A dyslexic pupil in your classroom

David A. Hill M.Phil (Exon) & Katarzyna Maria Bogdanowicz, PhD

Most state primary school teachers of English will work with pupils at risk of dyslexia, or with diagnosed developmental dyslexia, at some point in their career. It is important to remember that the intelligence of such children is always normal or above average. The symptoms related to this disorder do not result only from deficits in sense organs, environmental negligence or a neurological disease. The difficulties of dyslexic pupils are not only related to reading and writing. Actually, it is difficult to provide the full list of dyslexia symptoms, as people suffering from it differ from each other. However, many symptoms of dyslexia may be observed before starting to learn to read and write. These include disharmonious psychomotor development, leading to delayed development of the functions fundamental for learning to read and write. These concern mainly the language functions (e.g. delayed speech development), but also sight, motion and eye coordination.

If the symptoms of the risk of dyslexia continue into the second grade of primary school, despite parental involvement at home and proper educational work at school, diagnostic testing from psychological and pedagogical experts is necessary to identify the reason. Developmental dyslexia may be one of causes. It can be diagnosed even in the second grade of primary school, as the child has probably already been learning to read and write for two years. What follows is a list of the difficulties that are the most challenging from the language teacher’s point of view.

Reading difficulties – a key sign of dyslexia which may already be observed at the very beginning of school education. Dyslexic pupils read more slowly and less fluently, as well as making more mistakes than their peers. Problems with reading technique usually adversely affect the level of understanding of a text. It should be noted that these pupils’ reading comprehension may worsen in stressful situations, e.g. when asked to read in front of the whole class.

Dyslexic children make more mistakes while rewriting texts, writing dictations and creating their own written texts. They often find it difficult to remember the shape of less frequently occurring letters and letters with a complicated structure (for example: F, H, G). Very often they write digits and letters reversed in their mirror image, and they write words from right to left. They mix up letters with similar shapes (e.g.: l – t; p – q;  m – n), but also identical letters that are written the other way round (e.g.: p – b). Apart from orthographical errors, dyslexic children often make mistakes in the omission or addition of letters or syllables and the replacement of words (e.g. they are more likely to write homophones such as flour for flower than non-dyslexic learners).

Problems with listening comprehension in dyslexic pupils may manifest themselves in difficulties with differentiating words that sound similar. The consequences of such mistakes may be very serious. If a pupil wrongly identifies a key word in the recording (e.g. bad for bed), their whole effort related to the execution of the task may be compromised. It sometimes happens that a pupil who is concentrating on searching for specific information to answer the questions forgets what was said at the beginning of the recording. These difficulties are related, among other things, to impaired phonemic hearing, poor concentration and auditory memory.

The impaired cognitive functions of some pupils with dyslexia results in difficulties in creating verbal messages. These problems concern various aspects of speech, and the utterances of such children may be semantically and syntactically poorer, less understandable and may include more mistakes. Dyslexic pupils receive speech therapy more often than others due to speech defects. Many pupils with dyslexia, even if they have sufficient vocabulary, find it difficult to recall words immediately, because of low verbal proficiency. Recalling names, especially under time pressure, also increases emotional stress, which may block the attention and memory functions.

Often English grammar will be the Achilles’ heel of dyslexic pupils. They usually have no problems understanding grammatical rules. However, weaker memory and concentration means they find it difficult to use the acquired skills – they do not remember grammatical rules and they mix up grammatical forms. Observation of dyslexic pupils may also lead to the conclusion that some of them have difficulty putting theory into practice, i.e. they know the rules but cannot use them while constructing the utterance. The need to remember words in correct sequences constitutes another reason for the grammatical problems of dyslexic pupils. A major element of grammatical rules is the sequence of words in a sentence (e.g. adjective before noun – a black cat, and adverb after verb – she walked quickly). Because of this, the usual teaching procedure, consisting of the introduction of a specific piece of language and then doing a number of exercises on it with an increasing level of difficulty, often seems to fail in the case of dyslexic pupils.

Problems with memory, concentration and automation, as well as impaired phonemic hearing or poorly developed phonological skills, lead to difficulties in learning vocabulary. Dyslexic pupils have difficulties with verbal material arranged in sequences, which is why they find it hard to learn the alphabet, numbers, days of the week and months. Another problem for dyslexic pupils is the application of prepositions, particularly those referring to space: over, under, etc. The pronunciation and position of the stress in a word may also be difficult for them. They find it harder to repeat longer and more difficult words than the rest of the class.

Pupils with specific difficulties in reading and writing are often less skilled manually than their peers, and motor coordination is hard for them. This adversely affects all tasks requiring precise movements and coordination of hands (as well as hand-eye coordination). Therefore, dysgraphia, difficulty doing simple drawings and technical tasks (e.g. using scissors and glue), as well as difficulties in producing neat writing, is more often observed in such pupils. Dysgraphia may be apparent both in the slow speed of writing and in illegible handwriting. In extreme cases, reading a written text becomes impossible even for its author. Not surprisingly, some children with dysgraphia complain about hand pain during writing due to excessive pressure used, which may result from improper muscle tension. As a consequence, these pupils often tire more quickly than their peers, do not keep up with the rest of the class and do not write their homework.

A teacher who wants to help their pupils with dyslexia must have at least a basic knowledge of the disorder, its symptoms, as well as the methodology of teaching such children. In many writings on dyslexia, it is stated that their difficulties occur in spite of applying standard, conventional or proper teaching methods. It is not surprising that English language teachers need guidance concerning their work with such pupils. The general guidelines for working with dyslexic pupils below may be helpful; however, it should be emphasised that there is no universal set of methods which work with every dyslexic pupil. These children differ from each other and have different educational needs.
Firstly, the teacher should skilfully find a balance between supporting the pupil and requiring knowledge and skills from her/him. The teacher must help pupils to feel secure and give them a chance to succeed in learning. However, not all their obligations can be waived or substituted. The pupils need to learn self-reliance, which is essential when learning a foreign language. It is worth encouraging them with self-reflection related to learning. Some pupils like to learn alone, others in pairs or groups. Some have great auditory memory and acquire knowledge the best during the teacher’s introduction. Others prefer to remember information visually, particularly when they have to process it somehow (e.g. by preparing a mind map). In the opinion of some experts, discovering and using one’s own preferences concerning learning is such a key skill that it determines the pupil’s success in learning.

Every teacher familiar with the rudiments of foreign language teaching knows that the proper selection and grading of material to be learnt is one of the most important teaching skills. This is particularly significant when working with dyslexic pupils, who often have problems with the simplest tasks.

In the literature on the specific difficulties in reading and writing, it is often recommended to use a multisensory teaching method. When the same material is presented using various sensory channels (visual, auditory, tactile, kinaesthetic), we learn more easily. The multisensory method enables pupils not only to remember the learnt material longer, but also provides them with satisfaction and enjoyment.

Dyslexic pupils usually need regular revision. Returning to the same content is usually boring, so various methods should be used. With reluctant learners, forgo conventional approaches and use enjoyable materials. Riddles, puzzles and games are an excellent solution. Songs and poems also help greatly because of the use of rhyme and rhythm. Attractive and non-standard memory techniques, often called mnemotechnics, may provide invaluable help, both with the learning of new material and with consolidating what has already been learnt.

Due to the dyslexic pupils’ difficulty with concentration, teachers should develop methods to help them with focusing and holding attention. Regular changes in types of exercises, and planning activities interspersed with short breaks, are the most frequently practised methods.

For pupils with specific difficulties in reading and writing, the use of ‘friendly’ didactic aids is also recommended. Sans serif fonts (such as Arial, Comic Sans MS) of at least 12 points, with a bigger interline spacing than is standard, is best. Sentences and titles in capital letters should be avoided as words become similar to one another, because they start and end at the same height. This makes the text more difficult to be read. Some practitioners and researchers believe that the use of a colourful overlay on a text, reducing the contrast between print and background, provides a good solution for part of the problems with reading for those who are hypersensitive to this contrast. Colourful filters are available in various colours. A highlighter embedded in the overlay facilitates concentration on a text and prevents the sight skipping lines. It seems that the use of coloured paper is a technically simpler variant of this method. The need to adjust the colours to a pupil’s individual preferences is a problem in both described methods. In the context of friendly didactic aids, it is also worth mentioning the so-called ‘window for reading’. It is a type of aperture to facilitate the focusing of attention on a selected word and successively proceeding to the next word. This window limits the child’s field of vision, enabling her/him to improve the pace of reading and accelerate the automation process.

The English teacher should not be under the illusion that the above suggestions mean that independent thinking is unnecessary while preparing classes with dyslexic pupils. There are no two identical pupils with dyslexia, so the basic and supreme principle for working with them is maximum individualisation in the teaching process. In conclusion, it should be kept in mind that the teaching methodology is only one of factors determining our pupils’ success in learning. Often the teacher’s personality, their attitude to work and to dyslexic pupils have an equal impact on the accomplishment of teaching objectives. Negative school experience and failures in learning may lead to low self-esteem and lack of belief in one’s own abilities, which may result in secondary emotional and motivational disorders. Therefore, a positive attitude to dyslexic pupils, emphasising their strengths, and using those to work on their difficulties, are essential elements in successful work.

Everything that has been written so far inevitably leads to the conclusion that pupils with dyslexia require additional work and greater involvement on the part of the teacher. When we are getting to know a new class, we should definitely find out the opinions about our pupils from any psychological and pedagogical reports available. These may provide us with plenty of information on a pupil: her/his strengths and weaknesses, teaching methods and recommended ways of working with her/him. For dyslexic pupils who have difficulties in learning English, cooperation between the teacher and parents is very important. Parents who become involved in the learning process may not only help their child in doing homework, but more importantly, motivate and support her/him psychologically. Therefore, it is essential to establish good cooperation between parents and the teacher at the beginning of the school year. Discuss how to communicate about a child, her/his successes and failures, etc. Find out whether the dyslexic pupil receives any of the recommended kinds of pedagogical therapy.

Many teachers ask how to work in a class in which only a few of the pupils suffer from dyslexia. An easy way to facilitate one’s work is to seat the dyslexic pupils closer to the teacher, so that s/he can more easily supervise their work and help them, if needed. Another advantage of this arrangement is that they have a good view of the board/screen. In addition, seating a dyslexic child next to a clever and helpful pupil seems to be a good solution, as it may be beneficial for both sides.

The idea that a child is like a bag – the more you put in, the more you take out – is particularly valid in relation to pupils with dyslexia. One should be very clear that such pupils can succeed in learning, and learn a foreign language well. However, in order to achieve this, the teacher usually has to invest more time and effort than for their peers. In addition, they need much more support from their parents and teachers.  

David A. Hill M.Phil (Exon) & Katarzyna Maria Bogdanowicz, PhD


This article has been taken from the supporting materials of the primary series Hopscotch from National Geographic Learning – for more details visit NGL.Cengage.com/hopscotch