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Dyslexia and how to support students effectively


As tutors, it is highly likely that we will come across students with one or more of the processing difficulties associated with Dyslexia and other SpLDs. We should consider tutoring styles and techniques that will help these students. 

Dyslexia comes under the umbrella term of Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) and is primarily an issue affecting the skills required for accurate and fluent reading and spelling. SpLDs affect our ability to learn and process information effectively. These difficulties are not connected to our intellectual capabilities and are neurologically based. It is thought that around 10% of the population are dyslexic (BDA 2018), so it is likely that you will come across a dyslexic learner during your tutoring career. The majority of dyslexic students you will encounter will have ‘Phonological Dyslexia’, which is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, working memory and auditory processing speed and it is usually due to inherited differences in the parts of the brain which process vision and language.

(Phonological processing is matching sounds to letters and if a student finds this hard, it affects both reading and spelling. Working memory is our active filing system, which we use to manipulate information like doing a maths equation in our head; problems with working memory can adversely affect many areas of learning and is also linked to our ability to pay attention and concentrate.  If the auditory processing system is working at a slower pace than normal, the brain finds it hard to sort through its library of sounds to match the letters it is reading.)

No two people with dyslexia show exactly the same profile, but they do often have mental functions in common.

Typical strengths may include:

  • Extraordinary creative abilities and the ability to think and perceive in a multi-dimensional way
  • Thinking mainly in pictures instead of words, thus allowing them to be big-picture thinkers
  • Having vivid imaginations and being highly insightful and intuitive

In an education system focussing on the basics of reading and writing and rote learning, a dyslexic student’s strengths and abilities can often be suppressed and self-esteem lowered. But if a dyslexic student can be recognised and supported in a multi-sensory and sympathetic teaching environment, basic literacy skills can flourish and creativity and confidence can soar. 

Key indicators that your student may be dyslexic are:

  • Students can be very bright verbally but their writing ability does not necessarily match this 
  • Reading may be hesitant, they may be embarrassed to read aloud, guess words and miss out or add extra words
  • Writing may be affected by: poor visual memory of common words such as ‘here’; messy handwriting masking poor spelling; the same words can be spelt differently in one piece of writing.

There are online screening tests that can be a useful indicator of dyslexia, and although they do not provide a diagnosis, they can be very helpful in highlighting a student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Further information on this here: www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/screening

As with most SpLDs, the processing difficulties affect MANY areas of life – not just the academic ones. 

Other difficulties that can co-exist with dyslexia and may need support are:

  • Organisational skills
  • Sequencing skills
  • Visual stress and processing difficulties
  • Mental maths
  • Concentration
  • Motor skills

As tutors, it is highly likely that we will come across students with one or more of the processing difficulties associated with Dyslexia and other SpLDs, so we should consider tutoring styles and techniques that will help these students. Consider, also, that we are all unique learners and ‘neuro-diverse’ in the way in which we process and learn information. Every student could potentially benefit from receiving a variety of multi-sensory teaching approaches which fire off more parts of the brain and build those neural pathways so important for long term memory and learning. This is why our tutoring needs to be as diverse and interesting as the students we are lucky enough to be supporting.

In a one-to-one setting, we have the enviable opportunity to adjust, tweak and perfect our teaching approaches to match the learning styles of each individual student; to play to their strengths and help scaffold and support their weaknesses. By utilising each student’s strengths and talents (which usually exist because of their learning difference, ​not in spite of it!), you can then improve their intrinsic motivation and boost their self-esteem. 

Understanding WHY your student is struggling, also, crucially, helps us to support their emotional wellbeing.

Children with SpLDs are often very bright, verbally, and find it extremely frustrating to be unable to get their ideas down on paper. Most of these students learn in a way that does not fit neatly into the usual academic setting and so additional support from a tutor may include literacy, study skills, planning, organisation, exam techniques and of course subject-specific guidance.

If you can understand your student’s learning differences; tutor them in the way they prefer to learn and remember best. Help them structure and organise their thoughts on paper, and celebrate their strengths. You are also helping to support their emotional wellbeing. 

I don’t believe anything is more important.

Click here for Sarah’s Top Ten Tips for Supporting Dyslexic Learners

Useful websites and resources for supporting reading, writing, spelling and touch-typing:

I include links to other websites which are not under the control of Osborne Cawkwell Tuition. We have no control over the nature, content and availability of those sites. The inclusion of any links does not necessarily imply a recommendation or endorse the views expressed within them.

Useful books:

  • The Parents’ Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties: Information, Advice and Practical Tips, by Veronica Bidwell
  • 200 Tricky Spellings in Cartoons; Visual Mnemonics for Everyone, by Lidia Stanton

Please contact Sarah directly for guidance on specific teaching aids, books and materials at sarah@octuition.co.uk

This article was originally published on The Tutors’ Association blog.

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