Look out for the sound argument

June 16, 2006

If you have students with dyslexia who have problems learning, you can help by podcasting lectures or using a more visual approach, and being open to new ways of presenting work, says Harriet Swain

You've never recorded your lectures or distributed handouts on the intranet before a lecture, and you're certainly not going to start now - even if half your seminar group happens to have dyslexia.

Actually, you should start now, even if none of your students is dyslexic. Most of the teaching methods that help students with dyslexia are simply matters of good teaching practice, says Katherine Hewlett, director of the AchieveAbility Project, which aims to break down barriers to higher education for students with specific learning differences.

Techniques such as using bullet points, breaking work into small sequential steps and having clear learning outcomes are likely to help any student learn more effectively, she says.

Lecturers should be aware of recommended standard practice from the websites of their institution's disability services, she says, "but the issue for higher education is getting communication going between what is standard practice and what is on websites and what actually happens in class".

The other issue is for academics to realise that different students have different learning styles and that they need to find out how each student learns best.

"Some students are not very text based - some are very visual, some very experiential. They learn by doing," she says. "That does not necessarily mean they are dyslexic. It means they learn in a different way."

Research has shown that dyslexic students in particular benefit from understanding their own learning styles. Once they know how they learn most effectively they can request information in the relevant format, says Hewlett, who adds that this is particularly important in higher education where the emphasis is on self-directed learning.

Carol Youngs, policy director of the British Dyslexia Association, says the learning styles of dyslexic students mean it is important to give them advice early on about their choice of course. Courses that demand a large number of essays and lengthy booklists are likely to be less suitable.

She says you need to make sure dyslexic students get the support they need from the start of their course. They should have a certificate from an educational psychologist, which should state their needs as an adult and be tailored to the university environment. Students will probably also need to be assessed to find out what help they will need in terms of information technology.

Anika Jamieson-Cook, a final-year student of drawing at Camberwell School of Art, says her computer has been her most important tool in dealing with dyslexia, particularly in allowing her to convert e-mails to spoken words.

Ideally, she would like the opportunity to use a computer in a room on her own, away from distractions.

Barbara Waters, chief executive of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, says that although most students with dyslexia will have had their condition diagnosed and should have help in place, it is important to be alert to those who have not. "If academics have concerns about a student, they should first talk to the student," she says. This may involve suggesting that the student speak to someone in the institution's study skills centre.

Jamieson-Cook says few lecturers seem to know much about the condition. "The biggest problem is that they don't understand it," she says. "They don't know that there are different types, that it affects everything and the way I look at everything in the world." She says they need to find out what a particular student finds difficult "without being patronising". "Sometimes people talk a lot more slowly to you, as if you were deaf," she says.

Waters says it is important for academics to make sure they adhere closely to the way a course programme, timetables, assignments and the marks attached to them are described in the course handbook and to ensure that every student has understood the handbook and can refer to it.

Hewlett says that there are many practical ways of helping students with dyslexia, such as using larger font sizes and clearer fonts on printouts, putting lecture notes on coloured paper (for many of these students, black print on white pages can "jump") and explaining things in terms of the big picture. Many dyslexic students prefer to conceptualise issues in a broad framework and reference them with details rather than the other way around, she says.

A pilot initiative, the AchieveAbility National Project, has identified the benefits of other techniques such as mind mapping, classroom discussion and getting students to learn from one another. For Jamieson-Cook, having things explained visually and verbally is far more effective than blocks of writing on a board. "Videos, podcasts, talking books are all great," she says. She would like lecturers to be more flexible in how they are prepared to receive information. She has tried experimenting with different ways of presenting an essay: speaking it and burning it on a CD, producing it in an interview format, or as notes or a diary. While she admits that some ways have worked better than others, she would have liked tutors to work on them with her rather than reject them out of hand.

Waters says: "What we do not want tutors to do is to think this student is someone else's responsibility." She says that the student and disability officers have a responsibility, but tutors also have a role in supporting students. And if they do not feel up to the task? "Explore the staff development that is available," she says. "And take it up."

Further information

Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities: www.skill.org.uk

AchieveAbility: Breaking barriers to higher education for students with specific learning difficulties: www.achieveability.org.uk

British Dyslexia Association: www.bdadyslexia.org.uk


Employ good teaching practice

Talk sensitively to students you feel may be having problems

Be flexible in your teaching methods

Follow advice on teaching techniques on specialist websites

Communicate with the student and support services

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