'Q & A from Anne Margaret Smith’s webinar on including all students' By Dr Anne Margaret Smith

24th September 2016

On 10th September 2016, Anne Margaret Smith presented the following IATEFL webinar:

Including dyslexic language learners

In this session we will explore the main effects that dyslexia can have on language learning, and how we can support the dyslexic learners in our classes. Some of the principles that underpin inclusive teaching will be outlined and examples will be shown of how to put them into practice.

Thank you to the 200+ people who attended, and those listed below who asked questions. If you would like to watch the recording, you need to be a member of IATEFL (find out how to join), but you can read Anne’s answers to the questions below.

Is there a type of dyslexia that particularly affects listening and pronunciation?

As mentioned in the webinar, there is a large overlap between dyslexia and other SpLDs [Specific Learning Difficulties], which means that every individual who has dyslexia experiences it in a different way – in effect there are as many types of dyslexia as there are dyslexic people. Some people may well experience greater difficulty with processing auditory information and articulating sounds than with working with text, and it may be more helpful to think of this as their individual cognitive profile, rather than wondering which ‘type’ of SpLD it may be.

Is it more a reading disorder?

In some countries (notably the USA) the term ‘reading disability’ is commonly used as a synonym for dyslexia, but in my opinion this is a rather narrow view of a very complex phenomenon. The difficulties that some dyslexic people experience with reading are usually just the surface features caused by underlying issues with visual and phonological processing and memory, which will at some point also affect other aspects of life.

How can we test students with learning differences on standardized tests?

We need to be clear about two things here. First: exactly what it is we are hoping to assess, and second: on which population the tests have been standardized. Many exam boards will offer access arrangements to make it possible for students with dyslexia (and other disabilities) to demonstrate more accurately what they can do. These arrangements, such as extra time or a separate room, or rest breaks, should allow the proficiency in the target skill to be measured without being affected by other issues, but they must not change the skill being assessed (e.g. we cannot provide a reader for a reading test – otherwise it becomes a listening test instead). However, even with these arrangements in place we need to be aware that the way that tests are standardised may be skewed such that they favour a subsection of the population – which our students may or may not belong to.

Is it possible to persuade publishers to write English teaching books friendlier to students with SpLD’s and consider there are also teenagers and adults with undiagnosed SpLD’s who are learning or want to learn English and find most coursebooks very challenging and teachers difficult to adapt?

Certainly many of the coursebooks widely available at present are not very accessible for neurodiverse students, among others. The best way to persuade publishers that things need to change is to show them that there is an increasing demand for a different type of coursebook. We all have a role to play in this, such as requesting alternative formats for learners, offering feedback on new publications and making it clear what we – their customers – really want from them. Jude Slater in Vietnam correctly pointed out during the webinar that in the UK (and the USA and some other countries) there is an obligation for publishers to provide more accessible formats for disabled learners, usually visually impaired students. These are materials that could be helpful to other students, too, including some dyslexic learners, but more of us need to ask for access to them so that they become more widely available.

Can you further elaborate on ‘metacognitive strategies’?

These are ways of developing awareness of how a person is thinking (thinking about thinking). It’s about drawing attention to the thought processes that we go through when we are learning to use a language, and making them explicit. In time, the processes become automatic, but it is useful for learners to know what they are, so that they can apply them in new situations that arise.

Do you have a list of sites with lots of materials so Ts don’t have to start from scratch?

On my website, ELTwell, there are links to resources for teachers, as well as information about new materials as they come out.

How can we find out the learning styles of the child?

As suggested in the webinar, the idea that we all have one preferred learning style has largely been refuted by the research evidence. However, it is important for learners to be encouraged to reflect on how they learn best – what is helpful for them, what is more difficult – so that they begin to develop self-awareness of which kinds of learning techniques to use in different situations. The use of multisensory activities can be useful here, but reflection on any activity will contribute to this knowledge.

Where can I find out more about Cuisenaire questions?

There is a full explanation of this on the ELT well website.

Which comes first: motivation or self-esteem?

Bit of a chicken-and-egg question here – interesting to discuss but probably we will never find a definitive answer that applies to all learners. The two are not the same thing, although they support each other; where there is one it is usually possible to develop the other.

What’s the best and most economic way to have a consultation/diagnosis for adult dyslexia in the UK?

Assessments for adults in the UK usually have to be funded privately, either by the student or the school/college they are studying at; the average cost is around £300.00. In the case of adults who are learning English as an additional language there are not many assessors who would be willing to undertake a full diagnostic assessment, as the standardised tests are not suitable for them. For this reason I designed the Cognitive Assessments for Multilingual Learners tool (both the adult version and a young learners’ version – see the ELTwell site for more information). This is something that teachers can use to get to know the needs of their learners in more depth, and that qualified assessors could use to produce a formal identification of an SpLD. It is probably the most economical and time-efficient way of assessing students, as some of it can be done with a group as well as individuals.

At times parents will not be ready to accept the fact about these issues. How can we help and support such students even at home?

This is a big issue, that some parents are still unwilling to accept that their children are learning differently from their classmates. Some students may also be reluctant to seek support or explore different ways of working. One strategy is to develop an inclusive culture in the classroom, so that all learners are empowered to make choices to suit their ways of learning. At the heart of this is the need for teachers to know their learners as well as possible, and help them to understand what their strengths are and where their weaker areas might be that need more development. It is not necessary to use terminology such as ‘dyslexia’ or ‘learning difference’; it is possible to encourage learners to develop additional skills, such as memory strategies, which they will soon see are useful across all their school subjects.

Do dyslexic people face the same challenges learning their first language as they do learning an additional language?

Here it may be useful to think of dyslexia as a development difference, such that as the brain forms, it makes connections in a different way from the majority of the population. That means that the challenges that a dyslexic person experiences will probably always be there until s/he finds a strategy to get round or over them. Dyslexic learners may well find developing their first spoken language and literacy an issue (as well as time management, memory and all the other things we discussed in the webinar), but because they are immersed in the language environment and have a lot of opportunities for genuinely communicative practice, they can become proficient users of their own language. How easily they develop L1 literacy depends on the structure of the orthography, the way it is taught and how closely that fits with their particular cognitive profile. English-speaking dyslexic learners usually find it more challenging than Italian-speaking students, for example. But there is some evidence of students finding a second language literacy easier than their first (even cases of Swedish and Japanese students who found English easier than Swedish or Japanese!).

Dr Anne Margaret Smith has taught English for over 25 years in Kenya, Germany, Sweden and the UK. For the last 15 years she has combined this with working as a dyslexia specialist tutor and assessor. She founded ELT well with the intention of bringing together best practice from the two fields of English Language Teaching and Specific Learning Difference support. She now offers resources and training to teachers, as well as specialist 1:1 teaching to dyslexic learners.