Awareness of the need to provide materials that cater for students with dyslexia is growing – but how do we do that properly? One size does not fit all, as Jon Hird explains. A longer version of this is going to appear in the ETAS Journal, Summer 2019 special supplement on SEN and Inclusive Practices. (ETAS is a Swiss teachers’ association.)
ELT publishers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to provide material appropriate for learners with dyslexia. Most of this material is currently provided in the form of downloadables from teachers’ resource sites and mainly consists of ‘dyslexic-friendly’ reading texts and tests. Here, I would like to outline what I see as some of the broad principles for writing and adapting material for learners with dyslexia. But first, we need to look at what dyslexia is, and at how it can impact on learning and literacy. Then we can consider the implications for the design of ELT materials.
What is dyslexia?
There are numerous theories and explanations of what dyslexia is and what may cause it. However, it is now generally accepted that dyslexia is a result of issues with the brain’s executive function. Put simply, executive function can be considered as the core mental processes that we employ for most tasks we undertake. In an individual with dyslexia, some executive function is not as efficient as in a non-dyslexic individual. This could be a result of the neuro-physiological make-up of the part of the brain responsible for executive function (the pre-frontal cortex), and research has shown reduced activity in this area of the brain in people with dyslexia compared to non-dyslexic individuals.
The executive functions that are particularly pertinent to dyslexia are working memory (the ability to hold and recall information long enough to perform an operation using this information), focus (avoiding attention displacement and distraction) and effort (remembering to remember). As a result, the fundamental issue for most learners with dyslexia is difficulty processing and remembering information. Many dyslexic learners consequently also have a short digit/character span and a slow processing speed. The latter can mean that it takes longer to discriminate visual information such as letters and other graphemes. Other typical characteristics include difficulties with maintaining concentration and remaining on task. As well as affecting many everyday activities, dyslexia affects general learning and, in particular, the acquisition of literacy skills.
Issues with literacy
Early on, literacy issues tend to manifest mainly at word level and it can take considerably longer for words to enter a dyslexic individual’s internal sight lexicon (the ability to instantly recognise a word and attach meaning or produce a word with correct spelling) compared to a non-dyslexic child. While initially having a significant differential between actual age and reading-and-spelling age, which in some case can be upwards of five years, a typical learner with dyslexia will most likely, over time and with appropriate intervention, ‘catch up’ with his or her non-dyslexic peers in terms of word recognition and spelling. Literacy issues may remain, but are more likely to be with sentence- and then paragraph- and essay-level processing, planning and organisation.
As well as the fundamental issue of word recognition, reading can be hindered in a number of other ways. A dyslexic learner may find his or her eye drawn to other letters or words or other distracting elements on the page, and they may easily lose their place in a text. Long multi-clause sentences may be problematic in terms of maintaining focus and remembering and processing the content. Finally, the actual design, layout and font may be distracting and make the text difficult to follow and process.
Material selection, design and adaptation
Modifying and adapting page design and the layout and format of texts and other language exercises can be a real help for a learner with dyslexia. However, while the majority of dyslexic learners are likely to have broadly similar issues, an adaptation that may work for one learner may not work for another; indeed, it may even have a negative effect. For example, for every dyslexic learner who finds images on the page helpful in providing context, there may be another for whom they are a distraction. Similarly, for every learner who finds it a challenge to select words from a wordpool or box in a vocabulary or grammar exercise, there will be another for whom this is not so.
However we adapt the material, one key principle that will benefit almost all dyslexic learners is to reduce the processing load. This can be done in a number of ways, such as providing the learner with shorter and simplified reading texts and reducing the word count requirement for their written work. When it comes to language activities and exercises, we can reduce the number of items in an exercise and/or the number of exercises or activities the student needs to do. We can also simplify the items by removing any extraneous content and focusing more on key language or by modifying the item in other ways. Changing the exercise or activity type or its format can also help.
There are a number of modifications we can make to a reading text and its page layout.
First, the overall layout should be simplified with potential distractions, such as too many unnecessary images, removed. Make the material as linear and as easy to follow as possible and avoid the need to jump around the page.
Make the lines as long as possible to minimise ‘going over’ from one line to the next, as this is where a dyslexic learner is more likely to lose their place. Ideally, end a line with the end of a sentence, as this provides a natural break in the text.
If possible, shorten the text by shortening sentences and/or removing stretches of text or even whole paragraphs. Be mindful not to remove key target language if the text is being used for this purpose. More complex language can be simplified and multi-clause sentences can be converted to two or more sentences, which may make the content easier to process.
Increase line spacing in the body of the text, as this will minimise the chances of the eye being drawn to the adjacent line.
Create as much space on the page as possible, as this may make the text and the task seem less daunting and more doable.
Use the same simple font throughout and always ensure that it is sans-serif (e.g., Arial, Calibri). Switching from one font to another and something even as small as including a serif can add to the processing load. For the same reason, avoid using italics. A larger font size can also be used.
Finally, it is generally accepted that having the text on a tinted background and using a dark grey font instead of black is helpful for a dyslexic learner as it softens the contrast between black and white. However, for some learners this is not the case, and they may find coloured paper a distraction. I know of dyslexic learners of English who have expressly asked not to be given texts on coloured paper.
Below is an example of how a coursebook text and page (on the left) can be adapted for a learner with dyslexia according to some of the guidelines above.
High Spirits, OUP
(Click on image to enlarge)
Grammar and vocabulary exercises
Modification and adaptation of grammar and vocabulary exercises should broadly follow the same guidelines and principles as above in terms of general layout, the spacing of items, font and length and complexity of clauses and sentences. The number of items in each exercise can also be reduced and whole exercises can be omitted.
At the same time, we need to consider the potential difficulties that specific exercise types may present. Some exercise types, such as ‘Write questions for these answers’, ‘Put the words in the right order to make sentences’, ‘Choose the answer (A, B, C or D) that best completes the sentence’ and ‘Complete the sentences with the correct form of the word in the box’ are likely to be tricky. Such exercises are non-linear, require jumping back and forth (or up and down) and put quite a demand on focus, concentration and working memory.
Below is an example of how an exercise with items in a box can be adapted to avoid the need for moving back and forth and easing the demands on working memory. At the same time, the processing load is reduced from having to select the correct verb AND the correct grammar pattern to just having to focus on the latter. While this may be seen as making the exercise significantly easier, the prime objective is to help the learner to succeed and a sensible compromise is thus needed. Note also the other changes made to the exercise, such as increased spacing, the use of colour, the use of bold and the reduced number of items. The examples are taken from OUP grammar books written for the Italian market.
Left: Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World, OUP
Right: English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia, OUP
(Click on image to enlarge)
Other adaptations that we can consider for learners with dyslexia are:
- changing any double columns to a single column, which allows for longer lines and enables most items to be kept on a single line.
- changing multi-choice questions to a more linear ‘choose the correct alternative’-type exercise and at the same time reducing the number of alternatives from, say, four to three, or even two, e.g. It’s cheaper to go by / with bus.
- removing italics and instead putting words in bold.
- putting individual items in their own box within a wordpool to help prevent the eye from being drawn to the other items in the wordpool, e.g.
- moving the information that determines the grammar choice to the beginning of the item to minimise the need to refer back and forth e.g. Last week, he (be) _____ in Moscow.
While dyslexia is complex and there are no simple across-the-board solutions, there are some broad principles on which we can base materials for the dyslexic learner. In this article we have looked at and illustrated a few of these, and I hope this will give you a sense of how we can begin to approach producing material for learners with dyslexia.
The following publications may be of interest if you would like to find out more about dyslexia and learning English.
Daloiso, M. (2017). Supporting learners with dyslexia in the ELT Classroom. Oxford University Press.
Jon Hird teaches English at the University of Oxford and is a teacher trainer and ELT materials writer with a particular interest in grammar, EAP and dyslexia and learning English. He adapts material for dyslexic learners, an example of which is the grammar material in this article, taken from his book English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia (OUP). Jon has a son with dyslexia.