“I have a dyslexic student and am not sure how or even whether to help them.”

I have a student, Alessandro, 37, who is a musician in his spare time and a software programmer by day. At school he was slow at reading and writing but excelled at physics and maths where clearly there were fewer texts to read. In any case he was frequently prone to miscalculations as he muddled up the plus and minus signs! He was not diagnosed as being dyslexic until he was 18, the same year as he won a scholarship to one of Italy’s top universities.

Dyslexic entrepreneurs

Research has shown that a third of the world’s top entrepreneurs are dyslexic, including Richard Branson (founder of Virgin), Ingvar Kamprad (founder of IKEA), John Chambers (former CEO of Cisco), and Gary Cohn (former President of Goldman Sachs). Alessandro was delighted when I told him about these famous dyslexics. Like them, he says that dyslexia has taught him a different approach to problem-solving – he thinks differently, and this has made him an asset at work.

It has been estimated that one in ten people have some form of dyslexia. How do you know if you have a dyslexic in class?

The difficulties for dyslexics

Dyslexics tend to use their index finger to help them when reading. Basically a dyslexic muddles letters together, using an index finger helps them to read one letter at a time and thus read each letter in the correct order. However, dyslexics have also developed very good skimming skills to speed up their reading. They tend to read a word jump a few words forward, read the next, and then ‘join the dots’ as Alessandro calls it. In this case they may not use their index finger.

To give you an idea of what it might be like to be a dyslexic have a look at some of the uploads on YouTube. You might also find it interesting to read the text below. It mimics a little what it is like to be a dyslexic, but for non-dyslexics it is still very easy to read. Note: this text has been making the rounds on the web since the 1990s, and as far as I know is not actually based on any research, but just common sense.

The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid.  Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt!

So what should you be aware of if you have a dyslexic in class?

Extra time

Cambridge gives students who sit for the KET, PET, FCE, CAE etc exams an extra 50% in time to do reading and writing exercises. So this is a good guideline for you, when giving a dyslexic student such tasks. However, this does mean that the dyslexic is always likely to be the last to finish an exercise. No one, whether dyslexic or not, likes to hold an entire class up (and thus be the focus of unwanted attention). So the best solution is to stop the exercise when most, but not all (i.e. not just the dyslexic but also a couple of others), the class have finished. This means there is no embarrassment for the dyslexic, though obviously if the group is small, you would be justified in stopping when the rest of the class has finished.

Publishers are aware of the difficulties of dyslexic students, and some have even produced versions of their coursebooks specifically for dyslexic students, for example the Headway series (OUP) – “the world’s best-selling English course” – has specially adapted versions that you can download.

There’s no telling with spelling

English spelling is often illogical or at least does not match the sound, this makes it even harder for a dyslexic. Here too, the dyslexic might resort to skimming within the word, i.e. recognizing some combinations of letters as belonging to a particular word and thus not having to read the entire word. This can result in a dyslexic misreading and thus misinterpreting the instructions to an exercise. So it is worth checking that he / she has understood and is doing the exercise correctly.

Develop a strategy

Talk to the dyslexic student and together come up with a game strategy, and clarify how you both feel. For example, you:

  • could try to reduce the number of reading and writing exercises you normally set – I think this is a good idea in any case as these often waste valuable class time and could easily be done as homework.
  • explain that you will not give them extra time for routine class exercises, so when the others have finished you will end the task. However, you will give them extra time in any mock exams or exam preparation tasks.

The above strategy is obviously going to work if you have a student who is upfront about their dyslexia. Unfortunately, many kids with dyslexia are not even aware of it. For others it is a source of shame, compounded by insensitive and ignorant parents who consider it to be a handicap. These kinds of kids or adults may be very reluctant to admit that they have dyslexia. In any case, there is a good chance you will notice it, and thus you can act accordingly following the suggestions above.

Alessandro plays the guitar, but can’t read music ‘on the fly’. He prefers to be driven to new places because he can’t always follow the road signs. He still makes mistakes doing banal mathematical calculations. Despite this, Alessandro is an extremely confident man. He says he wouldn’t be who is today if he hadn’t been dyslexic, and he wouldn’t want to be in any other way.

Adrian Wallwork

Categories: Words