Disability & Wellbeing Service Working with students with dyslexia

Many students studying at the University and recorded as having special needs have what is called dyslexia.

While this means "difficulty with words", some people have difficulty with numbers. The extent and nature of such difficulties vary from person to person.

A diagnostic assessment carried out by a chartered Psychologist would document the difficulties. Many dyslexic students have already been assessed at school or college. Others seek assessment once they have become a student.

Such an assessment can be very helpful to the student. It can confirm the nature of the learning problems. And it can offer strategies for improving learning. These might include recommendations about equipment, such as computers with supportive software. Assessments would also often make recommendations about special examination arrangements.

Defining Dyslexia

The term ‘dyslexia’ commonly refers to a set of learning difficulties relating to verbal processing. Yet now it's coming to be understood as a processing difference that has associated strengths and weaknesses. This view is reflected in the following definition, from the Miles Dyslexia Centre:

Dyslexia is best described as a combination of abilities and difficulties, which affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling, writing and sometimes numeracy/language. Accompanying weaknesses may be identified in areas of speed of processing, short-term memory, sequencing, auditory perception, visual perception, spoken language and fine or gross motor skills. Some dyslexic people have outstanding creative skills, others have strong oral skills. Whilst others have no outstanding talents, they can still have dyslexia. Dyslexia occurs despite normal intellectual ability and conventional teaching.It is independent of socio-economic or language background.

(Miles Dyslexia Centre, n.d. para 1)

As this definition makes clear, manifestations of dyslexia are varied. Importantly, the definition also stresses the potential of people with dyslexia.

Effects on the student

There's no one set of characteristics that defines dyslexia. And there is great variation among students in the difficulties they have.

Some students have difficulty accessing written text. They work by employing readers to put text onto cassette. Some students are unable to produce written work without the aid of equipment. Such equipment can include a computer with speech synthesis. Other students may have relatively minor difficulties. What follows are possible and common areas of difficulty. Not all students assessed as dyslexic will have difficulties in all these areas. Others will have considerable difficulty in some of these areas.

The 'Dyslexic Skill Set'

In a very broad sense, people with dyslexia can often be more adept than their non-dyslexic peers in tasks that involve holistic thinking, rather than thinking that is about finer details. Four areas of cognition in which dyslexic people have been found to hold particular strengths are: spatial reasoning, interconnected reasoning, narrative reasoning, and reasoning in dynamic settings (Eide, B.L. and Eide, F.F. (2012) The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain London: Hay House).

Although dyslexia has generally been regarded as an impairment for students in higher education, with respect to certain areas of study it can also be regarded as an advantage. It's important that all students are provided opportunities to display their strengths and that they face in some areas of study do not unduly influence the overall assessment of their learning and abilities. The following sections will provide guidance on how this can best be achieved.

How you can help

Many students who are assessed as dyslexic have already learned effective coping strategies.
But much support can be, and often is already, being offered by university staff. The following is a summary of ways in which teaching staff may be able to help. Individual students will be the best source of information about what is likely to be helpful.

Advice and assistance with ways of organising thoughts for assignments can be useful. The Centre for Academic Practice may be able to help, and you might refer students there.

Spelling and punctuation corrections on assignments are often not helpful. Consideration might be given to students who take longer to complete written work. This is done in consultation with the Adviser of Studies and the lecturer concerned.

If the student has a choice in the method of assessment, it will benefit all students. As will the use of preparatory or formative assessments.

Introduce a choice of alternative (non-written) forms of assessment. This will allow students with dyslexia to better display their learning.

Wherever possible written assignments and exams should be marked based on content. And students with dyslexia should not be penalised for spelling or grammatical errors.

Ensure that assessment questions/instructions are written in clear and concise language. And those assignment deadlines are staggered and not grouped together into a single week of the semester.

If you're writing exam questions, it's helpful if these are phrased in a straightforward way. Some students need to have exam questions read to them, or to have the question paper read onto a cassette.

Many students will need extra examination time for reading the question paper. And for recording answers. Some students may need to use a scribe or a computer. These needs would be communicated to departments before the exam diets by the Special Needs Adviser. And they would be justified by a dyslexia assessment or report from school.

Where handwriting is difficult to read, students could be invited to read out exam answers to the markers.

You can allow students who have difficulty in taking notes in lectures, practicals and tutorials to tape these. Alternatively, paper or disk copies of lecture notes and overhead projector transparencies would be greatly appreciated. Sometimes in enlarged print and sometimes on coloured paper.

New terminology could be written as well as spoken.

Ensure that lectures are amplified and delivered at a reasonable pace.

Keeping lecture slides concise and read their content aloud.

Signpost the structure of your presentations as you deliver them.

Avoid dictation.

Encourage students to audio record lectures, or better still, make audio recordings of lectures available to all students.

Include a range of different activities/media in your teaching sessions.

Publicise reading for lectures and tutorials as early as possible.

Ensure that you allow students ample time to comprehend information and formulate responses.

Try to facilitate student interaction as far as possible.

Make course content available electronically and in an accessible format.

Use sans serif fonts and left-justified text. And avoid italics and underlining wherever possible.

Consider using different background colours, other than white. And write on whiteboards with blue rather than black ink to reduce visual stress.

If you're responsible for placement arrangements for your student, discussions with the student and the placement supervisor should take place before the placement start date.

A placement may make demands on a student that are rather different from the more usual demands of study. These might include the need to produce high-quality written work at speed. Or to read and digest written information quickly. Both of these demands may prove difficult for a student who is dyslexic.

Provide clear, concise guidance in plain language, wherever possible. Provide this in many formats for all practical activities, labs, field trips, etc.

Allow students time to absorb instructions.

Consider the support needs of students on placement, field trips, or study abroad. Discuss with the student the extent of disclosure of their disability to any third party. Potentially share information with third parties on how best to support students with dyslexia.

Students who have difficulty reading aloud may be embarrassed when asked to do this in tutorials. You can help by avoiding putting students who have dyslexia in a situation where they would have to do this.

Include a range of different activities/media in your teaching sessions.

Publicise reading for lectures and tutorials as early as possible.

Ensure that you allow students ample time to comprehend information and plan responses.

Try to help student interaction as far as possible.

Inclusive teaching provides students with opportunities to engage with the curriculum. And to learn effectively.

Always consider the needs of disabled students when designing and reviewing courses. And when adopting teaching and assessment methods.

Inclusive teaching practices are helpful to the entire student population. Inclusive course design can also benefit departments. It can release resources currently absorbed in the implementation of reactive individual adjustments for students.

Indicators of Dyslexia

Students may be unaware that their difficulties in study are dyslexia related. Some may have developed coping mechanisms to partially overcome their dyslexia.

Yet these strategies may begin to fail as the complexity of coursework increases throughout a student’s degree.

It's important that students with dyslexia receive the correct support. This will allow them to succeed. It's useful for academic staff to know the characteristics these students may present.

Potential indicators:

  • poor time management
  • poor sense of direction. For example, telling left from right
  • ‘forgetfulness’. For example, forgetting to bring books, notepads, and pens to class. Or difficulty remembering facts, names, etc
  • discrepancy between verbal and written abilities
  • difficulty with pronunciation or word finding
  • subsequent lack of confidence in group discussions
  • difficulty with new terminology
  • difficulty with sequencing letters and/or numbers
  • difficulty with carrying out verbal instructions in class
  • difficulty or slowness with completing forms or questionnaires
  • missing deadlines for coursework
  • inconsistent quality of coursework
  • difficulty with revision
  • difficulty displaying or communicating learning in exams
  • lack of confidence resulting from some or all of the above difficulties

Referring students to the Disability Service

The list above is by no means exhaustive. If you're concerned that a student may be dyslexic, recommend that they approach the disability service for guidance.