Supporting Learners with Dyslexia in the ELT Classroom
Oxford University Press 2017
A book aiming to support English language learners with dyslexia is long overdue. Though there have been previous works on dyslexia and foreign language learning (e.g. Nijakowska, 2010; Peer & Reid, 2000), the main thrust of the research has been to provide an understanding of the mechanisms of dyslexia. Few resources are available at the practitioner level, and English language teachers may have little or no training in supporting dyslexic learners. It is sadly not uncommon, in my experience, for English language teachers to discover undiagnosed dyslexic learners in their classes. More problematic than diagnosis, however, is how to help dyslexic learners reach their full potential in the English language class.
This book addresses all of these issues and more, in a highly practical manner. It consists of six main chapters, each beginning with a short introduction to the key issues, followed by a discussion activity, and ending with a one-paragraph written summary, a full-page diagrammatic summary, an answer key to the activities, and a page of suggestions for further reading. The chapters are linked by a narrative thread: the story of a dyslexic learner, Marco. We follow his journey through an education system in which learning English plays a major role from primary school to university. Whether Marco is a real person or not is immaterial: the story gives the reader a glimpse of what it is like to be dyslexic in an ELT classroom.
Chapter 1, Literacy and dyslexia: an overview, summarises the main issues surrounding first language acquisition and academic achievement before moving on to the ways in which these may be impacted by dyslexia. Daloiso reformulates the British Dyslexia Association’s definition of dyslexia from ‘a specific learning difficulty’ to a ‘learning difference’ (p14), a term that I will certainly adopt from now on. This positive attitude is one of the main strengths of the book and is sustained throughout.
The second chapter, Dyslexia and English as a Foreign Language, includes a thorough examination of the emotional factors that might create additional barriers to learning for dyslexic learners (pp37–46). As Daloiso points out, the majority of learners around the world learn English because it is mandatory at school. The cognitive load of foreign language learning can be particularly heavy for dyslexics. Negative emotions such as communication apprehension, test anxiety and fear of negative evaluation can be worsened if students have a learning difference. These are all factors that teachers need to keep in mind when planning courses, materials and lesson activities. A minor niggle in this chapter is the layout of the learning preference questionnaires on pp47–49: the wide left-hand margin favoured by the book publisher has allowed each question to run over into two lines rather than one. The differentiation of text and space needed to create a dyslexia-friendly layout is certainly not in evidence here. Chapter 3, Methodological guidelines for accessible language teaching, was one of the most interesting chapters of the book for me, not least because of the author’s account of the Italian ‘formative-communicative approach’ (pp73–4), which I had not come across before. However, for those readers who blanch at the word ‘methodological’, this is definitely not a chapter to be skipped. It covers the key issue of how to plan lessons with maximum accessibility: something all teachers and their students will benefit from. The chapter encourages multimodality, differentiation, and careful consideration of the layout of materials as strategies for achieving accessibility and increasing motivation. All good stuff: in fact, this chapter made me realise that there are many aspects of my own practice I could greatly improve using the advice given here.
For teachers of beginner levels, particularly at primary school, the most useful chapter of the book will undoubtedly be Chapter 4, Working on sounds and letters. The strategies suggested are all examples of good practice for any teacher tasked with introducing the highly problematic relationship between English phonology and orthography. However, a limitation of this chapter is that it does not cover how to deal with these issues with adult dyslexics. How does a teacher of a class of, let’s say, upper-intermediate learners, help a dyslexic student who is struggling with orthography to the extent that it seriously impedes their ability to read long texts or write extended prose? This is a situation I have been in several times, but the answers I was hoping to find are not really present in this book. I found Chapter 5, Developing communicative skills, more useful for my own teaching context as it gives many practical suggestions which could be used with any level or age of learner.
In keeping with the optimistic tone of the book in general, the final chapter deals with Accessible language testing and assessment. From the point of view of a dyslexic learner, formal testing must seem like a form of cruel and unusual punishment. However, given that learners with or without dyslexia still have to undergo these ritual forms of torture in almost every education system, Daloiso points out that a range of test accommodations and modifications can be made to assist dyslexic learners. As with the sound advice given in Chapters 4 and 5, many of the suggestions in this chapter are examples of good practice and should therefore be adopted by all test writers. Chapter 6 is followed by an Appendix of dyslexia-friendly worksheets, a glossary and two reference lists, one of web resources and another of books and articles.
Supporting Learners with Dyslexia in the ELT Classroom will not only help teachers to support dyslexic learners, but will also encourage them to rethink many aspects of their current practice and create accessible learning for all students in the ELT classroom.
Nijakowska J (2010) Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom. Bristol, Buffalo and Toronto: Multilingual Matters.
Peer L and Reid G (2000) Multilingualism, Literacy and Dyslexia: A Challenge for Educators. London: David Fulton Publishers.