Multiskilled classrooms are a day-to-day reality the majority of language teachers deal with. Unless you are qualified for teaching dyslexic students, approaching dyslexia in the foreign language classroom can be challenging. In this post I want to give you practical tips on how and what to observe in dyslexic students, what you can do to help them not to fall behind, and how to do all this in a sustainable way for the whole classroom.
I have covered the topic of dyslexia in the foreign language classroom already in a previous post where I interviewed my dear friend, colleague and qualified expert in dyslexia, Laura Serrani. In that article she explained:
- What Dyslexia is and how dyslexic people understand the world
- The top 3 difficulties dyslexic students experience
- How to overcome those top 3 difficulties – tips and suggestions
- Dyslexic students’ strengths and how to make the most of them.
In this article she’s back with more advice that will help you to get clear on the strategies you can put in place when you have dyslexic students among your students and you are not necessarily an expert in learning difficulties. I asked Laura the following questions:
- How can we observe dyslexic learners and how can we notice they are struggling?
- What can we do in order to put the behaviours I observed back on track?
- Checklists: do they really help? And how?
Speaking of checklists, she also created an extremely practical checklist you can use in your observations during your lessons for providing some extra support to your dyslexic students without losing your focus on neither your lesson goals nor the other students in the group.
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All The Fruits Dyslexia - how to spot and map your dyslexic students' strengths and weaknesses
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Laura’s turn, then!
1. How can we observe dyslexia in the foreign language classroom?
Learning is something that comes with excitement. Try to recall a moment in your life when you were feeling deeply engaged with a book or an exercise, weren’t you excited to achieve another milestone? How did you react to the frustration of learning? Motivation is a powerful drive to action and self-esteem is the foundation to overcome frustration in the learning process. Engagement with the material is the result of an alive desire to master something, to build knowledge. When we lose interest in what we are doing we are more likely to become avoidant, disruptive, shut down, absent. Behaviours have to be placed in a context to be better interpreted, I remember that students who reached me out for support were often displaying avoidance behaviours, were isolated in the classroom, and had very low self-esteem. Students with Dyslexia are often considered lazy, even though that is a bias. Students with Dyslexia put a big amount of effort to fit themselves in the frame. Headaches, stomach aches might turn up to be symptoms of having crossed the line, of having been too resilient to become stressed, of having challenged yourself without getting satisfaction back.
For example, John gets easily distracted in tasks that include processing many instructions at the same time and he often becomes disruptive in the classroom. Teachers might think that he is lazy because he easily forgets things, he can write many times a word but he often ends up spelling it non correctly.
Dyslexia is not a matter of lack of intelligence, students with dyslexia can achieve the same learning outcomes than students with a typical learning style. The difference is in the way they process information.
2. Once we notice those behaviours, what can we do in order to put them back on track?
I think that the teacher’s attitude to be accepting and encouraging, facilitating a safe learning environment are building blocks for a beneficial learning process. I would not ease tasks or activities, because it would be discriminatory and not necessary. Dyslexia is not a matter of lack of intelligence, students with dyslexia can achieve the same learning outcomes than students with a typical learning style. The difference is in the way they process information. Students with dyslexia in the foreign language classroom can totally catch up with their peers: this must be all teachers’ belief. I think that to help them you first have to observe them. I would try to understand what’s going on for a particular student. In one to one sessions there might be more confidentiality than in a group and if you actively observe a student you will be more likely to have an insight into his/her way of learning. I used to ask myself questions like: where does the avoidance of task come from? How does it feel for this student to make mistakes? At what point the student’s attention and focus slow down? Try to ask yourself these questions and see what information you gather. I think that you will be half a way through putting that student back on track.
Back to John, when does he get distracted? What is he doing when he shows disruptive behaviour?
3. How can I get help from checklists?
Checklists might be valuable tools to guide you through observation. They can also be a grid to set up the design of sessions and monitoring how it goes. Does your teaching delivery involve any of the “strength” items? For example: “capacity to see the big picture”. How would you involve this aspect in your teaching? I reckon maps having a powerful impact on the learning process and this is something that would be applicable to the classroom, too. Maps allow the process of building knowledge and gives a general picture as well as a detailed one (depending on how the students build it). Teach your student to build mental or conceptual maps, to connect concepts, to use his/her prior knowledge, to seek information through sources. You will notice how the process of learning for this student will be alive and will bring up excitement and purpose. Information can be sought through audio, video, visual sources as well as books, articles. There is such an amount of knowledge out there, documentaries, audio-books, etc…What students have to do is to access that knowledge and build up their own. I think that learning is different from performing tasks. The checklist might help you to focus on the process of learning rather than on tasks. Maps can be used as a way to monitor how the students build their knowledge, what kind of questions they ask themselves, what they want to include and what they do not select. There are very few “instructions to follow” in building maps, they help “recalling facts”, they are “visual” and “interactive”.
Back to John, it may be beneficial for him to start with watching a video and selecting information through auditory signals, then to bring concepts in a map and link them together.
As Laura suggests in this interview, the “from global to analytical” approach is winner when it comes to integrating dyslexia in the foreign language classroom. Kicking off your lessons with exercises and activities that engage what we used to call “the right side of the brain” is the smartest move you can do within a multiskilled classroom. On one hand, that is what you would be supposed to do anyway for introducing new content, on the other hand it helps your dyslexic students not to fall behind.
In the “Learn English through Drama” summer courses we welcome dyslexic students all the time and they perfectly work together the other students. As a course designer, I don’t need to adapt any exercise, the students in the groups are involved in the same activities without distinctions. Also, my teachers are not qualified for teaching dyslexic students, but this doesn’t represent a problem at all. Instead, all students cooperate and work together harmonically. Most of the times, they don’t even know about some students’ specific difficulties. This happens because the courses propose a variety of activities and exercises that stimulate students’ learning styles.
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