Teaching Students with Dyslexia

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and helped many people obtain better access to all areas of life.  In recognition of the 25th anniversary of this law, I wanted to consider a specific “disability”: dyslexia, which effects about 5% of the population.  While dyslexia can effect people to varying degrees and students without dyslexia can exhibit similar traits to students with dyslexia, some traits of dyslexia are:

  • Problems remembering the sequence of things
  • Difficulty seeing (and occasionally hearing) similarities and differences in letters and words
  • Inability to sound out the pronunciation of an unfamiliar word
  • Difficulty spelling
  • Difficulty reading, including reading aloud
  • Trouble understanding idioms
  • Difficulty with time management
  • Difficulty summarizing a story
  • Difficulty memorizing

Some of these symptoms may make Latin or Classics difficult for a student with dyslexia, but Latin also has some qualities that could help a dyslexic: Latin classes generally do not have an aural/oral component (although, see my earlier post on Spoken Latin), the text is provided, Latin pronunciation is regular, Latin has few idioms, and Latin vocabulary can often resemble English words.  Morphology, though, will be problematic.

Of course, this treats dyslexia as a “problem” when, really, students with dyslexia just have brains that work differently.  As Ray Laurence explains, they understand the world differently.  They are better at thinking “visually and holistically,” rather than the more common “verbal and sequential” way of thinking.  They are different–not deficient–and they can offer many good qualities to the classroom (quoted from Laurence, quoting Cooper 2009, 66):

  • Approaching academic issues from unusual perspectives
  • Making unusual connections
  • Being creative and producing new ideas easily
  • Being particularly good at dissecting arguments in discussions
  • Being good at ‘what if’ problems
  • Being good at following a passionate interest

Three articles (listed below) offer several suggestions for how to help students with dyslexia achieve well in your class:

  • Give clear, explicit instruction that also explains not only the purpose but also the mechanics of why you’re asking students to complete a task.  Granted, the “why” may not always be apparent or easy to explain for a new Latin case usage; but in other classes, for example, it may be necessary to explain that writing essays is a means to communicate ideas (rather than impress) and that we cite other sources in order to give credit and support the validity of our ideas.  This is especially true for exams, give clear directions.  “Answer 2 questions in 20 minutes” is better than directions that ask students to divide the time into many chunks for each question.
  • Similarly, when discussing an article (especially in comments on a paper), do not simply say “You should have referred to article D because it is important” but say “Article D argues K and is relevant to your paper because of X, Y, Z.”
  • Present in a visually clear way.  On worksheets, have white space and readable fonts.  Always use standardized spelling (e.g. Cleisthenes rather than Kleisthenes) and avoid confusing Roman numerals.
  • During class, dyslexic students may have difficulty taking notes, so you can allow them to record lectures or provide handouts ahead of time.
  • On homework and essays, be judicious and kind about spelling and grammar errors.  To what extent is it necessary to downgrade students for poor grammar on this assignment?  Do we really expect perfect spelling from anyone on a test?
  • Dyslexic students often have a difficult time expressing their ideas in writing, but often express their ideas well aloud.  You can encourage the student to tape record themselves and their ideas before writing a paper, encourage them to think about their paper in terms of a series of questions that must be answered.  Alternatively, you may consider alternative means of examination than a paper or essay: graphic/visual representations of ideas (possibly with written explanations), an oral presentation (from a script or from notes, by choice of the student), or an oral exam.
  • Be comfortable with unexpected, imaginative answers. Does the student support the idea with evidence? Can the answer fit the available data?
  • In a Latin class, if you are unable to provide one-on-one help, peer help through group work may help too.  However, be aware that students may also (inadvertantly) discriminate against the dyslexic student.
  • Multi-sensory teaching (advocated by Richard L. Sparks and Miller 2000) that focuses on the phonology of Latin so that students can learn and predict the proper spelling and pronunciation of new words may help students with Latin.
  • Help students understand categories.  When students get new Latin vocabulary, provide a list or outline that separates words into appropriate categories (nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns).  When you teach a new grammar idea, review all earlier ideas in that category so that students can help understand them within a context.  For example, when teaching a new use of the ablative, review the other uses of the ablative.
  • Help students break Latin into more manageable bits.  When students translate Latin, there are a lot of parts to help students keep track of: morphology, syntax, semantics, and maybe phonology.  To help the students, you can provide a vocabulary list with the new vocabulary (so they aren’t distracted looking up words in a dictionary or so they choose the proper meaning) and at the top of the vocabulary list give them a blank chart in which they should decline the most difficult nouns or conjugate the most difficult verbs in the passage.  If you want to save yourself time, help students develop greater facility with a dictionary, and help students learn vocabulary without being reliant on you, you can create a preview assignment: students look up the words they don’t know, write them down, compare the list with their peers, and create a master vocabulary list from a group or the whole class.  This could be done online with a wiki tool.  Also, have students “chunk” the Latin sentence or break it down into smaller parts–prepositional phrases, participial phrases, adjective-nouns, genitives and the words they modify, subordinate clauses, etc.–so that it is a less formidable sentence.
  • Preview assignments and provide context so proper nouns are less confusing and daunting.
  • Provide practice quizzes/tests so that students understand the directions and format of the exams ahead of time.
  • Regarding the choice of texts, anecdotally, dyslexic students may respond better to formulaic and visual texts (like inscriptions).
  • Provide support for students: mentors who have succeeded with dyslexia, references to books that may help them understand how they are different, and extra help outside of class.

Generally, many of these strategies are simply good teaching strategies for all students, many of whom may not be as prepared as we would hope they would be.  These strategies help introduce a foreign time and place to students, review and reinforce material, focus on/prioritize the learning objectives of tasks, and possibly diminish stress among our students.  And all this is also a good sign: we should employ teaching practices that include everyone, as much as possible, rather than discourage and exclude others because of their differences.


Works recommended in these articles:

  • Cooper, R. (2009) ‘Dyslexia’, in D. Pollak (ed.) Neurodiversity in Higher Education. Positive Responses to Specific Learning Differences, Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford.
  • Sparks, Richard L., and Karen S. Miller (2000) ‘Teaching a Foreign Language Using Multi-sensory Structured Language Techniques to At-Risk Learners: A Review’, Dyslexia 6: 12432.
  • Liz Du Pré, Dorothy Gilmore and Tim Miles Dyslexia at College, 3rd edition, Routledge 2008
  • Tomlinson, J. (1996) Inclusive Learning (The Tomlinson Report), FEFC: Coventry.

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