Barriers to learning for Dyslexics

We all experience barriers to learning at some time – some as young children learning to read and others as adults trying to pass a driving test.  However, while we might expect adults to be able to deal with the barriers they encounter, some young children may be meeting barriers to success for the first time, and be ill-equipped to resolve the issues they experience.

Teachers spend much of their time anticipating and minimising the barriers and achievement that their pupils might encounter – but where a potential special educational need has been identified, this process becomes increasingly personalised.  The first step in responding to the needs of learners who may have special educational needs is high-quality teaching which has been differentiated to meet the needs of all pupils.

The reasonable adjustments duty arising from the 2010 Equality Act and the graduated approach to SEN support in the 2014 SEND Code of Practice 0-25 suggest that removing (or minimising) barriers to learning in the classroom is the best way to provide effective support to enable all learners to access the curriculum.

Children who have dyslexia, or other specific learning difficulties, are likely to have experienced issues from the very beginning of their education and may have already developed some strategies in place to cope with the demands placed on them.  They might ‘memorise’ simple text, using picture clues on each page, so appear to be reading; or they may adopt a behavioural approach and report ‘forgotten books’, develop tummy-aches or even refuse to try to read.  Parents and teachers are usually quick to respond to behavioural issues, and often go on to identify any underlying factors that contribute to the children’s barriers to learning, and put support measures in place to remove these.

Those children who hide their difficulties are less easily identified in the classroom – though parents may note some behavioural issues at home, but be unable to relate these to barriers to learning at school.  Many of these children develop coping strategies based on hiding difficulties – they may not only memorise sections of text but also create a personal support group in the classroom to help them when barriers to completing activities emerge – e.g. ‘what is that word?’; ‘what do we have to do now?’; ‘what page?’

Some children may not understand that reading skills developed using simpler texts do not fail without a reason – so there may be an explanation of why they are unable to read chapter books successfully.  But a lack of reading experience and an assumption that they are ‘at fault’ may prevent them from reporting difficulties or asking for help – so visual issues may not be identified as a barrier – and appropriate support – even corrective lenses – may not be provided.  Individualising support as part of the graduated a[roach will help to identify such issues at an early stage and parents asked to take the child to an optometrist would be the first stage in identifying barriers to reading success and corrective lenses may remove these with no additional support necessary.

For example – pupils who have specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or ADHD may experience barriers to reading aloud – they may:

  • experience visual distortions, especially when they are stressed, that make it difficult for them to focus on the section of text to be read
  • be insecure readers who have phonological issues so have to ‘sound out’ long unfamiliar words, preventing them from reading with fluency and often obscuring meaning
  • reverse words or phrases, insert or omit small words, sometimes changing the meaning of the text
  • unintentionally insert words/phrases from the line above or below
  • lose the place and have to begin again
  • be embarrassed by their lack of reading fluency, resulting in distress or inappropriate behaviour
  • be very sensitive to being corrected publicly, adversely affecting self-esteem

The simple ‘adjustment’ to remove this barrier is not to ask these students to read aloud in class.  Where reading aloud is an essential element of an activity, teachers could minimise barriers using a graduated approach identifying a student’s particular difficulties then planning support to remove these e.g.:

  • providing resources for reducing visual distortions such as coloured overlays, line guides, enlarging text, adjusting ambient lighting
  • allowing time for individuals to prepare and practice (privately/with the TA’s help) in advance to ensure they are familiar with the text
  • summarising the content of everyone’s reading to ensure comprehension
  • provide positive praise in class for each pupil’s reading (suggestions for improvement and grades (if required) should be delivered in confidence where other pupils cannot overhear)

At the same time, barriers may be unintentionally created for some individuals because the way the curriculum is delivered not match the way some individuals learn.

The SEND Code of Practice 0-25 indicates that early years and educational establishments should establish a graduated approach to supporting those children and young people they have identified as having a special educational need and/or a disability.

For many young children, teachers and support staff may identify and meet individual needs on a daily basis without requiring formal assessment and review.  But as children begin to mature, some issues may emerge that are not directly due to developmental stages, requiring staff to be familiar with characteristics of a range of factor that might be at the root of learners experiencing barriers to learning in some activities.

Teachers are responsible and accountable for the progress and development of the pupils in their class even where pupils access to support from teaching assistants or specialist staff.  Teachers will need to understand their role in the “Plan, Assess, Do, Review’ graduated approach. By doing any of the specialised dyslexia courses that are offered, teachers and teaching assistants will be better equipped to do this.

The majority of pupils need a great deal of positive help to develop the various comprehension skills to a high level.  An important aspect of reading behaviour is the ability to use different kinds of reading strategy according to the reader’s purpose and the nature of the material. Pupils should acquire the skills which will free them from dependence on single-speed reading.  Most teachers are eclectic in their teaching of reading, making use of both look-and-say and phonic methods. The difference in effectiveness lies not in their allegiance to any one method but in (a) the quality of their relationships with children, (b) their degree of expert knowledge, and (c) their sensitivity in matching their teaching with each child’s current learning needs. Flexible reading strategies, i.e. the ability to skim, scan, or read intensively as the occasion demands, should be acquired at school and should be exercised throughout the curriculum.   Progress in writing throughout the school years should be marked by an increasing differentiation in the kinds of writing a pupil can successfully tackle. In the secondary school, all subject teachers need to be aware of:  (i) the linguistic processes by which their pupils acquire information and understanding, and the implications for the teacher’s own use of language;  (ii) the reading demands of their own subjects, and ways in which the pupils can be helped to meet them.

Language permeates the curriculum and should not be abstracted from it in the primary school in the form of a specialist subject. Nevertheless, in group work, the older children should benefit from the specialist knowledge of a member of staff with responsibility for language.