Dare to DREAM : teaching dyslexic learners.

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A few years ago, I sat down to try and identify the things I consider when teaching dyslexic learners. It can be hard to do this, as teaching becomes natural and unconscious through practice and refinement. It is a combination of creativity, knowledge, experience and an ability to reflect, adapt and change.

A teacher who is practised has a level of automaticity that frees them up to respond to situations and adapt. I like to assess formatively and during teaching am constantly assessing too.

I attended a BrewEd some time ago and tried to convey these principles in my presentation:

My DREAM principles begin with ‘Dynamic’.

Dyslexic learners benefit from opportunities to move. We have 7 senses in all, with vestibular (balance) and proprioception (knowing where the body is in space) being the additional 2 that people know less about.

Sweller himself (of Cognitive Load Theory fame) is now interested in how movement might facilitate the acquisition of Biologically secondary knowledge (information which we have not evolved to acquire). The importance of movement has already been acknowledged within education with ‘active maths’ enjoying some popularity.

Movement is therefore important to aid arousal (concentration/homeostasis) and to support memory:

My next principle is ‘Real Life’. Dyslexic learners benefit from examples which connect to real life, making the information less abstract and allowing them to utilise autobiographical memory which is typically strong in dyslexia. Dewey maintained that unless the initial connection was made between school activities and the life experiences of the child, genuine learning and growth would be impossible.

Richard Feynman himself said ‘What I cannot create I do not understand’.

Consider how much of the language we use already has a real life application e.g., operation in a medical sense and in mathematics. Be explicit about these differences but make the links:

Explicit brings me on to the next principle. Whilst I do use discovery approaches that students enjoy, I am also explicit about the things they need to know. Dyslexic students are exploratory, tangential thinkers whose thinking does not always serve them well in an academic context where straight line thinking is required.

When students achieve success, dopamine is released in the brain which is in turn a neurotransmitter – leading to greater success (dopamine is also released in the teacher’s brain). Students with dyslexia, especially those without a diagnosis, have experienced a lot of unexplained failure. Despite working hard, this is typically unnoticed, and simple tasks such as spelling their own name correctly, are beyond their reach. It confounds them that peers seem to read and write with ease and that these students receive plentiful praise. Keep targets small and measurable:

My final principle is ‘Mind’s Eye’. It can be very confusing to read some of the literature around dyslexia. Defined as ‘word blindness’ originally, the notion of dyslexia as a ‘visual’ difficulty is again en vogue. However, we read and perceive with our brains and not our eyes. Accurate reading requires a synthesis of sound and image, a grapheme-phoneme connection. In reading, the eyes hop in saccades requiring ocular motor control: the more a student reads, the smoother this becomes – but for dyslexics, reading remains effortful so they practice less.

Through assessment, visual working memory is often found to be significantly stronger than auditory working memory. Without exception, dyslexic learners of all ages tell me that they benefit from visuals, my own son told me aged 4 that he ‘thinks in pictures.’

Speaking at a conference 2019

‘Mind’s Eye’ is not simply a method of using visuals, it involves the imagination and visualising information, sometimes as a sequence or movie, sometimes static.

When learners are struggling to read a word on the page, I will often ask them to imagine it instead, or spell it in the mind’s eye.

When discussing a concept e.g., division, I will ask what they picture or think of first – in one case this was sharing on plates even though they were in KS2.

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