Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom

A practical guide for teachers
By Ania Krzyzak

Education is undoubtedly the birthright of all children. In this situation, the purpose of every nation is to produce literate, well-educated and intelligent residents who are able to contribute to the proper development and progress of the whole society. Schools cater to all needs of children coming from different classes and sections of the society. In these schools children form various backgrounds with different interests, expectations, needs and certainly learning styles and abilities meet. Unfortunately, among these pupils there are many smart and intellectually capable children who are not given an opportunity to present their knowledge and show their intelligence, instead they are often labelled as lazy, stupid and very often ineducable. In fact, these children are not ineducable, but suffer from a frequent and common processing problem - dyslexia. In every day practice, the number of very intelligent children who encounter difficulties in reading and writing is high and the phenomenon of dyslexia occurs profusely.

To many experts, dyslexia seems to be a very elusive condition. Some are still arguing over its nature, origin and symptoms, since dyslexia has many faces. Dyslexia manifests itself by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of writing, reading, speaking, listening, reasoning and mathematical abilities.

Through the past years there has been a significant increase in the amount of research on dyslexia conducted and the emerging data is far from conclusive. Some possible causes of dyslexia have been identified by researchers, but not all have been fully confirmed yet. There may exist many theories concerning the etiology of dyslexia, but the factors responsible for some specific learning difficulties include: genetic, environmental and neurological factors (such as brain impairment, deformation, dysfunction and backwardness, the brain's anatomical differences and the size of hemispheres), disorders happening in the prenatal period, disorders in sensory perception and motor functions and hearing problems in early childhood. Dyslexia, however, may be associated with some risk factors, such as: male sex and other family members affected with this dysfunction.

Going further with dyslexia, I would like to concentrate on the symptoms and remedial support. There are many warning signs and visible symptoms of this learning disorder which can be easily and early noticed by parents and teachers. Dyslexia is a diverse condition which can range from mild to severe symptoms. When one takes into consideration children with dyslexia, it clearly appears that they are not at all alike. Undoubtedly, each individual sufferer displays a different set of features, but there is one common problem all dyslexics face - it is difficulty with the written language, a failure to recognise and interpret what is perceived. Symptoms of dyslexia are closely related to the following areas: vision, reading, spelling, hearing, speaking, writing, balance and movement and memory. Most commonly, however, this learning dysfunction is characterized by problems with single word decoding, usually reflecting insufficient phonological-processing abilities. Apart form the symptoms related to the areas mentioned above, there are other warning signs of dyslexia which include: spoonerism, sequencing, trouble telling the time and physical clumsiness. In observing symptoms of dyslexia, a huge role is attributed to teachers. In the classroom process teachers can notice among dyslexics such warning signs as: changed or reversed shapes and sequences of letters and numbers, inconsistent and incoherent spelling, skipping words or lines while reading, poor concentration and high distractibility while reading, word blurring, doubling and size change. Furthermore, these can be: difficulties making some speech sounds and meaningful utterances, confusion between left and right, difficulties in judging distances, following directions, remembering instructions, repeating long words and finally illegible handwriting.

Dyslexia is a problem that many students face and have great difficulty coping with in a school environment. However, with the help and support of the teacher, dyslexic students can become successful learners. The role of teachers is to make educational adjustments to facilitate learning and create successful class environment. Educators ought to bear in mind that acquiring a great amount of knowledge about a dyslexic learner is the factor that may play an essential role in a child's later success. Therefore, teachers ought to collect as much information about a dyslexic, his family, friends and environment as possible. Whenever a dyslexic child is positively sure that the teacher recognises and is aware of the nature of the learner's difficulties and helps him/her to overcome them, it may increase the dyslexic's motivation as well as make him/her willing to learn.

Continuing with the teacher's role in working with dyslexic learners, it ought to be remembered that the curriculum needs to be designed in an appropriate way to suit the dyslexic's needs, and textbooks and materials selected with the dyslexic in mind. When choosing a suitable course book for a dyslexic student, it ought to be remembered that the book is well structured and clear. Moreover, schematic layout should be provided so that the student knows what to expect form a particular unit. When choosing the course book, the teacher should pay attention to the size of the font - the bigger the letters, the easier for a dyslexic to perform reading tasks. Certainly, as far as the content of the book is concerned, it should not be overloaded with new lexical items and grammatical structures. It is advisable for a teacher to choose a course book accompanied with a workbook with plenty of exercises for a dyslexic learner's individual practice.

Undoubtedly, there is no reason why a dyslexic learner ought to be taught different lexical items and grammatical structures than the rest of students. Certainly, the only changes the teacher is to introduce are in the strategy of teaching not the content. The basic rule for teachers is to bear in mind that gradual progress is the key to successful teaching. Presented material ought to be dealt with step by step, and the level of difficulty of the next lesson should not be higher than the previous one. Teachers ought to take into consideration the fact that while working with dyslexics, certainly more time ought to be spent on revising material already familiar to students rather than introducing new one.

School environment plays an important role for a dyslexic learner. A structured, predictable and ordered educational environment should be ensured by teachers, as children with learning difficulties work best and respond most favourably in such settings. A general approach, that is on one hand positive and on the other sympathetic, may diminish a dyslexic child's anxieties and doubts and remove unnecessary pressures. In a positive and encouraging environment, dyslexic learners experience the feelings of satisfaction, success and self-value. Many of the achievements as well as failures that happen in a dyslexic student's school life depend on the teacher's attitude to a great extent.

There exists much evidence illustrating that many strategies, teaching techniques and approaches incorporated by teachers into the teaching process may help dyslexic learners overcome their difficulties. One of such techniques is the multi-sensory approach. Multi-sensory means making use of all the senses in the learning process. This kind of teaching is based on a combination of aural, visual, tactile and kinesthetic aspects to improve and facilitate learning. Multi-sensory teaching emphasizes direct teaching of all new material, maintaining student-teacher interaction and suggests that the content ought to be mastered in such a way that a student gives an automatic response. It has been observed that children taught in multi-sensory programs have made remarkable progress particularly in decoding skills. Furthermore, multi-sensory teaching and learning may be provided not only for dyslexic learners; it is a technique the whole class benefits form.

Another teaching strategy for dyslexic learners which turns out to be very effective is confidence building. This corrective therapy, conducted by the teacher, is based on changing a dyslexic student's attitude towards himself or herself. It aims at making a dyslexic child aware of the fact that he/she possesses good as well as weak sides and that he/she might turn out to be better in certain aspects than a non-dyslexic child. It is claimed that in order to preserve self-confidence in a dyslexic child he/she ought to be praised and given credits not only for what is done at school, but also for that done afterwards.

In facilitating a dyslexic student's learning, the teacher's ingenuity and the circumstances can work miracles. Classroom arrangement (placing a dyslexic close to the blackboard or by the teacher's desk), allotting more time while testing, lowering educational requirements to a certain extent, as well as assigning homework ought to be taken into consideration.

Unfortunately, some scepticism is still expressed by teachers about whether students really encounter learning difficulties or intentionally avoid carrying out certain tasks. It seems to be a very common phenomenon for teachers to be particularly confused by the student whose consistent underachievement is due to factors such as lack of effort and carelessness. It is quite a common phenomenon for teachers to neglect dyslexia and other learning difficulties and attribute children's school problems to laziness, lack of concentration and absent-mindedness. Hopefully, with increasing teacher knowledge of learning difficulties, great deal of misunderstanding of children's behaviour may be avoided.

Summarizing, it can be concluded that one of the most significant factors enabling a dyslexic child to overcome his/her learning difficulties is the implementation of a wide variety of methods and approaches as well as the teacher's guidance and support. Having a dyslexic learner in class involves introducing certain changes in order to facilitate the learning process and make the learner feel safe and comfortable. Teachers need to be made aware of the fact that dyslexia is a serious learning difficulty which commonly exists, but can be successfully dealt with and diminished.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Ania Krzyzak 2005
Ania is a linguist and high school teacher of English in Poland.