How to help the dyslexic teacher and learner

Image of scrabble titles spelling out 'dyslexia'
Image of dyslexic brain

Research suggests that the dyslexic brain is physically different to a neurotypical brain. The brightest areas on this dyslexic brain image are where these measured differences are greatest. Image credit: ALEXANDER TSIARAS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

So, dyslexia runs in families and we are one of those families. Although my dyslexia is mild and wasn’t picked up until university, my son’s dyslexia gave rise to me fearing that he would leave primary school  illiterate.

In the inclusive secondary science laboratory, up to 10% of the students will have some degree of dyslexia. So it’s important that we find strategies to support our students to help them access the curriculum and shine in exams.

In my school, we have a teaching and learning slot in our weekly briefing which has a different focus every half term. The spring term is looking at sharing ideas of how to support SEND students in our subject, so when it came to my turn I decided to share my personal journey as a dyslexic family, learner and teacher.

What is dyslexia?

Image of scrabble titles spelling out 'dyslexia'

According to the NHS, dyslexia is a lifelong, specific learning difficulty. Image credit: KEVIN CURTIS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

People with dyslexia may have problems with reading, writing and learning sequences of information. This is often coupled with poor organisational skills and often not knowing their left from their right. Don’t be fooled that this is about poor intelligence; in fact, to have a dyslexic diagnosis you must have average or higher IQ and therefore is not a condition linked to low intelligence. Dyslexic tendencies are always worse when a person is tired, stressed or ill, so it stands to reason that if we can reduce stress then hopefully the learning difficulty will reduced too.

Improving accessibility

Cover of AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Student Book

Textbooks developed with accessibility in mind are really important for building independent learning.

It is really important to choose texts with an appropriate reading age. Many students are nervous about using learning resources, especially accessing written work. This could be because they are unsure of the key parts of a book, so it is useful to help students navigate a book by helping them to understand the difference between an index and contents, as well as the benefits of a glossary.  The new Oxford AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate book is ideal, with a lower reading age than many other KS4 textbooks, plenty of space, and lots of subheadings and boxes to break up the text.

When making your own resources, using a font that has the same characters as those written in handwriting, such as comic sans, century gothic or open dyslexic, is best. This means that decoding is easier for both dyslexics and EAL students. When choosing the font, the letter to look out for is the letter ‘a’ as this can be an easy indicator to the accessibility.

Breaking up the text with boxes of information, supported by illustrations, can be really useful for a dyslexic. It allows them to easily dip in and out of the text. Using a reading rule can focus the attention line by line and make the text easier to read and having the book raised at a slight angle can also help students to read more easily.

Visual stress

Image of coloured overlays being used for reading

These coloured overlays also have a reading rule which reduces visual stress and focuses reading line by line. Image credit: iStockphoto

Some dyslexics experience the text moving around the page.  This can be reduced by using coloured filters. These can be applied via Windows Accessibility tools, using an overlay, or having coloured glasses. When students are writing their own answers, it can be helpful to use coloured paper to ensure that visual stress is minimised when they check their work.

If the movement of the text is extreme, using technology can be an answer to help students ‘read’ the text. Reading pens are small portable devices that scan and read text out with a human-like digital voice.  This allows students to have questions and text in books read aloud to them. Some of these pens have been approved by The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) for use in exams. Alternatively, software can be used to scan digital books and read them aloud. For example, Narrator is a screen-reading app built into Windows 10.

Checking work

Dyslexics are known for poor spelling. Giving students a break between producing the work and then proofreading it can be really helpful in spotting the mistakes, as can having a computer programme read back the work, which makes a lack of punctuation more obvious.

Once a spelling mistake has been found, it can be frustrating for dyslexics to try and use a conventional dictionary, so try using an electronic dictionary, ACE spelling dictionary or a subject-specific glossary to help find the spellings more easily.

Final thoughts

Photo of Sir Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson said, “It is time we lost the stigma around dyslexia. It is not a disadvantage; it is merely a different way of thinking.” Image credit: MARK WILLIAMSON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Dyslexics often have low self-esteem about their academic ability, so bear this in mind when you are marking work. Their written work may be littered with mistakes, but this does not mean there has not been a lot of effort put in and maybe focusing on a few key spellings is better than marking every spelling error.

But, being dyslexic is a gift that allows people to problem solve in a different way to most. There are many success stories of people like Sir Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, and Whoopi Goldberg, who have made their own fortune, seen great professional success and many awards to their name – hopefully my family will join their ranks!

Sam Holyman is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and formerly West Midlands ASE President. She is also author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE (including the AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Student Book), and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning. She was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practising scientists, is a Chartered Science Teacher, and has recently been awarded a CPD Quality mark.