Dyslexia affects memory and processing speed which impacts on literacy development, mathematics, memory, organisation and sequencing skills to varying degrees. It can occur at any level of intellectual development. It is neurological in origin and affects up to 10% of the UK population (Dyslexia Action, 2014).
Many dyslexic people experience difficulties with reading. These may be cognitive in nature (difficulties in decoding the meaning from text) or visual (for example difficulty seeing letters clearly on a certain background) or a mixture of the two. Skim reading can be very challenging for these learners.
Two common issues impact on many dyslexics:
- Difficulties in planning and sequencing can undermine written assignments
- Poor spelling can lose marks and create frustrations, both for tutors trying to interpret assignments and learners trying to revise from their own notes.
Dyslexic people can be original thinkers and creative problem solvers but in a text-based education system, they find themselves playing to their weaknesses rather than their strengths. This can have a corrosive impact on confidence.
It is common for bright dyslexic people to feel they are 'stupid.' This is not the case for sensory disabilities where the barriers to achievement are more tangible and so more likely to be tackled.
Dyslexic people can struggle with day-to-day organisation. It is not unusual for them to forget to hand in work or forget to attend appointments.
Given the range of strengths and weaknesses, the impact of personal strategies and the influence of personality, it is unlikely that any two dyslexics in your organisation will have the same support needs. Dyslexics who are confident with technology can develop many helpful self-support strategies.
What organisations can do
Technology enhanced learning has the potential to meet many of the support needs of dyslexic learners. There are a wide range of support tools available commercially or as free/open source versions.
Staff development is vital in empowering staff to teach inclusively. From the point of view of dyslexic learners small things can make a big difference. This includes training in:
- Making resources available online in digital format
- Ensuring documents and presentations comply with basic accessibility practice
- Training staff in using multimedia
There is a range of assistive technologies that can help dyslexic learners with reading, writing, planning and organising.
Reading for speed and meaning
This can be significantly enhanced by basic good practice in e-learning but the following technologies can benefit the reading speeds and skills of many dyslexics:
- Colour overlay tools and other similar features to reduce the visual glare sometimes experienced when reading black text on white backgrounds. For example changing the background colour on a Word document can help. When browsing the web, using the colour overlay feature on the ATbar or the colour overlay on the ClaroRead Chrome extension may be useful. Colour overlay tools such as RapidSet and SSOverlay can be downloaded as part of the MyStudyBar suite of tools from the Eduapps website
- Screen tinting features in commercial literacy/assistive technology software such as Texthelp Read&Write or ClaroRead can be useful and worth promoting, especially if your institution has a site license making it available to all
- Reading rulers such as the Reading Ruler extension for Google Chrome, ruler features and in commercial literacy/assistive technology software such as Texthelp Read&Write or ClaroRead. The VuBar reading ruler can be downloaded as part of the MyStudyBar suite of tools from the Eduapps website
- Browser plugins to de-clutter pages (eg Clearly), support speed reading (eg Spreeder) or to help read on screen (eg ATBar)
- Ensuring text-to-speech tools with high-quality voices are available across the network – this can also open up textbooks to dyslexics when they are available in alternative formats
- Providing tablet devices so learners can make use of their inbuilt accessibility features
Voice recognition tools like the inbuilt Windows voice recognition or commercial tools like Dragon Naturally Speaking can support poor writers, however word prediction tools like LetMeType and Dasher may be more suitable in noisy environments. You can also set up AutoText or AutoCorrect in Word to provide shortcuts to commonly misspelled words or phrases.
Mind mapping tools can be an excellent way to help learners organise their work. The combination of visual planning, drag and drop reorganisation and export to a word processing package (depending on the version) make it easier to separate the processes of recalling content and sequencing ideas.
There are a range of personal organisation tools, both free and commercial, that could benefit learners but they need to be used habitually to make a difference. Some learning providers have facilitated informal 'app cafe' activities where learners can share tools and approaches.
E-book platforms or textbooks in alternative formats direct from publishers allow dyslexic learners to change colours or use text to speech.
They allow lesson/lecture content to be captured visually and stored online for learners to revisit afterwards.
Tutor handouts using the inbuilt heading styles (Heading 1, Heading 2 etc) allow dyslexic learners to rapidly navigate a document – a form of 'skim reading' that depends on the tutor’s accessibility awareness.
Lecture notes and recordings
Lecture recording may benefit dyslexic learners as they can focus on understanding rather than note-taking and check details afterwards. However, having the lecture notes available online might be a better solution because navigating through 50 minute lecture recordings is not for the fainthearted.
What tutors and teachers can do
Tutors make a difference by doing the basics better, extending their repertoire of resources and making learning more active.
Dyslexic people can often be very articulate in class discussions but face barriers in online discussions. They may be self conscious about how coherent their contributions are to discussion lists and they may be slower in keeping up the reading in fast moving discussions.
You can reduce these anxieties by making the value explicit – is it in participating, spelling or both?
Where comments count towards assessment (and where spelling will lose marks), it might be appropriate to allow dyslexic learners to copy the discussion thread so they can proof read their contributions and retrofit improved spelling and grammar.
Since written assessments present a barrier to many dyslexic learners, consider how you could adapt assessments and assignments to play to the strengths of dyslexic (and other) learners).
For example they could use their mobile phone to produce image, audio or video evidence.
Creating accessible resources
Accessible documents and presentations benefit all learners including those with dyslexia.
- Write in plain English and check the readability
- Use the inbuilt heading styles in Word for learners to get a content overview in the navigation pane
- Use pop up information over images to help contextualise explanations
- Use creative e-learning approaches that minimise text heavy resources and activities.
Watch the video tutorial from Microsoft on creating accessible Word documents.
For presentations, add notes to the notes field in PowerPoint to help clarify explanations and use animations to explain difficult concepts.
Watch the video tutorial to check and improve the accessibility of your PowerPoint presentations.
Dyslexic learners can often benefit from simple and effective use of video and audio, however research suggests that overloading the learner with too much rich content can result in confusion.
Summaries of key learning objectives in video and audio can particularly benefit dyslexics who may have less developed note taking skills.
Tables and graphs
These can be very challenging for learners with dyscalculia and dysgraphia but they can be made more accessible.
For tabular information in Excel spreadsheets use the comments field to add extra explanations.
In Word documents, the pop up screen tip trick can add extra information over images or row and column headings in tables.
What others can do
People in different roles can have a significant impact.
Encourage them to be part of their own solutions - make them aware of free text to speech, mindmapping solutions and of relevant browser plugins.
Encourage them to use:
- Personal tools like Azzapt to get text in their preferred format
- Tools like Evernote or OneNote to keep track of research
- Inbuilt features or apps on phones for personal organisation, for example online calendars and task lists that can sync with a mobile device.
If grammar, vocabulary or spelling are poor get them to try the inbuilt grammar checkers or synonyms function in Word.
The network manager in your organisation can ensure high quality text to speech is available across the network either using commercial tools or free voices like the Scottish or Welsh voices. They can also make content creation tools like Xerte or commercial equivalents available on the network to support staff in creating accessible mobile resources.
Library staff have a critical role to play in ensuring accessibility features are a procurement criterion for e-book platforms. They can also make learners aware of the accessibility features on e-book platforms and may be instrumental in obtaining textbooks in alternative formats direct from publishers.
They ensure that suitable staff development activities take place so that all staff can meet basic accessibility good practices. In turn their organisation can fulfil the reasonable expectations that any learner is entitled to anticipate in post 16 education.
These case studies highlight how dyslexic learners use technology to assist their learning:
Mitch's story - using built in text-to-speech in Microsoft Word
"I’m studying English GCSE, maths AS and engineering BTEC at St Vincent College.
"I use technology a lot. For example I use my iPad to write up and access notes online and in class. The college is very technology-based especially for the maths and engineering so any feedback we get is via emails or on the VLE. We get any past papers from the VLE.
"The learning support department showed me how to set up text-to-speech on Microsoft Word so that I can hear my work read back to me.
"If I was to go online just to read something I would use Orato in MyStudyBar – it highlights the text as you go along and you can change colours, etc. But if I was just reading a Word document I would use the in-built text-to-speech. I’ve downloaded voices for use at home. The process worked okay but I was impatient about waiting to get the registration through – I prefer things to be instant!
"I’ve noticed that by using text-to-speech to proof read my assignments I’ve spotted (and corrected) a lot of mistakes so I’m handing in better quality work. The text-to-speech is good but is not as good as hearing your tutor speaking. It would be great if we could have podcasts with the tutor’s voice. That would be better than synthetic speech."
Ashley's story - using text-to-speech for proof reading
"I’m studying English GCSE, maths AS and engineering BTEC at St Vincent College. I’m very comfortable with using lots of different types of technology. For example I bring up notes on my phone. I’ve got concessions to use technology in the exams and I use the computer for practice papers in English.
The main way I use text-to-speech is for proof reading my work. When it’s read back to you, you notice your mistakes. I’ve tended to use text-to-speech a lot for assignments and English coursework.
"The built-in text-to-speech in Microsoft Word is handy. There is also text-to-speech in MyStudyBar but the only problem with that is you have to open a separate programme. If I hear a mistake I want to correct it there and then so it is better for me to work directly in Word than listening to one programme and correcting it in another. However it does help to see the text highlighted as it’s read out and Word doesn’t do that!"
"Although the text-to-speech is helping me with the written work the thing that would really benefit me would be to have more videos explaining things."
Omar's story - using AudioNote for independent learning
Omar studies HNC social care at the City of Glasgow College.
Using AudioNote, Omar finds that taking notes is now worthwhile where before his efforts to make notes during a lecture was frustrating, distracting and ultimately unrewarding. Using AudioNote has enhanced his abilities to learn as an individual, and to participate in group work more effectively.
He now uses it at work for team meetings, to take notes and to capture all the extra comments and pertinent asides from teachers and fellow students which he could not do before.