Easing the strain for dyslexics

David Imrie, SENCO at Ashcraig School in Glasgow, offers eight useful tips for helping dyslexic students with learning and revision

With the ever-increasing expectations for schools to achieve improved exam results, it is important that dyslexic students are provided with support and assistance from teachers to help them achieve their best grades.

About one in 10 students has dyslexia, with more boys affected than girls. Students with dyslexia may have difficulty reading and interpreting meaning and though words are visible, they may ‘swim’ or ‘dance’ on the page. This can have a massive impact on their attainment but with the right support they can equal and surpass those without a learning difficulty.

Here are some tips for teachers to help prepare dyslexic students for their revision:

Revision materials

Ensure that revision worksheets have a clear layout, short sentences, and an uncomplicated structure without any unnecessary detail that they may find distracting. Changing the font or background colour in Microsoft Word for example can make a big difference to reading ability.

‘OpenDyslexic’ is a free font that teachers can download which adds gravity and weight to the text as shown in the image here. Students that find characters invert or swim should try using this font.

This may not work for everyone but you can experiment with others such as Verdana, ClearType or Arial to see which works best.

Early planning

Many students find exams and exam preparation difficult and stressful – a task that is even more taxing for dyslexic students. It is important for teachers to encourage students to plan and organise their revision time early to help relieve the pressure.

Creating and sticking to a revision timetable is always a useful coping strategy, allocating time for each exam topic and helping students to stay focused.

The plan should be visible and in a particular location where revision is undertaken. The area should be as quiet as possible, with a cleared space for work and required materials such as notes, PC or Mac.

Identify the time of day when that student works best and organise the timetable around that. For example, first thing in the morning may be the time they have the most energy after a good night’s sleep.

Encourage students to keep their school notes and work together in folders so they do not get lost or damaged. Check that students are writing down their required revision tasks accurately or provide them with written instructions.

If possible, check that students are completing revision tasks correctly with parents or guardians. You can help build independence by asking the student to think about several different ways they could complete a task when faced with a problem and letting them know who they can contact for help once they have tried other strategies.

Organise revision notes

Teachers should also encourage their students to organise their revision materials. One way to make them more manageable is to colour code any paper notes.

I encourage my students to use the coloured highlighting feature in Read&Write Gold from Texthelp, which allows them to gather information using coloured highlighters, from multiple sources e.g. Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word. This text can then be collated into a single Microsoft Word revision document, with a bibliography automatically created.

Memorising revision notes

Many dyslexic students enjoy using mind-mapping tools when revising to help with remembering key words and ideas. These tools are perfect when brainstorming and mapping out ideas for revision. They allow students to build their own visual mind map, adding elements, sticky notes and imagery (which is great for visual learners).

Reduce the revision workload

Reading is a fundamental part of revision, but for dyslexic students revision requires a lot of reading and re-reading of text to decode it.

This increases the typical workload for a dyslexic student when preparing for their exams and can significantly increase their levels of stress.

Many dyslexic students are multi-sensory learners and benefit from listening to their revision notes rather than reading them. Text-to-speech features in assistive software can be used to read any text aloud on a PC or Mac, for example, in Microsoft Word, on the internet or in PDF documents and allows the student to listen to their revision notes rather than having to keep re-reading them.

Concentration and visual stress

If a student has trouble with reading, it may be because of visual discomfort and distortion of print on the page or screen. A white page may glare, causing eye-strain or headaches; words may appear to move, to jumble or to blur. All these things interfere with reading and affect attention and concentration. Coloured overlays can be used with any hand-written revision notes and students can experiment to see which colour works best for them.

The screen-masking feature in literacy support software allows the student to tint the entire screen on a PC or Mac. This reduces glare and visual discomfort and enables those with Irlen Syndrome, for example (a form of visual stress which leads to difficulties with fine vision tasks such as reading) to be able to concentrate on their revision notes for longer.

Exam conditions/readers

Many dyslexic students will be allowed a human reader in their exam to assist them. However, recent changes to JCQ Exam Access Arrangements now allow for a computer reader to be used in place of a human reader, to read any text in the exam papers aloud. This enables students to be independent and reduces their stress levels, as they no longer have to feel embarrassed or afraid to ask for help.

Encouragement and coping strategies

Encouragement and support from tutors, friends and family is invaluable, enabling students to blossom academically and to achieve their goals. It is also important for teachers to help dyslexic students recognise and build on their coping strategies in order for them to progress and do well in their exams and beyond.

David Imrie, biology teacher and SENCO at Ashcraig School in Glasgow, has been helping students with learning difficulties since 1996. He uses Read&Write Gold literacy support software to support his students with revision and in the exam room.



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