Many schools will think that they are supporting their dyslexic learners by withdrawing them from learning languages. After all, Dyslexia is a language disorder so if a child is struggling with their own native language this makes sense…Really?
Head of Languages, Paula Roberts, works in the mainstream independent school that is big on inclusion, St David’s College and I am thrilled that in this article, Paula is sharing some essential tips on teaching Modern Foreign Languages to dyslexic learners.
Dyslexic students have a strength in building relationships.
I believe that dyslexic students are generally suited to getting to know people from other cultures. In my time teaching Spanish at St David’s College, I have observed the following:
Dyslexic students brains are able to reproduce sounds more accurately than most non-dyslexic students. Thus dyslexic student’s pronunciation and intonation is, generally, very authentic sounding.
Dyslexic students can often ‘see’ the logic of conjugating verbs as it is quite mathematical in nature. As such, they understand what these patterns more quickly than some of their classmates.
Dyslexic students tend to be more playful and creative with language. They enjoy taking risks and trying to communicate what they want to say. They often do this by taking the initiative to link different aspects of their language learning.
With regard to the way Spanish is taught at SDC, the teaching methods have to be quite diverse as every pupil studies Spanish until the end of KS3. Most Spanish lessons have a strong focus on communication (speaking and listening) at KS3 which allows all students to access the curriculum. As well as literacy and numeracy, studying Spanish lessons support basic skills such as telling the time, understanding dates etc.
At present, the access arrangements provided by exam boards are not at all helpful for dyslexic students studying a foreign language. Pupils who are entitled to a writer are expected to spell every single word letter by letter even in the 150 word writing question! Despite this, dyslexic students make up a significant percentage of students at KS4 where Spanish is optional. In fact, more than a third of my current year 10 class are dyslexic!
It is not unusual to have students who are predicted ‘A’ grades at the end of their KS4 studies in the same class as those who are predicted ‘G’ grades or even lower. In many schools, weaker students would be discouraged or disapplied from studying a foreign language but we are proud to make language-learning accessible to all. So how do we do this? Well, largely by differentiating and being really aware of each student’s strengths and their individual areas for development. This allows me to stretch and challenge everyone at their own level so that they leave feeling successful. I am lucky that I have small class sizes which allows me to do this.
Some simple examples of every day differentiation to help dyslexic pupils are:
Verbal questioning appropriate to the individual.
Giving students a ‘job’ in teamwork that makes them an essential part of completing the task.
My 5 key tips on teaching students with dyslexia:
Make use of Assistive Technology.
I use Microsoft OneNote with my students so that they can ‘read’ texts or their own creative writing with the Immersive Reader feature. They also record their conversations and presentations directly into their Class Notebook. Dyslexic students, in particular, also love using online games like Kahoot and Quizlet as well as working independently on Memrise or Duolinguo. I use Quizlet Live with topics and vocabulary that I have not yet taught them as a kind of flipped learning task. Students work in teams to find the right answers. Wrong answers are inevitable and, indeed, encouraged as it normalises making errors. On a side note, I like to promote an environment where pupils know they can take risks and make mistakes. They correct each other in a supportive way and understand that this is how language-learning takes place naturally from a young age.
Visualise and be creative!
This is a tried and tested method that really works. Associating foreign words with images particularly helps dyslexic learners. This works for learning new words as well as for memorising longer pieces of information in a listening activity, for example. Students are encouraged to ‘see’ what they hear. If someone says ‘I love yellow’, they know to imagine something that they love and make it yellow (a yellow pizza???). Or when learning the word ‘armario’ meaning ‘wardrobe’ they might imagine a coat of armour inside their wardrobe. The sillier the image the more memorable it becomes.
Focus on phonics.
In listening activities, ask students to visualise what a sound would look like if it were written down. This could be a syllable at the end of a sentence or a whole word. Explaining to them that they often only need to hear part of a word in order to work out the answer logically helps students to problem-solve independently. I put a strong emphasis on ‘working things out’ and being able to ‘get the gist’. Obviously, the focus on phonics plays a part in improving their generally literacy skills in any language.
It is tempting to shy away from grammar when teaching dyslexic students but, contrary to what one might believe, understanding how the language works often helps them to absorb it better. In many cases, explaining that there are grammar ‘rules’ is comforting. They like the stability of structure and predictability of patterns. You can make grammar accessible by colour-coding parts of speech (verbs are highlighted in red, adjectives in yellow etc.) and reinforcing rules or patterns with songs or rhymes.
Use real language in context.
Use real language in context by introducing students to appropriate social media. My students independently follow Spanish-speaking Pinterest boards, Instagrammers and YouTubers where they are exposed naturally to the language. We also watch short clips of familiar films or programmes in Spanish as part of a lesson by changing the language settings from English to Spanish on YouTube. Many students use the language facility to watch movies or series in Spanish on Netflix in their own time or as homework. Others have even changed the language on their phone to Spanish or played their favourite game in Spanish! This kind of thing really helps motivation which can be an issue for some of our newer students.
You can do it!
Finally, I think the main reason our students enjoy Spanish is because we work hard to persuade them that they can learn a foreign language. There is a far too common misconception that dyslexic people aren’t capable of doing so. Or that they will become confused if they are presented with a second language. Once these false ideas are banished from the psyche, many dyslexic pupils actually find Spanish makes “more sense” than English!