Maria Byrne, Affiliate Trainer at NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education) and lead tutor on the NILE Learning Differences and Inclusion course, shares her experience of working with dyslexic teens and suggests some simple, multisensory learning techniques that can help learners with dyslexia in the classroom.
As educators, we’ve most likely come across the term dyslexia and have some degree of understanding of what the term means. However, from my experience as a teacher trainer I have found that many teachers associate the term with difficulties confined to reading, spelling and writing accuracy, and therefore focus on those areas when assigning remedial support for these learners. One example of a commonly used remedial support may be to give learners extra time when doing reading comprehension tasks. However, these types of accommodations are often not enough in the foreign language classrooms, which means that many learners get left behind, or even informed that due to their ‘difficulties’ they are unable to learn another language.
It is my belief that the majority of learners with dyslexia are able to learn a foreign language if teaching methods are adapted to suit their needs, for example by including the use of multisensory techniques. Using such techniques does not mean that the teacher needs to be weighed down with extra planning for specific students, as from my experience such methods benefit all students in terms of engagement, pace and ‘actual learning’.
Observing dyslexia from the perspective of the child
From 2014–2018 I felt very privileged to be part of a programme working with Italian teenagers with dyslexia, who in most cases had been encouraged not to pursue English as a foreign language due to their lack of progress in mainstream classes. The programme ran over two weeks, and students were taught English using methods influenced by multisensory learning for 90 minutes per day. At the end of the course, focus groups were created to give the learners an opportunity to voice their feelings about learning English. The primary aim of these open discussions was to gain some insight into suitable methods for helping such learners progress in their future educational settings.
In this article I am going to share a few extracts from these conversations. I will then explore some of the key areas mentioned to look at ways in which we, the teachers, can help our learners with dyslexia in the classroom.
Learners share their thoughts
Alfonso: ‘… when I am in class at school, I must speak English in class [but] I am always afraid of making mistakes, and this fear prevents me from speaking … After this programme I do not care if I make mistakes now … I feel less ashamed about my English.’
Emma: ‘I did not have the right methods to learn, and at school they did not teach me, but now I like English better than before.’
Samantha: ‘We understand that we were not sitting at a school desk, but nonetheless we were learning the same things as if we were in a class.’
Simone: ‘…here we used all our senses, we walked, we talked, we heard music … and it was less difficult for us to learn…’
Emma: ‘… my teacher at school speaks too much and does not wait if some students do not understand what they are saying and they go on teaching new things, whereas here the teachers help us learn in lots of different ways’
Simone: ‘Like the prediction roleplay [students dressed up as fortune-tellers and read each other’s cards using ‘going to’]. If I had a test on this topic, since we had done a fun thing with wigs then I would remember the grammar better.’
Jess: ‘Yeah … wearing wigs, playing how to read futures with cards meant we also did not get bored.’
Chiara: ‘Because we learnt in a different way than at school, without books … we felt better, we were involved …’
All: ‘Yes, very helpful was the use of colour coding.’
Tomas: ‘… and timelines … because with these you can make a link to the meaning …’
Tomas: ‘… having real situations, with us students as examples, like the comparatives and superlatives activity.’ (In this activity students were asked to order themselves according to height and age to introduce comparatives and superlatives.)
F: ‘I liked the way teachers get on with us young people, in a way that they catch our attention … using music to make us be more alert, to engage us.’
What can we take away from their comments?
Many of the comments touch on core elements of multisensory learning (‘We used all our senses, we walked, we talked, we heard music’). Reid (2015) states that dyslexic learners benefit from ‘a multisensory element – this should be active and interactive as well as incorporating elements of all the modalities – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile’. As multisensory learning techniques activate different parts of our brains, learning experiences become more memorable (‘If I had a test on this topic, since we had done a fun thing with wigs then I would remember the grammar better’).
Other key areas mentioned included colour-coding techniques, timelines and, of course, fun! It is also clear that emotional and motivational factors were important to the learners in terms of reducing their fear of failure (‘… and this fear prevents me from speaking) in order to build their self-esteem (see Dornyei and Ushioda, 2011:14).
With reference to the teaching of English as a foreign language, this student-focused classroom research suggests the use of:
- multisensory methods
- games and music
- kinaesthetic activities (influenced by VAK principles / learning preferences)
- colour-coding to highlight the patterns in the target language to help them form sentence structures, and timelines
- the use of metacognitive tools (giving students a voice, as well as the opportunity to reflect on own learning strategies, and proving a useful source of teacher feedback)
As we have focused on the students’ voices in this article I would like to conclude with one of the learners’ comments:
‘When I got home I did not feel I had learnt English in an excellent way, but when I was given an English text at school I was able to understand it so I could see how much my English had improved.
At one time I questioned my teachers’ corrections. I said to my teacher what matters is to be able to communicate, not only to have all the grammar in the right place.
I have definitely learnt new strategies to learn English outside of the classroom, but I think that to be able to use these inside the classroom will take longer. One last thing that I would like to add is that the methods we have learnt work not only with students with learning difficulties, but could be easily shared with everyone.’
It was not my intention that Samuele should question his teachers’ methods but it is clear that he felt empowered, able and more confident in using English. Samuele also stated that he felt multisensory learning approaches, as well as games, music and dynamic activities, can possibly enhance language learning for all learners. As Schachter (2016) says, ‘… The good news is that what works for dyslexics in the classroom can work well for all of your students, need not distract from your lesson plan, and can add to your store of best practices’.
Here we have explored the importance of listening to our students in order to find out what helps them learn, and most importantly to ensure that learners with dyslexia (or other special educational needs) do not get left behind in the foreign language classroom. I have also argued for the use of multisensory learning techniques to be exploited more to help learners engage with learning in a more meaningful and memorable way. I am looking forward to finding out more about my learners, and trying out some new techniques myself in the coming school year, as I am sure you will be too!
- Reid, G (2015) Dyslexia: Teaching Approaches pdf available from www.drgavinreid.com/wpcontent/uploads/2013/07/GR_article5_teaching_approaches.pdfAccessed 05/07/2016
- Dornyei, Z and Ushioda, E, (2011). Teaching and Researching Motivation: Pearson Education UK
About the author
Maria Byrne is a NILE Affiliate Trainer who specialises in Learner Differences and Inclusion. She is a keen contributor to the world of CPD especially in terms of multisensory learning, creative teaching and learner engagement, and has delivered conference workshops for the British Council, Macmillan Education, IATEFL and of course, NILE.
In her Masters dissertation she researched variables affecting motivation and engagement for learners with dyslexia.
Watch Maria’s webinar on how to break down barriers to learning here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqm-U1KkU20
Find out more about NILE and Macmillan Education’s partnership, including online teacher training courses, here: www.macmillanenglish.com/nile/
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