Essential Tips For Writing An Essay With Dyslexia.

In this post I am going to give you some essential tips on how to reduce the impact of dyslexia when writing lengthy pieces of work for school or college.  I hope that this article will help your dyslexic student start to focus more on what they can do rather than what limitations they are facing.

Some Background First.

As supporters of dyslexic students whether you are a parent or a teacher, you will experience a number of reactions from your student when they are faced with having to write an essay.
The student may be reluctant to engage in writing an essay.  They may display a range of emotions in reaction to the need to get the work done.  It is not unusual to see anger, frustration, lack of engagement, withdrawal from the task at hand.  It may be that the child or young person uses their humour to disrupt the process.
In a school and home environment, when faced with these behaviours it is so easy to react to them in a way that makes the whole process of writing even more unpleasant for the student.  This happens because we are dealing with the symptoms rather than cause.  We are not getting to the point that is troubling our child or student.

I don't consider myself in any way to be any kind of expert on dyslexia, but as a parent of a dyslexic daughter and as someone who is probably neurodiverse, I have seen and experienced the stress and anxiety that comes with writing an essay.  Either for my daughter and definitely for myself.

Over the years I have started to understand that it is one thing to struggle academically (dyslexia and intelligence is not linked, there are many dyslexic geniuses out there as well as people with dyslexia that are not perhaps as clever as others.) but before you even know whether you are an academic genius or not with dyslexia, as a child or student you face a need to be ever more focused, resilient, thick skinned, determined because the educational content is not easily consumed.  It is not easily consumed because you may find that not only do you have dyslexia you also have visual stress (Meares-Irlens Syndrome) a condition that makes it extremely difficult to read text.  When staring at a sheet that you need to write on or in referring to texts, visual stress distorts the text making it at best extremely tiring to read and at worst completely inaccessible without support.  It is thought that 30-40% of people with dyslexia have visual stress too.

If your child or student doesn't have an issue with visual stress, if they are dyslexic, then they will have a number of challenges on how they interact with language.

In a simplistic way, even if you can read the text, what your brain does to process that information is affected by dyslexia.  It may be difficult to copy information, understand information, recall information and all the while as your student copes with this they will be putting so much more effort into studying than someone who is not dyslexic.  They will be expending more energy on academic tasks than those without dyslexia.
For me personally, if I have to do any research reading text books, despite not suffering from visual stress, I know that within seconds I will be yawning with tears running down my face from that yawning.  I remember when I first studied for my degree, I had to read countless text books and just knowing that the information I was reading was hardly going into my head.  I had to try and read as much as possible with the hope that this information was 'sticking' in some way.  This made studying boring, I simply didn't get the meaning of things at first and as a result I was exhausted.  So it is not surprising then that I started to procrastinate, disrupt the process, go off and eat or drink something just to cope with that boredom that came from not getting the meaning of the text that I was reading.

As parents and teachers we need to see beyond behaviour and put ourselves into the shoes of the student that is studying with dyslexia and empower that student to be the best that they can be.

Check out the following tips that will certainly make a difference...

Setting The Scene.

As adults we think that we know the answers to challenges that our kids are facing.  WRONG! This is not the case.  What we are doing is applying the learning that we have gained over the course of our lives from completely different scenarios and trying to apply that to our kids.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.  But if we push our kids with 'fixes' that we think have worked for us then we disempower our kids to find their own way through their challenges and more importantly they miss the most relevant strategies.  Relevant because they develop them for themselves.  We as adults need to make sure that the process is positive and helps our kids to grow and develop but we don't always need to have the answers.

So from a parental perspective if a child/ student needs to do some lengthy writing why don't we ask the following types of questions first:

What do you need to help you be at your best whilst working on your essay?

Do they need lots of natural light?
Are they comfortable where they are working?
Are they using the correct materials to help them get the essay written i.e pen or pencil versus typing?
How often do they need to take a break? Every 20 minutes? Every hour?
What can we do to make this a more relaxing process?
Are they getting hydrated enough?
What would motivate them more ?  Can you build in some kind of reward? "Do an hour and I will bring you some lovely cake when you have a break."
Are there distractions?  Are their phones switched to silent with notifications off?

We are not looking to tell them what to do, moreover we are enabling them to set the scene for doing their work independently.
If your child is willing to talk about what is challenging them, then this is great and will help you to understand how to support them.

Take the stress away.

OK, this may not be easy.  I know that on my course next year I need to write a 7000 word essay.
Just thinking about this makes me start to feel anxious.  For me, it is that anxiety that is my barrier to writing good quality lengthy essays.  If I am anxious then I struggle to get my ideas out of my head.  I am not short  of ideas, but I am when I am stressed, it is like a giant mental cork has been stuffed into gap in my brain where all those great ideas come out!!

If our kids / students are stressing about getting judged for poor grammar and spelling or about feeling exhausted, working too slowly etc, then they will be stifling their creativity and for many that are dyslexic, creativity is often a strength.  So we need to find novel ways to help them enjoy getting the ideas out and then if they get excited about that process, then this will help motivate them during the writing stage.

I love mind maps that help me to get ideas out of my head.  I find that in using a mind map it is more enjoyable to explore ideas.  One way of doing this is to use large pieces of paper or more helpfully I use 'Magic Whiteboard' sheets on my wall at home.  This helps my mind mapping to be larger, more visual and it's just fun using pens and writing on the wall.  The movement seems to loosen me up and that makes it a fun and less stressful.
I recorded the following video just to show you what I mean...

At the end of the process I can take a step back and enjoy what I have written and think about what I am trying to express before I tackle my essay.

Another way is to use some mind mapping software such as Mindview or Mind Genius for students of for younger kids Kidspiration.

Mindview by Matchware

I once showed a group of neurodiverse kids in a school the MindGenius software and how it could be used to put an essay together.  At first they were not overly impressed.  They were aware of mind mapping but what I was about to show them really impressed them.

In many mind mapping software products now, once you have put your mind map together, you can then export it into a Word document.  So all the text you have written into your mind map becomes headers and subtitles as well as the text.  In seconds you have converted your mind map into a Word document which can then be checked for spelling and grammar.  You have literally done 90% of your work by engaging in a visual and fun way to generate ideas!

One of the kids in the class that I was showing, was focusing more on her mobile phone than me, until I showed her the conversion from a mind map to an essay.  She put her phone down and shouted 'That's sick!' (which I believe is a positive comment...).

OK, I can hear you saying "But you still need to check grammar and spelling and the teacher does that and that is the bit that the student gets stressed about..."

Yes I agree with you, but what if we can empower our kids to find ways to confidently check their work themselves?

Microsoft Word already has spell checkers in place that help but sometimes we can write text and whilst it sounds OK in our head, it may not read well.  Maybe we write phonetically?  So the spelling is completely wrong but when read it out it makes sense?  Maybe we mix words of the correct sounds but with wrong spellings such as 'Where' or 'Wear' , 'Time' or 'Thyme' etc.

One of my favourite pieces of software that is simply so effective in helping kids to feel more confident in checking their written work on a PC is SprintPlus.  I have been into a number of schools where I have shown kids how SprintPlus will read out what we have written for us and then help us to work out which homophones are incorrect, or will help us to find the correct spelling when we write phonetically, all packaged from within Microsoft Word so that it doesn't make the student look like they are using 'special software' and thus set them apart from their friends.  To be honest, this software could be used by anyone because if you have spent a few hours writing a lengthy piece, having your work read out to you is much better for picking up errors than reading it out for yourself.

The video below tells you about SprintPlus and what it can do but basically if you combine some mind mapping software with SprintPlus then you have found a way to empower your child to write their essays creatively and also be able to check them independently before the teacher sees the final essay.

SprintPlus can be downloaded for free and used for two months to support essay writing.

Final Comments

There are so many ways to support a dyslexic student in being able to produce great written work at school.  We cannot underestimate the challenges that dyslexic students face, but we as parents or teachers can do so much more to reduce the anxiety that they feel so that they can release their creativity and develop into individuals that have lots to say and know how to express it.

If you would like to know more about this topic as well as know more about special educational needs for children and how to help them more then I recommend going to the SEN Jigsaw Conference in April where I will be doing a workshop on writing essays whilst dyslexic using technology but we also have workshops on dyscalculia, behaviour, dyslexia too.
The SEN Jigsaw Conference is for parents and teachers of kids with special educational needs who want to develop their broader knowledge around the issues that these kids face.
The lineup is below:

Find out more and book your ticket - click here.