by Jonathan Owen
“All students are entitled to attend and participate in foreign language classes. Thus today’s foreign language educator … has the task to meet all their individual needs in the ‘least restrictive environment’” (Schneider & Crombie 2003, p1).
‘Differentiation’ has been a buzz word over the last few years, and arguably for a good reason.
A differentiated classroom facilitates the accommodation of different learner capabilities, needs and learning styles; the goal being to put whatever resources are available and teacher time to best use for all students in the classroom. But, can a differentiated classroom successfully accommodate language learners with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia?
Should language teachers be expected to accommodate such learners, and is it even likely that such learners will be present in a modern languages classroom?
Among a classroom of individuals, according to Kormos and Smith (2012; see also Lemperou et al. 2011), there is the likelihood that a teacher will have, in a class of let’s say twenty students, at least two learners exhibiting difficulties with the acquisition of literacy-related skills, i.e. dyslexia. They base this on figures published by both the British and the American Dyslexic Associations. Both associations state that 10% of their respective populations are dyslexic (Ibid).
According to Sandman-Hurley (2014), the number of people with dyslexia could be as high as one in five.
In this current globalized world where being able to speak a second or even a third language is often important for one’s progress in life, I strongly believe it would be incredibly unfair to deprive dyslexic students of equal opportunities in education from learning a foreign language in a modern classroom setting.
Including dyslexic learners in a language class may seem very challenging, if not daunting for language teachers. However, it is certainly helpful to think in terms of dyslexic learners having ‘learning differences’ rather than difficulties or disabilities (Hudson, D. 2016; Pollock, J et al. 2004).
Therefore, this article is specifically focused on providing simple strategies that a teacher can implement to ensure that students with dyslexia, as with all students in a language class, reach their goals.The term ‘dyslexic student’, throughout this article, is used with specific reference to a second language (L2) dyslexic learner, and not dyslexic learners in general.
What is dyslexia?
There are a number of myths as to what dyslexia is, the common myth being that a person with dyslexia is someone who just reads words backwards (The International Dyslexia Association, 2012). In actual fact, dyslexia is much more complex: dyslexia is a language-based learning disorder that includes poor word reading, word decoding, oral reading fluency and spelling (American Dyslexia Association).
Dyslexia is not only limited to reading and spelling; dyslexics may also struggle with other cognitive functions, such as organizational skills, planning and prioritising, keeping time, sustained attention difficulties, and concentrating with background noise (Ibid). What’s more, dyslexia occurs in people of all backgrounds and intellectual levels (Hudson, 2016).
What is abundantly clear, is that dyslexia is not due to either a lack of intelligence or indeed a desire to learn. Dyslexic language learners may have to work harder than their non-dyslexic classmates, but with the learner’s motivation, together with appropriate teaching methods, dyslexic learners can learn a foreign language successfully (The International Dyslexia Association, 2012).
How to accommodate dyslexic students in the EFL classroom
Language teachers have a responsibility to provide the help, attention, and encouragement a dyslexic learner may need to compensate for any deficits that they may have (Ranaldi, 2003). The classroom can often be the most stressful environment for a dyslexic person, so a compassionate and knowledgeable teacher can help prevent frustration and anxiety.
Because dyslexics may appear to be easily distracted, they are often labelled as lazy by teachers who do not understand dyslexia. Therefore, a language teacher must be supportive and positive and let learners with dyslexia know that he or she not only understands their difficulties, but acknowledges their intelligence (Hudson, 2016, see also Owen, 2016).
For this reason, the teacher, as a motivator, must stress that he or she is expecting dyslexic learners to reach the same goals as the non-dyslexic classmates. However, reaching their goals will mean their learning strategies may have to be a little different (Ibid).
According to Kormos & Smith (2012), there are three main areas that teachers can take into consideration in order to successfully make the classroom inclusive for dyslexic learners:
- The way teachers and students communicate and interact
- The classroom environment
- The content of the language course
The way teachers and students communicate and interact
a. Student ↔ student interaction
A language teacher might need to consider both the talents and the difficulties that the learners in the class possess to ensure that groups and pairs work well together. Depending on the aim of a class activity, it may be beneficial to group or pair learners with different skills together (Kormos & Smith, 2012).
This can be achieved with ‘peer-mediated learning’, that is, the teacher pairs/groups peers of different ability levels to read aloud to each other, review each other’s notes or study for a test, etc. (Nijakowska, J et al, 2013). A further example would be to pair learners who are less confident in writing, but have lots of ideas, with a learner who is less imaginative but a good writer; this way both learners can succeed (Kormos & Smith, 2012).
There is a danger however, that a learner with dyslexia may find interacting with unfamiliar students stressful. Therefore, the classroom teacher will have to consider carefully how to successfully pair/group students together without upsetting anyone. The teacher should observe how different pairings or groupings interact, and note which ones seem to be most productive.
b.Teacher ↔ student interaction
Providing an overview of what is going to be covered at the start of each lesson can be a great help to people with dyslexia because they are holistic and like the idea of the ‘big picture’, before studying the detail (Hudson, 2016). Similarly, providing a summary of what has been achieved at the close of each lesson can be helpful for all learners in the class, not just the dyslexic learners. It may also be beneficial for the teacher to give a copy of teaching/lecture notes to learners who have difficulty taking notes during a presentation (Kormos & Smith, 2012).
For the majority of learners in a language class, embarking on large, complex tasks is an achievable goal. However, dyslexic students may find completing very big tasks quite daunting. So breaking tasks down into small chunks so dyslexic learners can focus on just a small amount of information at a time may be beneficial (Kormos & Smith, 2012).
Reducing the amount of work when it appears redundant is also a possibility (Nijakowska, J, et al, 2013). For learners who are anxious about the amount of work to be completed, the teacher can remove redundant pages from workbooks to present smaller assignments. This technique prevents learners from becoming disheartened or anxious by the amount of work that a workbook offers (Ibid).
The teacher needs to provide instructions and feedback that are clear and unambiguous. Any possible ways to misinterpret what the teacher has said, dyslexic learners will find them (Kormos & Smith, 2012). Feedback also needs to be clear and praiseworthy to help boost learner’s self-esteem (Ibid).
Furthermore, it’s important to focus on improvements that have been made before dealing with issues that need to be worked on. It is not necessary to point out every single error that has been made, but it is imperative that the teacher offers concrete strategies for working on issues that have been pointed out (Ibid).
The classroom environment
It is very likely that some dyslexic students will be very sensitive to their classroom environment, e.g. temperature, light, and noise (Pollock, et al, 2004). A normal room temperature may feel unbearably hot, and bright lights may cause visual problems and headaches for some dyslexic students (Kormos & Smith, 2012). Similarly, dyslexic students may find noisy classrooms distracting, even distressing (Ibid). Therefore, while reading or writing, for example, it might be worth considering allowing students to wear ear plugs to block out the noise (Ibid).
Similarly, dyslexic learners may find too much visual information overwhelming. Teachers are usually encouraged to have colourfully displayed classrooms (Owen, 2016), but this can be very distracting for some learners, so keeping the wall around the white board or screen clear of distracting information is recommended to enable learners to fully focus on the material that is being presented at that moment (Kormos & Smith, 2012; see also Pollock, et al, 2004).
The content of the language course
Language teachers on the whole are usually not able to determine the content of what they have to teach, but arguably do have certain freedom when it comes to how the material is presented. Modifying the way materials are presented is important because some dyslexic learners may be prone to sensory overload or visual disturbances, causing the learner to find it difficult to focus on too many items at once.(Kormos & Smith, 2012).
Therefore, to avoid anxiety, the appearance of teaching materials should appear uncluttered and easy to navigate. A simple solution is to cut a hole in a piece of paper or card, that is placed over a page, to block out unnecessary information and allow the learner to focus just on the part of the text they need to work on at a time (Ibid).
Furthermore, teachers have to ensure a balance is struck between maintaining an engaging pace, and going at a pace that learners can follow with ease. Dyslexic students tend to have weak short-term memories, and may process information more slowly, and thus need more time to think through issues and concepts (Ibid).
Dyslexics can successfully learn a foreign language, but it will take perhaps more time, effort, dedication and patience. Realistically, they will have to work much harder than their non-dyslexic classmates. Therefore, the key for dyslexics to succeed in learning a foreign language is having a positive attitude.
It is important that dyslexic learners do not become anxious and stressed because this will impact on their progress. The teachers’ attitude to having a dyslexic learner in their classroom is also key because they can dissuade dyslexics from becoming demotivated, demoralised and frustrated.
Differentiation does not mean that language teachers have lower expectations of their dyslexic students, but they should be realistic about how much a dyslexic student might be able to read and write in a given time. This is because it could be extremely disheartening for learners to be constantly asked to achieve what is beyond their ability.
Therefore, the differentiated instruction strategies for dyslexic learners discussed in this article can be used as a means of encouraging dyslexic students to progress in their language studies without setting unachievable goals.
In the right environment, using appropriate materials, and having a patient yet motivating language teacher, a dyslexic language student can successfully study side-by-side with non-dyslexic students. As Crombie (1997) points out, inclusion in the modern language classroom is not just about being exposed to another language, it is about feeling accepted and involved in a worthwhile learning experience, whatever the level that can be achieved.
- American Dyslexia Association. Retrieved August 25, 2017, from www.american-dyslexia-association.com
- British Dyslexic Association. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from www.bdadyslexia.org.uk
- Crombie, M. (1997) Specific Learning Difficulties: Dyslexia – A Teachers’ Guide (2nd Ed.) Belford: Ann Arbor Publishers.
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- International Dyslexia Association, 2012. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from https://dyslexiada.org/fact-sheets/
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