Have you ever had one of those unexpectedly heartwarming conversations with a student before? You know – the kind that you’re really not expecting, but when it comes it hits a nerve and makes you want to reflect on it/ act on it/ share it with someone? I had one of those this week and felt it was far too important to keep to myself.
I was teaching a 1:1 session on Wednesday, working with a year 8 girl who has severe dyslexia. While ‘Kelly’ is making good progress with her literacy and it is obvious to see she can now read far more independently than when she joined us a year ago, inevitably the gap between her and her peers is still wide and, sadly, it continues to grow. Perhaps surprisingly, the sadness in this for me is not the fact that Kelly is ‘behind’ most of her peers. Nor is it that she is having to work so hard in order to keep up. What I believe to be the saddest thing about Kelly’s situation is the fact that this is not how it has to be.
In the quite brief but almost-epiphanic conversation I had with Kelly, she revealed a number of ‘wishes’ she had in relation to her learning experience. She gave such an impassioned speech, I couldn’t not write it down.
Kelly’s ‘Top 5’ Wish List
1. “I wish I could get a piece of homework that I could complete entirely on my own without help from my Mum.”
2. “I wish I could show I understand in a way that doesn’t need me to write loads.”
3. “I wish I could just have a print out of the lesson PPT next to me, so I can use the time to process the information rather than copy loads of words I can’t read from the board.”
4. “I wish I didn’t have to copy out tables/charts but get blank examples instead so I could fill them out and show I know what to do.”
5. “I wish my teacher wouldn’t ask me to read out loud.”
(I should say at this point… wherever I refer to “Kelly’s teachers” I don’t mean ‘
all‘ but ‘some’. I also intend the word ‘teachers’ to mean teachers generally – across the profession, in a number of schools.)
Kelly is very bright. Her verbal recall is pretty impressive, her understanding of concepts and ideas across the different curriculum subjects is good and her emotional intelligence is high. She has the ability to relate to people incredibly well – on a deeper level than many other students I’ve come into contact with – and can express how she feels eloquently. All that said, she is not showing progress in many of her lessons and crucially, in her end of unit graded assessments.
This leads us to assume the position of an enquiring young child in that all-important developmental phase where they relentlessly follow a series of steps, asking that essential (if a little annoying) question:
So let’s use it.
FACT: Kelly isn’t showing progress.
REASON 1: Because she isn’t being given the opportunities to do so.
REASON 2: Because Kelly’s teachers aren’t providing differentiated work for her.
Now, I realise I’m putting this out there without huge amounts of investigative research, but through observations and conversations, I’m quite confident of the following two points…
A) I’m quite certain that the lack of differentiation in some (not all!) mainstream classrooms is NOT because Kelly’s teachers are lazy. I know the hours that teachers work. I am one! I see the time and effort given to planning lessons, both within my own school and in others.
B) I’m also sure that Kelly’s teachers aren’t so mean and cold-hearted that they’d refuse her requests for help, should she pluck up the courage to ask.
No. What I think is more likely to be the case (and am pretty sure is common across many primary and secondary schools), is this:
REASON 3: Kelly’s teachers don’t necessarily know the best ways to support her.
In this profession with time as precious as it is, as a mainstream teacher we may hear the word ‘dyslexia’ and, not knowing enough about it, can almost mentally pass the responsibility of that child’s progress onto the SEN department, because “they’ll surely know how to provide for Kelly best, and will support her with the work she clearly can’t do on her own. Right…?”
The word dyslexia takes it’s root meaning from two Greek words:
Dys = ‘difficulty’
Lexia = ‘words’
Kelly has a problem with words – with reading, writing and spelling – FACT. But, Kelly has potential for great success too – FACT. Kelly can understand. Ask Kelly to respond verbally, and she’s got it. Ask her to draw it, to act it, to explain it and she meets the lesson objectives. However, ask her to write her answer down … fail.
Don’t get me wrong. I realise I’m simplifying the situation. Believe me, more than most I’m fully aware of the fact that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ nature with our students. I’m not so naive to believe that every student with literacy difficulties could easily match the ability of their peers if it wasn’t for the reading and writing aspect. Some students positioned on the spectrum of dyslexia are also low-ability in some subjects and would not be able to grasp some of the concepts taught in a mainstream classroom. I’m not professing that it’s as simple as handing out a mindmap and shouting ‘abracadabra!‘ and instantly the ability gap is miraculously closed.
What I do believe, however, is that there are some incredibly simple but powerful ways in which we can support students in the mainstream classroom, making the learning far more accessible.
Give Kelly a template to show her understanding rather than demand that she copies out the table like everyone else, and she’ll show you what she can do.
Give her a device, an app, a programme to work on instead of asking her to write every single word by hand and she’ll be able to prove she knows what’s going on.
Give her a flash of colour on a PPT slide instead of black and white and she’ll be able to follow along without losing interest so quickly.
Don’t demand that she reads aloud in front of her peers and she won’t kick off like she normally does.
The document below is definitely not designed to be an exhaustive list or a miracle cure for students with literacy difficulties in your classroom. However, it may be a handy visual reminder to help you create a more dyslexia-friendly classroom.
PREVIEW: The un’4’gettables in a dyslexia-friendly classroom
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD: The un’4’gettables in a dyslexia-friendly classroom