Dyslexia causes grief in every classroom
In a typical Australian classroom of 20-30 children, there are on average 2 to 3 who suffer from dyslexia and probably don’t even know it (Australian Dyslexia Association Inc.). They silently struggle – feeling stupid, embarrassed, and wondering why school seems so difficult. There are so many ways that teachers can help these students without needing much extra training or costly classroom aids.
Most students who have dyslexia don’t realise it; they assume that everyone else is viewing the world in the same fashion. Plagued by tired eyes, they see nothing unusual in text shifting, disappearing or gradually fading from computer screens or pages in books. They often use a finger to keep track of their place when they read and often don’t realize they’ve skipped or re-read entire lines of text. Students with dyslexia often struggle with reading comprehension, and subtly try to avoid reading altogether. The symptoms vary, but ultimately, these students need someone they trust who can confidently say, “Hey, there are some simple things we can put in place to make your schoolwork so much easier.”
Informally checking for dyslexia in just 60 seconds
With just a few simple steps, teachers can identify dyslexia in students, and begin the path towards helping those students find the best environment possible for learning.
First, photocopy a page of text onto six different coloured pieces of paper – white, dark blue, light blue, light purple, grey, and pink.
Then ask the child to stare at a word in the middle of the white page for about 10 seconds. While the child stares at the page, ask, “What are the words on the page doing?”
Hopefully the child will say that nothing is happening, in which case you needn’t be too worried about dyslexia.
However, the child is very likely to be struggling with dyslexia if they explain that the text is:
- Fading away/disappearing
- Going blurry
- Changing colour
If you get a response for any of the above tendencies, repeat the same steps with the other colours of paper. For most children with dyslexia, one or two of the colours will make the words stay still.
Not all forms of dyslexia are identifiable through this method, which is why experts conduct thorough tests in their search for symptoms. However, dyslexia symptoms that are not apparent in this simple exercise are usually unlikely impact a child’s learning process enough to warrant further investigating.
5 simple tips to help children with dyslexia in the classroom
Any teacher can transform a child’s school experience in less than five minutes with these straightforward suggestions.
Classroom Tip #1: Be bold and tackle dyslexia head-on
Many teachers fear that if they put extra measures in place to help children with dyslexia, no matter how practical these measures may be, then they will be seen as operating outside of their training. But helping children learn in the best possible environment is the responsibility of every single educator. There will be some trial and error as you experiment with different strategies to find what works for your own students, but the experience will grow your skills. Surely it’s better to boldly try new strategies than to sit ‘safely’ on the sidelines, anxious about what your peers will say.
Classroom Tip #2: Use coloured backgrounds
Allow dyslexic children to write on coloured paper (usually purple, blue, or grey are best for minimising symptoms). When using smart boards or computer screens, change the background colour to something besides white, and dim the screen slightly for the benefit of students with dyslexia. If you must use a whiteboard, remember to use a different coloured pen for each question.
Classroom Tip #3: Simple changes for worksheets
When photocopying worksheets, print a sheet on coloured paper for each of your students who has dyslexia. If a child feels uncomfortable or self-conscious about this practice, simply print the entire class set on coloured paper. Whenever possible, print the worksheets double spaced in bold text with a slightly larger font.
Classroom Tip #4: Train children with dyslexia to read each paragraph twice
Much like a spy intercepting an enemy transmission, the first time a dyslexic child reads text, they are trying to “decode” it, without putting much thought towards its meaning. Encourage dyslexic children to read paragraphs twice – the first time for decoding text and then again for comprehending meaning. This is a particularly helpful strategy for helping children with dyslexia to understand detailed Maths questions and complex written tasks.
Classroom Tip #5: Move the focus from spelling to writing skills
The most common understanding the general population has of dyslexia is children reversing the order of letters while spelling, which is just the simplistic tip of a complex iceberg. While spelling is an appreciable asset, it is less important than being able to write quality sentences and paragraphs. With the advent of computers in the classroom, teaching dyslexic children to use spell check functions so they can focus more time on reading and writing skills is a great way to break through the ‘spelling barrier’. If spelling is blown out of proportion, children with dyslexia will “play it safe” by sticking to words they know how to spell, which hinders their learning and their motivation. The root cause of poor spelling for a child with dyslexia is often their poor reading skills, so by improving their reading we can expect their spelling to follow.
Five strategies for creating a dyslexia-friendly school
These tips look beyond the classroom to the whole-school level. Teachers can implement them within their classrooms, but they are even more effective when the whole school gets involved. Leaders need to deliberately and proactively create a culture where teachers are encouraged to develop their skills for catering to the very real needs of dyslexic students. Teachers are by nature passionate and helpful, so if they are given the tools to work with and a culture to embrace, they will respond with compassion and support.
School-wide Strategy #1: Train teachers to recognise and help children with dyslexia.
We need to take dyslexia from being something reserved for “the specialists” to something we are willing to tackle together. The current model is a process mired with delays and bureaucratic paperwork in which a tiny proportion of students are referred to specialists, allocated funding for expensive tests, put on a six-month-long waiting list and finally labeled as ‘dyslexic.’ Only then do “the experts” pass on recommendations to teachers. We should train all teachers in straightforward strategies to improve every classroom that includes a dyslexic student, because those students are already struggling through their work, with or without an official diagnosis. Staff are trained to manage asthma, use EpiPens, support suicidal teenagers, and use all available technology, yet teachers have not been equipped with basic training in creating dyslexia-friendly learning environments.
School-wide Strategy #2: Challenge our addiction to white backgrounds.
Schools modify so many things to help students who struggle with other issues. Yet whiteboards, white paper and white computer backgrounds, despite being significant hurdles for children with dyslexia, remain the standard in education. If schools change the background colour on paper, boards, and screens to grey or pale blue, then even the children with undiagnosed dyslexia can flourish without negatively affecting the rest of the class. It is the easy, cheap equivalent of offering wheelchair access to every classroom door. Schools must become willing to exchange white for other colours wherever possible.
School-wide Strategy #3: Create dyslexia-friendly classroom lighting
Fluorescent white lights are like educational Kryptonite to someone with dyslexia. Fluorescent lights constantly flicker, which for many children will cause words to move with a slight “strobe-light” effect. Replace them and any other white lighting with yellow lights or, at the very least, keep the curtains open so natural light balances out the artificial stuff.
School-wide Strategy #4: Screen every child for dyslexia early
Students as young as Grades 1 and 2 already have the vocabulary to explain when words are doing unusual things on the page as they attempt to read. Each child simply needs a teacher or trained staff member to take one or two minutes to check the students ability to ‘see’ the text and then to ask a few simple questions. Every school could screen an entire year level in an afternoon. Imagine the impact of screening an entire school and assisting those students who struggle just by changing the environment they work in.
School-wide Strategy #5: Educate parents and the community
Parents often fear that dyslexia is a learning ‘death sentence’ but by educating parents, schools can give them the simple tools and confidence to help their own children. By emailing or sending home a fact sheet, those same parents will respond proactively, once they are equipped with the understanding that dyslexia is not a dead end for a child’s learning. It is only a minor speed bump that can be easily managed before their child zooms ahead!
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- 10 Achievable Strategies to Tackle Dyslexia in Your Classroom and School - February 10, 2015