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Supporting dyslexia in educational settings

Posted on: December 20, 2021
Young boy at a table writing with a teacher next to him helping him

Global dyslexia awareness has grown exponentially since its first appearance and identification in the nineteenth century. And yet, definitions of the neurological condition continue to flex and change. The root derivation is from the Greek: ‘dys’ meaning ‘difficulty’, and ‘lexia’ meaning ‘words’. Literally translating to ‘difficulty with words’, at its most simplistic level, dyslexia is associated with reading issues. In and of itself, this would directly impact on any educational setting but this lack of phonological awareness is merely one of multiple strands within the learning difficulties thread.  

The British Psychological Society’s (BPS) magazine, The Psychologist, provides a concise overview of this complex subject, together with a short history of dyslexia. It highlights why precise definitions invariably and frequently change according to ongoing research findings, although more commonly occurring characteristics and traits can be agreed upon.

What is dyslexia and who does it affect?

Unexpected difficulties in reading quickly, automatically and fluently continue to grow worldwide. This is evidenced by the multiple national and international associations – such as the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) and the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) – formed to assist, inform, and provide advice to educators and the general public. While dyslexia estimates fluctuate, the scale is considerable; online statistical searches reveal, for example, that approximately 30 million people in the US, 6 million in the UK, and 3 million people in Canada are impacted by dyslexia. Expanding this, on the basis of a worldwide population of 7.8 billion, at least 780 million people could potentially present as dyslexic and neuro-divergent.

Invariably, much focus is placed on the younger demographic in terms of educational attainment and presentation, however millions of adults may have remained undiagnosed since childhood. The statistics are sobering: they have resonance throughout the educational field as reading and attendant skills are fundamental to functioning maximally in the contemporary world.

Symptoms of dyslexia

Evidence of reading difficulties has no direct association either with overall cerebral intelligence or causal physical and environmental factors. Increasingly, research reveals that bio-psychological elements could be a root factor in diagnostic assessment. Problems with information and auditory processing, encompassing memory issues, verbal memory, reading skills and word recognition, are a few examples of the features under the dyslexia ‘umbrella’. 

The following list is by no means exhaustive, but indicates what other characteristics may co-occur:

  • Motor coordination problems
  • Organisational difficulties
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Problem-solving concerns
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Dyscalculia and mental calculations

Some traits may become readily identifiable within the confines of a structured and system-led learning environment. However, it must be remembered that they also have bearings on more personal effects as, for example, in the area of self-esteem and mental health. Educationally speaking, a diagnosis of dyslexia may require a well-formed and founded intervention, but is not an indicator of lack in intellectual abilities. In fact, neurodiversity and other specific learning conditions have been shown to produce extremely creative, imaginative and highly productive characteristics, in people who significantly contribute to society.

The science of dyslexia

Dr Sally Shaywitz is a leading neuroscientist in the field of specific learning difficulties associated with young people and adults. Use of non-invasive fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) has shown in diagnostic settings that there is disruption and under-activation of two brain areas: the left occipital and temporal regions, with the latter directly corresponding to the word-forming area. 

This demonstrates not just the anatomical, but also the location of potential differences within an individual’s brain-wiring and the role each system plays. Scientific input shows that there are positives to thinking differently, and that reasoning, visual and creative aspects tap into these neurologically diverse fields.

Supporting dyslexia within the classroom environment

With so many children and adults potentially presenting symptoms of specific learning difficulties in the classroom environment, the question of how to practically recognise, address and tackle dyslexia is of paramount importance. Timing of assessment and intervention is critical and, to an extent, has a bearing on age and developmental stage. This is true from early years through to higher education and requires understanding, knowledge, training and ability to evaluate and assist in positive and constructive ways.

Within primary settings, certain signs may indicate possible learning disorder in the following areas:

  • Slow speech sounds and processing speed – such as the inability to follow rhyming poems and songs
  • Poor concentration and inability to follow instructions
  • Phonemic awareness and general phonics frustrations
  • Numerical and sequential difficulties
  • Time and organisational problems
  • Late development connected to motor skills, memory and uneven performance
  • Behavioural issues – for example, being easily distracted and difficulties in listening resulting in potential ‘meltdowns’
  • Signs of overt tiredness, perhaps due to the excessive concentration and effort required to ‘mask’ an inability to understand what is happening in the class

At secondary schools similar indicators manifest, but with added complexity due to age, social and cultural expectations:

  • In writing skills assignments, having the knowledge but unable to commit to the written word – such as poor spelling, messy handwriting and difficulty in delivering the task
  • Foreign language learning difficulty
  • Reading rate may be reasonable, but comprehension rate may not be as high as peer group expectation
  • Reading aloud remains problematic
  • Thinking and high-speed processing remains an ongoing issue

At this educational level, behaviour and attitude may also prove disruptive but this may well be a result of frustration and hormonal and age-related markers.

It is evident that diagnostic assessment by school SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Coordinators), and EdPsychs (Educational Psychologists) may well be required, and school policies implemented to support students. For example, extra time in assignments, examinations, individual reading and writing support and specialist equipment. In our online and technologically driven world, connectivity and the ability to negotiate an array of systems is highly important. Those with dyslexia must be provided with the appropriate education and tools required to decode and navigate the educational, and working, worlds. Many are already available in the form of dictation software, apps to read work aloud, audio podcasts, and smart pens.

No doubt many discoveries are yet to be made in this fascinating, and common, area of neuro-diversity. Digital skills and digital pedagogy will be embedded within class environments as a norm.  These will need to be bespoke and tailored to assist and accommodate dyslexia in a digital world.

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