What strategies can language teachers use to help learners with dyslexia and other reading difficulties? Bríd Ní Chatháin offers some practical advice ahead of her webinar on this topic on 15 December.
For those of us who enjoy a good book or are involved in researching an area of particular interest, the printed word holds promise and comfort. But for a number of our learners, text is a threat to be avoided whenever possible, and the task of extracting meaning or information from a page is genuinely daunting.
During training and in general language teaching, teachers do not usually acquire the skills necessary to provide specialised teaching for learners with literacy difficulties. In any case, it would be near impossible to respond to every specific need of individual learners while teaching a whole class.
Nevertheless, there are many strategies we can use to support struggling readers within the group. These strategies not only improve learners' reading comprehension, but lead to a more inclusive classroom.
Why some learners struggle with reading comprehension
Many factors can contribute to a learner struggling with text. Some are immediately obvious to us, such as visual impairments, while others are not always associated with reading difficulties, such as dyspraxia – a condition affecting physical co-ordination. But all contributing factors can be extremely debilitating, particularly when a reader is expected to extract or retain information from a text. These factors may include:
Decoding difficulties – Decoding is the ability to make sense of printed words. Decoding difficulties can make it hard for readers to recognise and analyse a printed word and connect it to the spoken word it represents. It is the most obvious symptom associated with dyslexia – a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. Decoding difficulties can also be a symptom of learners with dyspraxia, or those with some sight impairments.
Reading fluency and speed – Slow, painstaking decoding and difficulties recognising punctuation can hinder access to the overall structure and logic of a text and make it difficult to process or comprehend its meaning.
Word retrieval difficulty – We all have that 'It’s on the tip of my tongue!' experience from time to time, but it is often a daily occurrence for students with special education needs (SEN). They may also confuse similar sounding words or leave out - or swap - parts of words. This can affect learners with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and speech and language difficulties. Techniques used to support learners with this difficulty (see below) can also support second-language learners.
Weak working memory – The working memory allows us to retain new information, analyse it and decide which aspects fit with, or add to, what we know already. It helps us decide what to discard and what to retain in our long-term memory.
Weaknesses in this area explain why struggling readers may have to decode the same word anew each time they come across it. A weak working memory also has general learning implications. The inability to absorb new information while reading is what causes the comprehension problems we often see readers struggling with. Difficulties in transferring new information successfully to long-term memory for future use can lead to serious longer-term deficits in general knowledge.
Organisation – This is something we all struggle with to some extent. Many learners with SEN also struggle to organise thoughts or new information, making its future retrieval from long-term memory more difficult.
Helping learners prepare for a text
When approaching a new text, the greatest support learners can have is a clear, structured scaffold established in advance. This can take the form of a guided brainstorming session, or the creation of relevant vocabulary banks or wall charts that can be added to later.
It is important that learners use these scaffolding techniques in a way that will allow them to add new information as they come across it. It is often said that learners with dyslexia work best using mind maps, but it's best to provide and demonstrate a number of options and allow individuals to choose what works best for them.
To aid word retrieval when reading a text, the subject matter should be personalised – perhaps by encouraging learners to compare it to their own situation and experience. Introducing songs, photographs or illustrations can further help the memory and stimulate discussion. Discussion is helpful because it can make relevant vocabulary active in the mind of the learner, helping alleviate word retrieval difficulties later on.
These preparatory phases provide wonderful opportunities for collaborative activities like 'think-pair-share'. This is where learners consider an issue or problem individually, then explain their ideas to a partner, after which they may share their ideas with another pair or the whole class.
Learners can also interview each other to find out new pieces of information. Discussion can be stimulated by presenting a statement on the subject of the text. Learners must agree or disagree, find a partner on the other side of the debate, put forward their argument, and back it up with the reasons. You should try to guide these activities along in a way that ensures maximum support, stimulation and inclusion.
All these activities further establish the necessary vocabulary in learners’ memories.
Making text more accessible
There are many ways in which we can present a less overpowering text to struggling readers. We can ask ourselves how much detail is actually necessary or whether we can introduce information gradually. Photocopies allow us, and our learners, to cut, mark and move the text around so that it can be processed in more manageable chunks.
Often, informational texts are structured so that the first sentence of each paragraph indicates the content of, or the argument contained in, the paragraph. We can teach learners to read and mark these before tackling the entire text. This provides a good overview of the structure of the text.
The final or summary paragraph is also a good place for a reader to gain insight into the viewpoint and information provided within a text.
In order to bypass the struggles caused by decoding difficulties and the resulting lack of reading fluency, readers can also make use of technological aids. E-readers, tablets and many computers provide accessibility features, such as text-to-speech. Text size can be altered and the speed of playback can be set to suit the reader. It is advisable for the reader to follow the text visually while listening, and some devices will highlight words as they are being read. This allows the reader to access the text through more than one sensory channel, which supports working memory.
Teachers and learners can make use of the wonderful service robobraille.org to convert files from many formats to audio files or to formats suitable for e-readers to use in an inclusive classroom.
Helping learners retain, organise and document new information
As mentioned previously, two of the hidden problems that learners with literacy difficulties deal with are weak working memory and weak organisational skills. As teachers, we must also consider how we can support them in retaining, organising and documenting the new information that they have gathered. This is where the written record (i.e., mind maps, vocabulary banks, etc.) created at the pre-text phase comes into play. New information can be recorded onto the scaffold created previously. This is a visual representation of how our memories store new information, hooking it to previous knowledge. Regular practice of this skill will help learners retain new information more deliberately in their memories in the same way.
Information can often get lost during the transfer from text to written record. It is best for learners to transfer small chunks of information frequently instead of trying to retain too much information at once. Note-taking is a skill that we often need to teach learners, and an important element of this is helping them recognise keywords.
One of my favourite classroom tools is a pad of sticky-notes. Learners can stick them directly on the text, note keywords or ideas and transfer them to their own records (i.e., notebooks, mind maps, etc.). If they need to write a response to the text, they now have all the main ideas and can place and move them on the page without having to write an extra word.
We cannot simply fix learners' reading difficulties, but we can use methods and teach skills that help them cope better and counteract some of the barriers to learning they face every day in our classrooms.
Bríd Ní Chatháin heads the English department at an international school in Germany. She holds an international diploma in teaching support for dyslexia and literacy.
Teachers, register for our webinar on improving reading comprehension for learners with dyslexia, taking place on 15 December 2015.