Reading is one of my big pleasures- at a young age I used to tuck myself into the top shelf of the hot cupboard at my parents’ house to get some quiet time with a book, or head into the fields behind our house to find a peaceful spot. Not everyone is so lucky though- many find reading a chore, or worse, they struggle with even short texts. Having just finished following a course on Dyslexia and Language Learning I wanted to write about it in layman’s terms, and look at the ways we can help children to learn to read. I’m not just confining myself to dyslexia though- many children simply don’t enjoy reading as they either didn’t have enough exposure when young, or weren’t taught how to read well.
Dyslexia can not be cured because it is not an illness or disease; instead we need to look at ways in which we can make the process of reading easier on the individual. If dyslexic students are taught with their needs being considered, and if they are equipped with the relevant strategies, they will learn how to overcome their difficulties. Girls somehow develop more easily successful strategies that help them study in their own way not only languages but other academic subjects too, while boys show more struggling in acquiring new materials, regardless of the subject.
Since dyslexia itself is of neurobiological origin connected to phonological awareness and working memory, its occurrence is not language dependent: it occurs in students of all language backgrounds. However, how much and what type of difficulties it causes CAN depend on the learners’ mother tongue or the language they are learning. Phonologically more or less transparent languages with the ‘say what you see, write what you hear’ system (like Finnish, German, Italian or Hungarian) are supposedly easier to master, while opaque languages like English and French, where one letter can have many different sounds, cause more difficulties for dyslexics. However, individual student’s experiences may differ since there are other factors (motivation to learn the language, relationship with the teacher, family background…etc.) that influence the success of learning any language (first or second).
Here are some tips which are easy to include in your reading routine, and which will help a troubled reader or dyslexic learner:
– Teach capital letters first: a child who is already showing dyslexic tendencies needs to be taught the alphabet very carefully. The reason for teaching the upper case letters first is that each letter is more clearly defined from the others than in the lower case. Nine of the lower case letters contain circles (a, b, c, d, e, g, o, p, q). Four of the letters are the same symbol set in different directions (b, d, p, q). Four of the letters have a “u” shape in them (h, m, n, u). The letters “i”, “l” and “t” look very similar. All these similarities make letters hard to learn for Dyslexics as Dyslexics often have issues with directionality. If you start a Dyslexic child with the upper case alphabet, in colour and practiced in a modeling medium such as clay or playdoh they will be able to mentally connect to the letters.
– Keep the page clutter- free: For people with dyslexia it is very easy to get lost if there are too many words on a page. When reading a book together with your child chose one which has few words on each page, with nice, big writing. For an older reader, find books that have texts divided up into manageable chunks, or which use two or more columns of text. A good alternative is to use reading focus cards, which help the reader to see only a few words at a time.
– Comic sans, calibri and arial are good fonts for dyslexic people: They are easier to read. However, there is also a special font, created by a dyslexic student, which helps readers to follow a text more easily, reducing ‘scrambling’ and making reading faster and more enjoyable. It can be downloaded for free here: http://www.dyslexiefont.com/
– Use lots of repetition: All children thrive on repetition, and this really helps them to learn new words and feel comfortable reading or using them in other ways. If a non-dyslexic child might take, say, 5 repetitions to master a new word for spelling – then a dyslexic child may need 25 repetitions, before that word is secured in long-term memory. It is essential that students with reading and spelling difficulties are given enough opportunities to ‘overlearn’. This means that they need not only a high level of repetition – e.g in learning new words for reading and spelling – but also to consolidate, apply and use the new learning in other contexts. Play games which repeat information a lot, and practice words orally before looking at them on a page.
– Do plenty of matching games: In order for more words to be recognised and understood, start with pictures and individual word cards. Match pictures together, or pictures and words, until the child is familiar with the look and sound of the word.
– Use coloured paper: The coloured paper technique is an aid to help people with Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (also known as Irlen syndrome), which can be part of the problem for people with reading issues or dyslexia. People with SSS require a particular colour filter to help with their symptoms, and can have a test to identify a particular hue of glasses that will help. The British Dyslexic Association suggests putting work on pastel paper to make reading less stressful on the eye and to reduce glare. The best shade of paper to use will depend on the individual concerned. I also like to use coloured plastic file dividers. You can slip a page or piece of work into the folder and view it through the plastic. The tint helps readers- light green or yellow is best. – selecting an interesting text with the learners in mind, breaking the text into manageable chunks, pre-teaching some essential vocabulary, predicting the story using the headline/pictures or props, putting pictures in order. Learners can then check their ideas as they read or after reading. Next some written tasks can be set (including what, where, why, etc), moving from simple to more challenging activities, but including pairwork or group discussion at each stage. After reading the learners can draw the story, act it out, or discuss the text.
As Judit Kormos and Anne Margaret Smith put it in their book: Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (Multilingual Matters, 2012): “in order to be fair to all learners, it is necessary to treat them all differently, rather than all the same.” While much of this is aimed at children with dyslexia, many of the points are good practice for all children learning to read. Be ready to go about reading in different ways with different children: siblings may have a very different way of learning and reading, but with good support the challenge can become much easier.