Dyslexia and ELT: how to help young learners in the classroom

By Joanna Wiseman October 15, 2019

Teacher helping student with dyslexia

When you’re teaching English to young learners, you’ll often find that there’s one student in your class who is struggling. But sometimes it can be hard to tell why. Is it because their language level is low? Or are they finding classroom work difficult because of a general cognitive difference, like dyslexia?

We spoke to Martin Bloomfield, ex-language teacher and expert trainer in dyslexia awareness. His experience means that he has lots of insights and suggestions for teachers. So how can you improve your understanding of dyslexia? And how can you adapt your teaching methods to soften the difficulties often faced by students with dyslexia?

How does dyslexia manifest itself in young learners?

Students often struggle with spelling, pronunciation and reading comprehension when they are learning English as a second language. It can be difficult for teachers to discern whether these problems are simply down to a low level of English, or if they are related to a cognitive disorder like dyslexia. So how can we tell? 

There are some clear indicators

  • • When written work is of a lower level than speaking ability
  • • Difficulty remembering sequences: days of the week, for example
  • • Missing out or adding words when reading aloud

And there can be behavioral signs too. If you have a student who consistently employs work avoidance tactics like asking to go to the bathroom, or looking for a pen, this might be a signal that they are struggling in the classroom as a result of dyslexia or another neurodiversity. 

According to Martin, the biggest signal of dyslexia is “a clear difference between intelligence and written output.” If you have a student that performs well in speaking tasks and listening, but their reading level is disproportionately low and their written work doesn’t reflect their language skills, then it could be indicative of dyslexia. 

There is often little support available in an ELT context, but Martin has some easy-to-implement changes which can make a big difference to your students’ performance and results.

The classroom environment 

The first step is making sure that your classroom is dyslexia-friendly. Martin suggests that teachers ask themselves the following questions: 

  • • How well-lit is the room? 
  • • How organized is the room? 
  • • Is it obvious where you get certain information from? 
  • • Are key words and vocabulary up on the walls? 
  • • Are lines of sight clear? 

The second step to consider is how we ask students to work:

“When we leave education, we enter teams in the workplace,” Martin points out, “so it’s a good thing if the teacher creates teams where people find the role they can excel in.”

By playing to the dyslexic strengths within a team, it helps that student get the recognition for their skills and allows their peers to support them with the more standard tasks that can cause difficulty. 

Marking and assessment 

It can be difficult to make changes to a standardized system. The traditional method of grading students is by output. But output grading, ie. grading the work that students produce, comes with problems.

“If you grade by output, students will stop trying once they’ve achieved the level they need to pass, and the dyslexic students who are struggling will get frustrated and give up,” Martin says. He suggests grading by input instead, where you assess the thought process behind the work and the time and effort involved. 

Even if your Director of Studies doesn’t support a change to the assessment system, you can still include some unofficial input grading in your classroom which will motivate all your students, not just the students with dyslexia. 

The science of dyslexia

It’s a truism to say that knowledge is power, yet the more you know about dyslexia as a teacher, the more you can do to mitigate its effects on your students’ learning.

“There are a number of theories of what dyslexia is: there’s the hemispheric balance theory, and the temporal processing theory,” Martin says. “These theories understand dyslexia as a developmental issue within the brain. Once we see dyslexia in this way, we can access how people with dyslexia learn, and how teachers can soften the difficulties that their students have.”

For young learners, Martin suggests focusing on phonetical awareness. “Phonemic awareness – breaking words down into the constituent sounds – is hugely helpful for dyslexic students,” he says.

Martin advises that teachers should help students work on this by testing them in class. You can use games like top trumps, flashcards, matching games and mnemonics to do so.

For example, using flashcards, you can test your students’ awareness of sounds: “does hippo sound like happy?” or “does cough sound like through?”

Martin says that a multi-sensory approach is often useful, involving colors, rhythms, writing out big words. These are the basic principles of the Orton-Gillingham method, an approach which breaks language down into blocks so that dyslexic students can learn through building these linguistic blocks back up again.

“Students can struggle with learning facts – the brain of the dyslexic needs to see the connections to make sense of it all,” he says. “So when we teach in this way, we are teaching structure and connections, and students have a more profound understanding than simply remembering how a word is spelt or pronounced.”

Be mindful of your language

Children and young people absorb our prejudices and stereotypes, even if they are unconscious ones. Martin reinforces the importance of being mindful of the language you use when dealing with dyslexic students.

“Avoid language such as ‘learning difficulties’, which immediately accuses people with dyslexia of struggling, of difficulty, when in fact everything is difficult if the teaching isn’t appropriate!” he says. “And try not to use medical language – a ‘cure for dyslexia’, where there is no cure, or a ‘diagnosis of dyslexia’. Don’t use the phrase ‘despite your dyslexia’.”

Dyslexia is best understood as a cognitive difference that should be celebrated. With the right support, the talents and abilities of dyslexic children can really shine in the classroom – something that every teacher should be aiming for!

Further reading/resources

If you’d like to learn more about the Orton-Gillingham approach, they have a lot of resources on their website. For more general information about dyslexia, check out Martin’s website Dyslexia Bytes.

If you are interested in Special Educational Needs (SEN) you might also want to check out the following articles:

You can also download our practical guide to supporting dyslexic students in the foreign language classroom:

You can also download our practical guide to supporting dyslexic students in the foreign language classroom: 

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