Teaching jobs come with their own sets of advantages as well as challenges. Teaching students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, is an especially tough ask for an ESL teacher. An expert English language teacher will know how to navigate this tricky terrain.

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a chronic neurological disorder that impairs a person's ability to recognize and process graphic symbols,  especially those related to languages. Its primary symptoms are poor reading skills, overt tendency to read and write words and letters in reversed sequences and similar reversals of words and letters in the person’s speech, accompanied by illegible handwriting.

Dyslexia in Language Learners

ESL teaching jobs are in high demand. But, it can be very stressful if and when you encounter a learner/s with dyslexia. Dyslexic learners, especially when learning written English, have difficulty recognizing new patterns, sounds, and symbols. Remember, they already are struggling with their reading, spelling and vocabulary acquisition. They also struggle to retain information.

Dyslexics find it easier to learn how to speak a new language than how to read and write a foreign language. Some colleges and universities waive the standardized tests for dyslexics that regular students may have to take.

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Dyslexic students have higher IQ in general
Dyslexic students can turn out to be more intelligent than their peers. ( Image Source: Unsplash)

Problems of Tutoring Students with Dyslexia 

When you sign up as a language teacher, armed with state certification, at private schools with a handsome monthly salary, or as an online English teacher to help others improve their conversational skills or crack their SATS, TOEFL, IELTS or other competitive exams, they probably don't tell you about students with special needs. These useful insights might help!

  • Even the brightest and more articulate ones may struggle to read, spell or even write at the early levels of school. Don't underestimate their intelligence.
  • Try to get to the root of the problem instead of branding their condition as laziness or immature behavior.
  • Remember, their low grades in exams are not a true reflection of their high IQ's.
  • Dyslexic people often suffer from low self-esteem. Help them regain their confidence and reduce their frustration.
  • They may face attention deficiency. Organize your classes in a way that takes their special needs into consideration.
  • Introduce and explore hands-on learning experiences, visual aids and so on.

Specific Issues Related to Reading English, Writing English and English Spellings

English tutoring is an especially challenging task as English solely involves dealing with words, spellings, writing skills, etc. Dyslexic students might face the following issues while reading and spelling.

  • Dyslexic students risk getting dizzy, develop headaches and stomach aches.
  • Normal words, digits, alphabets, letters, sequences, and verbal expressions confuse them.
  • Transpositions and reversals in the alphabet are not uncommon.
  • They experience movement while writing, copying or reading.
  • While being extremely observant, they can lack peripheral vision and depth perception.
  • Their spelling is inconsistent and based on phonetics.

Issues with English Speech and Listening Skills

School teachers often struggle to understand children with learning disabilities. Therefore, a holistic understanding of the condition of dyslexic students is imperative for adequate teacher preparation.

  • Dyslexic students often hear things that are not said because they have an extended hearing.
  • They also get distracted easily.
  • They find it difficult to put thoughts into words.
  • They usually speak in short phrases and sentences.
  • They may also leave a sentence midway.
  • They stutter under duress.
  • They cannot pronounce long words correctly.
  • Transpositions and reversals in the alphabet are not uncommon.

In more extreme cases, dyslexic students can display illegible handwriting, clumsy and uncoordinated personality traits and confusion in distinguishing the right from the left, and vice versa.

English tutors remain high in demand
Spend more time planning lectures for dyslexic students. ( Image Source: Unsplash)

How to Teach English to Dyslexic Students

A native English speaker with dyslexia has trouble learning language skills. Imagine the level of difficulty that non-native speakers will face while learning English as a foreign language or English as a second language.

The best approach to ESL teaching is to have something for everyone and something for every style.

As an English teacher, try not to bombard your students with special needs with just worksheets or exercises. Instead, tailor your lesson plans to integrate conventional pedagogy with other methods.

Consonant Blends

Recognizing and distinguishing between different letters is one of the major problems that dyslexics face. While it is difficult for them in their own mother tongue, it becomes a bigger challenge when it comes to second language acquisition. In such a scenario, learning aids such as flashcards can become a convenient ally for both student and teacher.

Use two different cards for each consonant blend - one with the sound it makes and the second with a word that features the blend. In fact, this method of teaching can also work with students in lower grades being introduced to phonological sounds and word recognition.

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Spelling Practice

Even of most dyslexic students can push themselves to master the art of reading, they face an uphill task with spellings. The problem is exacerbated as English not being a phonetic language and a lot of exceptions to its various pronunciation rules.

Chunking is a great way to help students learn the spellings of long words and also boost the confidence in the process. 

Device Mnemonics

For the more visual learners, the art of mnemonics or the visual association of words can be greatly beneficial in English classes. Encourage your young learners to form an imaginative picture of the words in their minds. For example, the word ‘because’ could be broken down like this: Big Elephants Can Always Understand Smaller Elephants. While being more time-consuming, mnemonics can help students, especially the more imaginative ones, get over their shyness and even enjoy learning to spell English words.

Be clever while designing lectures for the dyslexic students
The use of new and visual techniques helps students learn faster. ( Image Source: Unsplash)

Recognizing Bs, Ps, and Ds

There are a number of letters in the English alphabet with mirror images. In this regard, the letters that most commonly mixed up are P, B and D. This can be incredibly frustrating for students, especially ones with dyslexia who have trouble directions. Using flashcards, again, come in handy. Hold out a number of small flashcards with pictures representing words stating with these three letters - e.g. pan, dog, bat, etc. Encourage students to say the corresponding words out loud and also write the words down.

Classifying Words

English words are made up of different syllables and can often be classified with the beginning sounds. Classification is a great way to teach students the spellings of English words, and also to retain them. In fact, this can prove useful for your regular ESL students too.

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During teacher training courses or language teaching courses, it is not part of the curriculum to teach future teachers the skills to provide specialized teaching for learners with learning disabilities. However, as this article shows, there are many strategies that can be adopted while teaching English and that the teacher can improvise upon to create a more inclusive classroom.

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Shreyanjana is an archaeologist who ironically finds the written word to be the most powerful means of storytelling. A travel buff and a photography enthusiast, she has been writing and sharing stories of all sorts ever since she can remember.