Some Ideas about Teaching



Teaching Dyslexic Pupils


Terry. I am hesitant to shoot my mouth off to you because – teaching in a school for dyslexics – you will almost certainly know more than me about both the problems and solutions! What I write below, therefore, is more aimed at the general History teacher struggling with one or two dyslexic pupils than at an expert like yourself.

Problems with Output
Also, I must admit at KS4 I have never really overcome the output problem. It is possible for any able dyslexic to overcome the reading problem with motivation, time and the correct teaching. The spelling is an annoyance, but ultimately doesn’t matter unless the proportion of unrecognisable words grows too great for the examiner to be able to make sense of the script. The output problem, however, is much more than problems with spelling. Most dyslexics:


1.   have just as great problems with grammar as with reading, and simply can’t put their ideas into written form.

2.   choose to write ‘babyish’ sentences with very simple words which they know they can produce, and tend to avoid sophisticated or intricate words and arguments.

3.   produce written output very slowly – the choice is either a lot which looks awful and reads atrociously. At Greenfield I give out red smiley ink-stamps to dyslexics. They use it at the end of pieces of written work they have tried their best with. It means: ‘dyslexic pupil who has tried their best’.

4.   often – because they have a processing SpLD (it depends where the SPLD lies in their brain) – are not much better at spoken output than they are at written output. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE THICK; it just means that they can’t express their idea and intelligence in written or spoken form. However, this kind of pupil will inevitably struggle in a GCSE exam, even with an amanuensis.

5.   often have co-morbid problems (eg dyspraxia/ ADHD) which add to the problem of producing written work.

Possible Solutions

1.   In exams – extra time and an amanuensis.

2.   In lessons – use alternative forms of output: e.g. visual presentations/ drama and other forms of kinaesthetic expression). Also make sure that the pupils are given ‘thinking time’ before they are asked to comment or present.

3.   Coursework – consult your moderator to see if he will accept alternative forms of output (e.g. videos/ tapes)

4.   Text - produce your own simplified version of text and sources. Don't worry if you change the source beyind recognition; stay tru to the meaning and produce it in a form they can read.



Using History to Remedy Dyslexia
Giving advice on teaching children with dyslexia is really hard because people differ so very much about what dyslexia is.

Types of ‘Dyslexia’
When I did my SpLD diploma I was taught that dyslexia is exclusively dysphonetic dyslexia – ie children who can’t brain-process phonemic information. In reading, the mark of this is a pupil who can’t read new words when he comes to them, can’t ‘split them up’ phonetically to work them out, but (after a little work) can remember the ‘word-shape’ when reading the word later in the passage. If able, this kind of pupil CAN learn to read quite well simply by rote-learning thousands of word-shapes. He responds to flash-card work, and word-learning mechanisms like tracing round the shape of the word. The Dyslexia Institute and reinforcement exercises like those in Toe to Toe/ Alpha to Omega deal with this kind of pupil by making them do loads of phonetic work, building up their phonetic knowledge step-by-step, bit-by-bit. ALL dyslexics have difficulty with spelling, but with this kind of pupil, the Look-Say-Cover-Write and typist-techniques such as say-it-like-it’s-written (‘con-sti-too-ti-on’/ ‘k-nif-i’) fail utterly.

While I was doing my diploma I worked with a ‘dyslexic’ pupil who just didn’t fit this pattern at all. It was clear that he had ‘visual dyslexia’ – ie the brain had problems processing the necessary visual information as it read and spelled. I am pleased to say that ‘visual dyslexia’ nowadays has much more general credence academically, though I couldn’t tell you the overall state of play on the debate. Typical of a ‘visual dyslexic’ is that he is quite good at decoding words phonetically, but – having done so more or less laboriously once in a passage, his brain fails to acquire the ‘shape’ of the word, and he has to re-decode it every time he meets it. This child needs lots of remedial work on word-shapes, tracing round the outside of the word etc. Flashcards are a continuing nightmare and embarrassment, because he can NEVER remember them.

As I have assessed and worked with dyslexic pupils in my own school, however, I would be prepared to say that I have never met any dyslexic pupil who did not have problems with working memory (visual, auditory or both). Working memory is that bit of your brain at the front which – if I were to say, for instance: ‘take the letters A E I, assign each a numerical value according to its place in the alphabet and add them together’ – does the necessary calculations and manipulations.

If you have a lot to do with dyslexic pupils, it is also worth checking out their ability with sequences (ask them to say the months of the year) – a weakness here can be the cause of lots of problems, not only with reading and spelling, but also with logical thinking and arguing.

It is also worth while doing a Perceptual Speed and Accuracy test (some pupils are not dyslexic at all, they are just slow at appropriating and processing/ on the other hand, the dyslexic pupil who is scores highly on a PSA test is almost always an ‘angry dyslexic’ – they can see it, but they get so cross because they can’t then ‘get’ it).

You can find out your pupils’ individual problems/ strengths and weaknesses simply by observation, or by testing. The point is, however, that you can then not only teach the History in a way which gets round the pupil’s dyslexia, but which USES the history to address the dyslexic’s problems.

History and Dysphonetic Dyslexia
It is essential to select a text which the pupil can read at 95% success. Anything below this is ‘frustration’ level. I cannot stress this enough. If he is failing to read more than one word in 20, he has no chance of appropriating the passage’s meaning successfully – even with a teacher telling him the words he don’t know. For many pupils, my Hodder History Foundation series has an appropriately limited vocabulary and a systematic approach to vocabulary addition, but you must test read it with your pupils to see of it is easy enough. If it isn’t, then you must go easier, probably by writing your own.

Read round as normal, and establish understanding by asking questions ‘every which way but’.

There is nothing wrong with making the text so easy that the pupil can read it all without error. That is how you are reading this(!) and that then frees you up to appropriate the meaning and think about the ideas I am putting forward.

When you have found a text that is easy enough, you will be able to work with the words which the pupil doesn’t know. First of all, DON’T try to teach him all the words (you will confuse him). Secondly, don’t make a random selection of ‘words for this topic’. A dysphonetic child will find it utterly impossible to learn ‘feudal’, ‘knight’ and ‘sword’. He might, however, manage to learn and remember: ‘might’, ‘tight’, ‘bright’ and ‘knight’.

Forum regulars will know that I am a real advocate of ‘routine’ for Special Needs classes. After you have read the passage with your class, I would ALWAYS have a short ‘Literacy-Bite’ with the pupils, where you play word-games with them. You can make up relevant games very easily. But make sure that they are all about the words you have selected, and that they re-inforce the phonetic element you have selected (e.g. ‘ight’ is pronounced ‘ite’/ –y words go to plural –ies’/ etc). if you were being VERY clever, you could go to the child’s withdrawal tutor, and find out what phonetic elements they are working on (this will be especially easy if they are working on something like Toe to Toe). You will easily be able to find appropriate words in your next history lesson which repeat this work and build on it.

When it comes to the ‘Output’ part of your lesson, make sure that you offer appropriate alternatives from which the child can choose. I find no problem in making one of these alternatives copying something – if the child enjoys it and can do it well, it will build up confidence and self-esteem and it costs you nothing in terms of preparation and effort. Another alternative that dysphonetic dyslexics can enjoy is a cloze exercise. Often, their skimming and scanning (ie visual) skills are quite good, and they can locate the answers in the text and prove they understood the work without having to do any free writing at all. If you make the third alternative any form of free writing, make sure you give a VERY fierce frame, and make either yourself or a TA available to write spellings on the board on demand.

Even when pupils are GCSE standard, you can give them a ‘standard frame’ for most answers they will meet. In the AQA exam, paper 1, two of the questions are sourcework questions. The same form of question comes up year after year, so you can give them a frame for extraction from a source, for accuracy of a source etc., where they simply have to fill in the details from the source and from their own knowledge.

Dysphonetic dyslexics often enjoy non-writing forms of expression, such as spidergrams, diagrams and dramatic representations.

History and Dyseidetic (Visual) Dyslexia
Again, choose a text the pupils can read at 95% accuracy. But this time, you are looking out for different things. The graded introduction of words in Hodder History Foundation is less appropriate here; these pupils can decode quite well. They just can’t appropriate. So, read round as normal and establish understanding by asking questions ‘every which way but’.

However, when you come to your ‘Literacy-Bite’, you will need to work in a different way. There is no need to be consistent phonetically – they are quite good at that! Instead, all the emphasis needs to be on the word shape. Look with the pupils at where the vowels are, at how many letters hang down below the line, or stand up above the others. Draw the shape of the word, either as a series of rectangles (one for each letter), or as a border round the outside of the letters. Rub out the letters within and see who can supply the missing letters etc.

In a class with mixed problems, don’t worry. The dysphonetic dyslexics will LOVE these games – they’ll be really good at them! (Just as the dyseidetic dyslexics will enjoy the phonetic games for the dysphonetic dyslexics.) As long as you have created an atmosphere of mutual support and joy in each others’ achievements, you will be able to work with those who find it difficult, whilst celebrating the success of those who find it easy.

When it comes to writing, you may find that the dyseidetic dyslexic is less happy to copy, and hates the scanning associated with cloze exercises. He may well be happier to bash away on a bit of creative writing, as long as you understand that the writing and grammar will be dreadful!

Dysphonetic dyslexics also often enjoy kinaesthetic forms of expression, such as dramatic representations, but you may well find that they dislike drawing, especially if they have co-morbid dyspraxia.

History and Working memory
This is THE critical issue, and it CAN be improved. I often start lessons with a version of I Went to Market, where pupils have to complete an ever-lengthening sequence of tasks to earn their exercise book. This is an area where History can shine, and every teacher should have a quiver-full of memory and learning games.

This becomes especially vital at GCSE. In the AQA exam, paper 1, a third question is always a simple ‘describe’ question which simply needs factual recall. If the pupil can score highly on these and the two sourcework questions (as above), they can reach grade C level before they even have to try to answer the final discussion question.

Further Reading
I have also written something on the forum about
revision and dyslexics

Posted on: Nov 24 2004, 08:24 PM





To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2004/2006), 'Teaching Dyslexic Pupils',  at Greenfield History Site (