Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What do ESL teachers need to know about dyslexia?

Teachers should be able to identify students who may have dyslexia, outlining writing difficulties, including problems spelling words correctly; and classroom behaviour, including such difficulties as paying attention, following directions, time management and low self confidence’

Affecting between 5% - 20% of the population, dyslexia is defined as “a specific learning disability, that is neurological in origin, and a result of a person’s phonological component of language processing.” Shaywitz 2003.

Contrary to certain opinions, dyslexic students are not lazy or resistant to learning, but on the contrary, are often highly intelligent and creative individuals, particularly if a list of the famous who suffer from dyslexia is anything to go by: Leonardo da Vinci and John F Kennedy to name but two eminent men in their respective fields.

Dyslexia is a genetic disorder that is incurable, it is vital that students suffering from it are quickly and accurately identified, particularly in view of the fact that no screening process exists at the moment to provide concrete evidence that a person entering the university’s programs suffers from dyslexia.

Teachers should look for clusters of behavioural symptoms rather than, for example, difficulty spelling English words. Many of our students have such difficulties without them being rightly diagnosed as dyslexic.

However, if a student displays constant trouble reading and writing at the simplest level; has difficulty spelling, displays confusion over recognizing syllable boundaries, sequencing of sound, especially consonants, then that student may well be dyslexic.

Paradoxically, dyslexic students learning languages that are non-alphabetic, such as Japanese, for example, usually do not have the difficulties outlined above. Unfortunately for our own students learning English and coming from a first language background of Arabic, another alphabetic language, their difficulties remain.

What teachers can best do to help such students comes under five areas we can all work on in our classrooms., and such practices would benefit all learners of English.

Understandably, teacher talk came under scrutiny, with teachers asked to slow down their delivery rate, providing ‘verbal space’ around key points, with the use of hand gestures and written instructions to ensure students understand key points in a lesson, as well as cutting down on digressions that do not move a student’s understanding forward.

Moving on to whiteboard skills to help dyslexic students, keeping the whiteboard clear of confusing marks, writing clearly and legibly, and using graphics such as diagrams, images and charts, are all essential to assisting comprehension of words written up on the board. She finally urged teachers to allow such students a little more time copying from the board, and reading from the board generally.

Teachers should explicitly teach dictionary skills and alphabetizing in general to assist students to recognize letters to improve both their receptive and productive skills, in addition to showing students the roots of words and how meaning is changed by the addition of affixes.

A list of best practices in the language classroom should include such multi-sensory methods as backing up oral instructions with written ones, removing the need for such students to rely on their aural abilities. Teachers need to keep students up to date with daily lesson agendas – on the board and in handouts, to summarize points, paraphrasing them and repeating them until it is certain students have understood points being made.

Providing students with opportunities to engage in higher reasoning activities enables students to become actively engaged in learning, to supplement their deficiencies in the areas of learning that give them trouble.

Finally, teachers should encourage students to have ‘study buddies’ – friends to assist, support and generally help students suffering from dyslexia; to find the most congenial environment for studying – preferably a quiet one, where they can study at set times each day and in which they can go over class notes until they are fully comprehended.
Some useful links include:-
Shaywitz, S. (2003) Overcoming Dyslexia. New York Vintage Books

And - The International Dyslexia Association: http://www.interdys.org
- The Dyslexia Institute, UK: www.dyslexia-inst.org.uk

Robert Leslie Fielding


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