How to help students with dyslexia

January 21, 2000


Dyslexia is often misdiagnosed by educators, writes Jennifer Currie


Because disability law expects universities to have support structures.


Picture the scene: a first-year film studies student hands in a first-term essay a few days late. In an apologetic note attached to the script, the student explains that he has dyslexia. After marking it, the tutor notes on the paper that he thinks the student is just lazy rather than dyslexic. The student is devastated and has to be persuaded to continue with his studies.

To the 4 per cent of the population who have dyslexia, such thoughtless prejudice will be nothing new. Dyslexia, a complex neurological condition that affects the ability to acquire and use written language and other organisational skills, was finally recognised as a legal disability under the terms of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

This means that all universities and colleges have to produce a policy and provision statement for disabled students that should work to encourage students with dyslexia to enter further and higher education.

Despite improved facilities and support for staff and students alike, examples of such terrible treatment still occur. As Lindsay Peer, education director of the British Dyslexia Association, points out: "There are a lot of bright people who are not recognised as such, which can lead to extreme distress. The high demands and expectations of university can have a devastating effect."

School children and students are not yet routinely screened for signs of dyslexia. Teachers aware of the hallmarks of dyslexia - such as upper and lower-case confusion or letter omission - can send their students for assessment that guarantees them lifelong support.

For those students whose symptoms slip through the system unnoticed, education can be a painful experience. Jane Hanlan, 24, a graphic design student at the London College of Printing, did not realise that she was dyslexic until six months ago. "I just thought I was a bad learner," she says.

The 1999 report, Dyslexia in Higher Education: Policy, Provision and Practice, argued that the cost of improving services for dyslexic students was not prohibitive. "This expenditure should be seen as an integral and essential part of the institution's general commitment to securing equal opportunities for all disabled students," concluded the report, produced by a national working party chaired by Hull University's Chris Singleton.

But the report exposed discrepancies in the identification and support of dyslexic students. While registered dyslexic students at new universities and higher education colleges represented 1.3 per cent and 1.5 per cent respectively of the total number, at traditional universities they were just 0.95 per cent. The report, compiled over four years, recommended that better provisions should be put in place.

Developments in new technology have greatly improved learning conditions for dyslexic undergraduates. Art courses tend to attract significantly more dyslexic students, as they build on its strengths - such as design, invention and problem-solving.

Heather Symons, dyslexia coordinator at the London College of Printing, says students can send their assessment form to the local education authority awards officers. "On the strength of that they might even cough up for a computer or a scanner for the individual student," Ms Symons says.

The "Quickionary" pen is another useful teaching aid - a laser that gives the pronunciation and definition when scanned over a word.

Ms Symons says that dyslexic students need to be made more aware of the services available to them. "They need to know what their rights are. They must have a one-on-one individual assessment session to identify their needs, and their Disabled Student Allowance will pay for one hour of tuition every week."

This tuition time can be spent correcting essay drafts - Ms Symons tells her students to bring their work on a disk so that she can go through it on screen - or simply to boost confidence.

"The use of turgid factual class texts will reduce self-esteem," Ms Symons says. "It takes dyslexic students twice as long to read a text and this has to be accounted for." The LCP's library gives dyslexic students double the borrowing time, and the books are categorised by colour and low number sequences. "After four numbers the mind shuts down," Ms Symons explains.

She recommends that institutions ensure that referral systems are set firmly in place. "Make sure that other members of staff

have an easy, automatic link with the dyslexia unit on campus so that they can come to them with any problems or misunderstandings. This also means that you can advocate vivas or the use of visually based scrapbooks for your students as alternative methods of assessment."

Tutors with dyslexic students should also be conscious of their course formats. "Many of our courses are not 100 per cent exam-based. Students are normally asked to submit essays and dissertations instead."

Teaching methods should be largely based on the results of the original psychometric assessment. "Find out how your student learns best and adapt your style to fit," advises Ms Peer. "Be aware that they might find it difficult to take notes in lectures. If they can't get their ideas down on paper then they won't be able to express their knowledge. They might be better off using a computer with a voice-activated spelling and grammar check."

The LCP's dyslexia support unit has greatly expanded over recent years. "People come to us now because of word of mouth merely because they think 'they might have it'. We get four or five times as many referrals nowadays," says Ms Symons. "It's all about helping them to find people they can trust."

* Jane Hanlan, 24, third-year graphic design, London College of Printing.

"I used to think that I was just a bad learner. I didn't like school and my parents didn't give me much help with my homework. The only subject I liked was art.

"It was at college that I was introduced to the dyslexic support team. My degree course requires a 10,000-word dissertation, and one of my tutors started to notice that I was worrying about it. I met Heather Symons and she explained what dyslexia is.

A lot of people are dyslexic and are still going far in life.

"I go to a tutor for one hour a week, and he helps me to write out a plan and then I discuss what I want to do. My tutor gives me advice, such as telling me to look at my dissertation as two 5,000-word essays instead of as 10,000 words.

"I don't like reading. I get past the first page and then I fall asleep. But I have learned to look at the introduction page first and to pick out the parts that are relevant.

"My weekly hour of support is really important. One week, my tutor did not come and I did not do anything. Reading and writing are important in a designer, and being able to do them gives me that bit more confidence."

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