How to support learners with dyslexia: a podcast with Martin Bloomfield

By Joanna Wiseman February 18, 2020

Our new Pearson English podcast is a place for English language experts from around the world to share their experiences, discuss innovations and explore trends in English language teaching and the wider educational sector. Today, we’re excited to introduce Martin Bloomfield, our guest speaker on episode 2. As a trainer at York Associates and a consultant in international communication skills, dyslexia and autism awareness, ethics, and language training, Martin well placed to share his expertise with our panel. 

In this episode, he brings his enthusiasm, energy and deep knowledge of the subject. He talks about dyslexia in ELT and how teachers can best support students with this learning difference and other forms of neurodiversity. 

What is dyslexia? 

There are a few different definitions or perspectives on dyslexia. The EU definition is “a disorder that is mainly characterized by severe difficulties in acquiring reading, spelling and writing skills.” That view of dyslexia sees it as a literacy issue more than anything else.  

The World Health Organisation characterises dyslexia as “A disorder manifested by difficulty learning to read, despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and sociocultural opportunity. It is dependent upon fundamental cognitive disabilities which are frequently of constitutional origin.” Again, the focus here is on literacy. 

However, the British Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as “a neurological difference which can have a significant impact during education, in the workplace and in everyday life.” That view of dyslexia is a more neurological view. 

So which definition is correct? Well, when asked how dyslexia affects the learning process, Martin points out that it’s actually part of a family of phonological processing issues. Dyslexic students will find reading, spelling and writing challenging, but they are also likely to experience problems with their working memory, that is their short term memory. They’ll find that they have sequencing issues. However, dyslexic people are also known to be more creative and more visual. 

How can we make our classrooms a space where students with dyslexia can flourish? 

Martin has a few key pointers for teachers when it comes to teaching students with dyslexia. In a nutshell:

  • ✔️ Avoid long blocks of text: Go for small chunks which are easier to read and digest.
  • ✔️ Try to use visuals in your teaching: Charts, graphs and infographics are all useful. 
  • ✔️ Make board work as clear as possible: Use colours to differentiate your ideas.
  • ✔️ Allow your students to record your classes if they want to. 
  • ✔️ Text design is important: Choose plain, sans serif fonts (i.e. fonts without pointed serifs: see images below) and avoid using bold or italic text.

Sans serif font are easier for people with dyslexia to process.

A serif font, with the serifs highlighted in red.

(Image credit Stannered CC BY-SA 3.0)

Moreover, Martin also suggests changing how you test the progress of students with dyslexia. Consider using oral assessments instead of written assessments and also allow students to use assistive technology like screen readers and speech-to-text apps. 

The most important thing you can do as a teacher? Martin says to ask your students what is helpful for them, what works and what doesn’t. The brain is plastic and with the right support, students who have dyslexia can work up to the activities that more neurotypical students engage in. 

Why is it so important to support students with dyslexia? 

A report on dyslexia published last year found that 98% of parents and teachers think that teachers need more training in how to identify and support dyslexia. And when asked how long it takes a school to provide dyslexia specialised support, the most common answer was that dyslexic children do not receive specialist support. 

When dyslexia is ignored, it means that students aren’t getting the support they need. This can lead to poor self-esteem, a constant feeling of failure and pressure, which in turn leads to dropping out of school, depression, self-harm and drug and alcohol abuse

So taking time to consider dyslexia when it comes to your curriculum is about more than raising your results, or improving the literacy of an individual child. Instead, it’s about making space for everyone in the classroom and ensuring children flourish. 

Further reading and resources

Martin’s website, Dyslexia Bytes, is a good place to start. It’s full of useful information and advice from people who have dyslexia themselves, so it will give you a new perspective! 

For more tips on dyslexia in ELT, have a look at our blog on supporting young learners with dyslexia. 

You can also check out the British Dyslexia Association website for more information, and Made By Dyslexia is a charity run by people with dyslexia. They have lots of interesting reports and free resources. 

Listen to the full podcast with Martin here: