efficient and ‘with it,’ but others I work very slowly and get frustrated. On days like this, I put my marking aside, and try to do something less text or paper-based.

Them
Dyslexic students have good and bad days too (though this is true for most teenagers to some extent!) I have regular conversations with the dyslexic students I teach, and we talk about being able to identify those times when we are not feeling at our best. If a student is having a difficult time on a day I teach them, I try to find alternative ways for them to work.

A student I taught a few years ago, we’ll call her Anna, used to find it easier to do ‘free note-taking’ on those days, where you record the lesson in ways other than writing extended passages (ie illustrations, mind-mapping, short notes) She would then take her work home and complete it at a time when she was feeling more lucid. I’ve had other students who record sections of the lesson on a dictaphone (or more recently, their mobile phone) so that they can write up what I’ve said later.

I’ve had other students who record sections of the lesson on a dictaphone (or more recently, their mobile phone) so that they can write up what I’ve said later

I have found that helping students to recognise their own patterns and the things which work best for them is a really effective way to prevent anxiety and issues with engagement.

2. IRLENS

Me
I use a rose pink overlay (IRLENS) when reading, and a notebook with pink paper – I’ve timed myself reading and this increases my speed by about 20%, and definitely improves my endurance!

Them
A number of my students are diagnosed as needing IRLENS, but all of them benefit from paper and whiteboard backgrounds which are not stark white. I try to use a range of paper colours to colour code activities and provide a softer background to support reading extended passages.

Experimenting with different fonts, sizes and line spacing can also be an important way to help students engage with texts. I use Comic Sans on my PowerPoints, and when I print texts for students I make sure they are at least 1.5 spaced, size 12-14. Anything we can do to make reading more accessible has to be worthwhile!

3. Handwriting

Me
My handwriting is abysmal, so much so that two summers ago I tried to completely relearn cursive script. I’ve had some success with this, but it’s still pretty wobbly, and when I’m in a rush (when are teachers not?!), I revert to my illiterate teenage scrawl.

This is a major issue with marking books and essays, but my students know that I’m trying my best, and it’s OK to tell me they can’t read my writing!

During lessons, I very rarely write on the board; I even tend to put dates and titles onto a powerpoint rather than subject the kids to my scrawl!

During lessons, I very rarely write on the board; I even tend to put dates and titles onto a powerpoint rather than subject the kids to my scrawl!

Them
In many ways, I think that being so honest about my issues with handwriting has helped some of my students who also have poor handwriting. In teenagers, this often leads to a real lack of confidence, so I think it’s important for teachers to acknowledge how difficult handwriting can be, and that poor handwriting does not make WHAT you write any less valid or interesting.

Being so honest about my issues with handwriting has helped some of my students who also have poor handwriting

The rule in my classroom is, if it’s legible and you have tried your best, it is good enough.

4. Reading and performing under pressure

Me
I struggle, especially when I am tired, to read out loud fluently. If I need to read extended passages out loud to or with the class, I practice beforehand so that I don’t trip up and ruin the flow: this especially applies to poetry and novel extracts.

I tell the students that I’ve prepared it, because I think it’s important for them to recognise that performance, even if it’s just reading out a few paragraphs of Dickens, is an art in itself and deserves some real thought!

Them
I always give my dyslexic students prior warning if I’m going to ask them to read something to the group. I might approach them before the lesson and give them something to look at overnight, or give them 5 minutes in a lesson just to go over it to themselves before sharing with the class.

This can be an effective approach for all students, but it’s particularly important that dyslexics are given the time and space to feel comfortable when faced with a page full of words.

If I need to read extended passages out loud to or with the class, I practice beforehand so that I don’t trip up and ruin the flow

5. Spellings

Me
This is the thing which most frequently affects my teaching day. All of my classes are trained to tell me if they think I’ve spelled something wrong, and they know I won’t be offended.

On a good day, I can spell anything they like off the top of my head. On a bad day, I have to write it down a few different ways in my notebook and then look it up, just to be certain!

All my life I’ve struggled with spellings, and I try to teach myself mnemonics, songs and other strategies to overcome my issues. I now use these with my students wherever possible – I once had an A Level class who liked them so much that they wrote a song which incorporated all of their key sophisticated literature vocabulary!

Them
Spellings are one of the biggest barriers for students who are lacking confidence in their writing, and this generally leads to disengagement with the task and the subject. Being honest with students about our own barriers to learning is really important. My students are trained to do a number of things:

  • When proof-reading work, circle any words you are not certain you have spelled correctly (or used correctly), so I will know you were unsure when I mark your book.
  • When writing, if you have used a dictionary to check a spelling, underline the word and write ‘checked’ in the margin, so that you know it’s right and can look back in your book next time you need to use it.

They are NEVER too old to do a spelling test, or use ‘look, cover, write, check’!

Remember that poor spelling does NOT make you a bad English student, it just means you have to be more aware of what you are doing. I would far rather see you use advanced vocabulary spelled wrong, than read something boring because you were too scared to use it!

I would far rather see advanced vocabulary spelled wrong, than read something boring because the student was too scared to use it!


Other useful strategies

Help students to access texts easier
Breaking up or ‘chunking’ the text – do you need to give them the whole thing at once? Could you edit their copy to take out some of the superfluous bits? Could you give it to them in a few smaller chunks so that it’s easier to digest?

Highlighting (not underlining…) key sections, words or phrases before giving the student a passage. This will help them to focus on what’s really important.

Give students a list of key words or phrases to look for in a passage so that they have something to anchor them while reading.

Help students to plan writing
Provide planning proformas for paragraphing or essay writing, which you can gradually take away or make simpler as they become more confident.

Explicitly teach sentence starters and key phrases which can start a piece, link sections and end pieces. Students can then repeat these to themselves so that they are embedded. and they can write more confidently.

General skills
Handwriting practice books are very cheap, and your SENCO might be able to provide them for you. Getting students to do 15 minutes a night as homework can be really powerful, especially if you give them something to copy out which is related to their academic work!

Getting students to do 15 minutes a night as homework can be really powerful, especially if you give them something to copy out which is related to their academic work!

Help them to organise their time/revision/homework etc by showing them how to prioritise their time. Making a ‘to do’ list and highlighting the items which they know will take them longer (extended writing etc.) so that they can plan their time better

I hope this is somewhat useful, and that some other teachers out there can make use of the strategies above (or just have reconfirmed something they already do!)

I’d love to hear your own strategies: @funkypedagogy


Follow Jennifer on Twitter.

Visit Jennifer’s blog.

Appleton Academy is part of the SSAT network – find out more about membership.

Read the University of Southampton’s Supporting dyslexic trainees and teachers

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One thought on “The dyslexic English teacher

  1. Lesley Long on said:

    I am a dyslexic mathematics teacher and like you I inform the students of this and allow them to correct me. I think this makes them listen and concentrate more as they are trying to sot mistakes. I also have greater difficulty when I am tired. I think it also makes the dyslexic student more confident and willing to contribute more to the lesson. They know it is ok to struggle. Thank you for the article.

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