Learning difficulties is a term that has invaded our lives and our L2 classrooms to a great extent since over the last years we encounter such cases daily. Are learning difficulties highly affecting our teaching efforts and what learning problems and restrictions do they cause to our students?
by Olga Paparseni / MA in English Language Teaching
All teachers and especially language teachers deal with learning difficulties every day in our multi-competent classrooms. The word ‘dyslexia’ comes from the Greek language and means ‘difficulty with words’. It is a lifelong, usually genetic, inherited condition and affects around 10% of the population.
According to the British Dyslexia Association (2007), Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and skills that are related to language. It is likely to be present at birth and it usually has life-long effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual‘s other cognitive abilities. It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effect can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counselling.
But why do our students struggle so much in our English classrooms?
The answer to this question is that the English language has many irregularities when it comes to pronunciation, phonemes, sounds as well as words that have many different meanings.
General signs in class
There are many signs that witness the existence of a learning difficulty and especially dyslexia. As teachers, we need to be very thorough with our students since if we pay close attention to them we can recognise it at an early stage. To begin with, it is difficult for our students to copy information from the board and they often seem disorganised and forgetful since it is hard for them to recall information or “dive” into their memory to find the correct word to use. Another difficulty that they encounter is in learning sequences e.g. the alphabet, the days of the week, and the months of the year as well as grammar patterns. Below are some of the signs separately presented for every skill of the language.
Dyslexic students tend to forget new vocabulary very quickly.
They usually have difficulty in understanding and remembering prefixes, suffixes as well as being able to identify the root of the word.
Students tend to skip lines, words and letters or add extra words in a text. While doing so, reading seems vain and incomprehensible to them and as a result the procedure seems totally useless.
Dyslexic students forget what a text is about immediately after reading it. This mainly happens because they are too busy struggling to read it within the time limit, than taking their time to comprehend the meaning, which leads us to the fact that more time is needed when we ask them to read texts. Even though this is totally impractical as regards our lesson planning, it is vital to dedicate extra time if we wish dyslexic students to be more engaged.
They fail to recognise familiar words.
Listening is a skill that confuses dyslexic students since they tend to forget verbally given information fairly quickly.
Students have difficulty in differentiating long and short vowel sounds as well as distinguishing different syllables or sounds in a word.
There is an obvious confusion of letters such as‘d’ ‘b’ ‘p’.
They tend to spell the words exactly as they sound.
Another characteristic is that they write in long sentences with poor punctuation.
Students often use different tenses within the same sentence. This is extremely confusing for them and most of the times they fail to distinguish the differences between the tenses.
Another important feature is poor handwriting compared to oral ability. They confuse upper and lower case letters.
Their ideas and points are disorganised and usually their piece of writing lacks meaning and cohesion.
They spell the same word differently in one piece of work.
They have difficulty in organising their time and homework.
What can teachers do to motivate dyslexic students and make the classroom environment less stressful for them?
General pieces of advice
On the whole, we need to provide our students with an overview of the lesson at the start of each class. This is a technique that relaxes students because they know the content of the lesson and what to expect. It is also important to keep in mind that copying huge chunks of language from the board can be demanding and most of the times it does not have the outcome that we expect. It is very common that students confuse the lines and end up being disappointed from the whole procedure, so providing handouts and copies is a better option. Another important technique is to use mind maps and visual aids to summarise class content. Breaking down complicated tasks is necessary for dyslexic students. A good way of doing that is to give clear instructions as well as help students visualise the task by demonstrating what you ask them to do. We should never forget that students need time to prepare their answer in order not to be nervous, so giving them a few minutes to get ready can be highly motivating for them.
We should break down words into chunks and use different colour code for syllables, prefixes, suffixes, root words and other categories within vocabulary.
Using visuals, spidergrams and different colours enhance memory techniques and helps students memorise important vocabulary and points.
We should provide other examples of words or synonyms when applicable.
Flashcards and visual aids can be extremely helpful.
The use of practical techniques to help with spelling can prove vital for students.
Using colours to highlight keywords, themes or parts of words helps students to fully understand the text and be able to distinguish the key parts of it.
We should never ask a dyslexic student to read aloud in class. Dyslexic students are hesitant since that would be extremely stressful and highly demotivating.
Encouraging students to stop and review after each paragraph is a technique that enhances self-confidence and checks understanding. Ask questions and elicit the answers. e.g. What were the important points in that paragraph?
Elimination of background noise when doing a listening exercise is important because noise is an aspect that disorientates dyslexic students.
Teachers should help students visualise the listening tasks. A typical exercise that all coursebooks have and should never be neglected is looking at the pictures before starting the listening task.
The use of pronunciation exercises with visual aids to help them distinguish the differences between phonemes, long and short vowel sounds is a significant factor for the dyslexic students.
It is vital to familiarise students with strategies that assist their writing skills, e.g. mind maps, numbering ideas.
We should always give extra time to complete the writing task since production of language is the most demanding part.
We should never underline errors and expect students to correct the mistakes themselves. Writing the correct spelling or the correct form for them and explaining the error correction thoroughly is a very useful technique that relaxes students and motivates them.
Some final thoughts
Dyslexic students do have some learning particularities, which are obvious in the L2 classroom. However, with the appropriate intervention and techniques as well as willingness from both the teachers and the students, the learning outcome can be impressive. When it comes to resolving the problem, parents are the corner stone of the procedure and they should inform the teachers if they are aware of a learning difficulty. Unfortunately, learning difficulties are considered to be a taboo in some societies but the solution can be found only if parents are eager to open up and speak freely about an issue that most people are unaware of and should be informed and sensitive about.
Nijakowska, Joanna, Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom, 2010, Multilingual Matters