The Missing Link: how teachers can help dyslexic language students in the classroom, Part 2

Part 2 (linked with previous post, see Part 1): Practical strategies and ideas for teachers and trainers to implement with adult students.

By Jenny Harris


‘’Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. Imagination encircles the world.

Education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think.’’

–         Albert Einstein.


Dyslexia support: knowing more than just a student’s learning style

Understanding learning styles is important, and the links between the kinaesthetic style of teaching and dyslexia are critical but it seems to be more than just a preference for sensory or visual style learning – dyslexic students have often developed an ability to see and imagine so much more.


thinking outside the box


As teachers, how do we tap into the more visual and sensory part of the brain? How do we make a course book ‘come alive’? Two practical examples:

 Since researching this topic, I’ve started to adapt many of my own teaching methods. After a while it has started to become a more natural and unthinking approach. Two simple examples include:

1. With an interactive white board I’ve started using entire slides with no words –enabling students to create their own interpretation and vocabulary from the images and then I follow up with target lexis. The students sometimes go in far more interesting directions than I had initially anticipated when selecting the images. The onus is on speaking strength to start with, the image then connects with the vocabulary, and in turn the phonics are connected to an image (in much the same way as a primary teacher will use flash cards so the picture and the word are connected in the memory).

2. I’ve also recently started experimenting with phonology teaching among lower level students. I ask them to come and touch the door – ‘door’: we make the long vowel sound and touch the door at the same time. A few lessons later we talked about ‘poor’ and ‘law’ in conversation. I touched the door – remember the sound? – their repetition of the new words was perfect. Not a phonemic symbol in sight. No problems with that challenging ‘law’ spelling and sound mismatch. It felt slightly unorthodox, until I mentioned it to my sister who has been teaching phonics for some time: ‘But that’s how we teach phonology with Jolly Phonics – it’s always best when you relate a real word to a real sound and image’.

 Research into language learning for dyslexics has made me seriously reflect on how and when I use the phonemic chart. I saw one piece of research describe it as 46 extra symbols to learn on top of 26 letters.

I would be really interested to hear of any other examples from teachers.

How to assess dyslexia in language learners

The process of assessing language learners for a learning difficulty should not be taken lightly. If you are interested in testing and assessing I really recommend contacting Ann-Margaret Smith to talk through her comprehensive ‘cognitive assessments for multilingual learners’ (assessment tasks for identifying specific learning differences in learners who do not have English as a first language).

Signposting to specialist resources is, in my view, the main role for the teacher rather than taking on the complex task of assessment themselves.

 What kind of teaching practices make a dyslexic student nervous?

I was surprised to discover that many of my own favoured exam teaching methods included tasks that can make a dyslexic language student panic. Typical tasks include:

  •        Locating information quickly in a dense reading text
  •        Dictation
  •        Extended periods of listening
  •        Speed writing tasks
  •        Time limits on reading and writing tasks

Having taught IELTS, Cambridge, Trinity and Edexcel exams I am struck by how many of these tasks are critical for developing exam skills. So what can we do to help dyslexic students tackle these tasks more confidently? Good teaching practice is one thing, but high quality exam preparation can add an extra dimension.
Are there any good strategies out there that particularly address this exam preparation gap?
I would be really interested to hear of any other examples from teachers – particularly tasks which strengthen exam skills for adult dyslexic learners.

Both the Cambridge suite of exams and IELTS have exam provision for dyslexic students, outlined on their websites. But it is worth noting they need a three month lead in time for exam arrangements. 

What do dyslexic students do to survive and succeed in an ESOL/EFL classroom?

Students look for patterns and structures in a teacher’s approach. Which day do you test? Regular routines allow them to plan ahead. Lesson aims are useful and helpful. Common coping strategies include:

  •  Sitting next to confident students who enjoy answering questions; helps divert the teacher’s eye contact when they are looking for someone to respond to a reading comprehension question.
  • Rely on peers to double-check homework, class instructions etc. (poor short term working memory).
  • Purposefully messy handwriting to hide spelling mistakes.
  • Often strong speakers, with real communicative strength in team or project working.
  • Ask contextualisation questions so they can build up the picture before a reading or writing task.

happy student


What can the teacher do?

Firstly,  focus on what the students can do, not what they can’t. This can be hard for teachers because we are trained to identify areas for improvement but try and avoid thinking in terms of a deficit model. Advice from ‘ELT Notebook: Helping Students with Learning Disabilities, part 2’ reinforces this point:

‘many of the strategies recommended for helping students with learning disabilities are no more than good teaching practice – they just become more necessary in this situation’[1].

Practical tips and advice to improve your teaching for dyslexic (and other) students

Here are a mix of tips and strategies that I found made an immediate difference to my teaching. I’ve amalgamated them together but they come from a range of teacher-focused resources:, ELTnotebook, Hannah Bienge IATEFL Brighton 2011, Gavin Reid, Edinburgh University.

Practical ideas:

  • Dyslexic students like lesson aims at the beginning – they want to know what is coming. Gives a heads up on any tests coming for the week.
  • Colour code and avoid too much use of the underline, italics and bold function where you are highlighting something. No curly fonts.
  • Colour code consistently, for example: blue for noun, red for verb, green for third person singular
  • If you use IWB then have the back screen on a light pastel colour. Find out if pastel paper can be made available for handouts or coloured rulers (black on white paper provides a strong glare and makes it harder to process the letters)
  • Help prepare exam access arrangements well in advance (usually a 3 month notice period is required)
  • Use materials that activate a range of senses: touch, smell etc. Tap into the creative part of a student’s visual brain on your IWBs – use maps, flowcharts, mindmaps, images…..

Grammar, marking and reinforcement 

  • Do not over-emphasise exceptions to every grammar rule you teach. Use ‘’narratives’’ to help poor working memory, ‘q is followed by u’.
  • Verbally explain as you write on the board, explicit step by step instructions, then recap and review regularly: on instructions/homework/grammar points/vocabulary meaning.
  • Marking is a sensitive area – mark for effort and mark for achievement. The advice is not to correct every spelling mistake because it is too disheartening, but point out regular pattern mistakes, don’t use a marking code for these.
  • Be creative with technology (accept emailed homework or recorded speaking tasks which use target vocabulary).
  • Try not to change student order suddenly during a read out loud task (the dyslexic student is already focusing only on their allotted segment and waiting for you to get to them).
  • Pause during the lesson – allow thought process time. Don’t let the IWB slides dominate the pace.
  • Finish lessons with reflection and reinforcement time: ‘what 5 things did you find difficult, what 5 ways can you develop your own learning… (adapted from Gavin Reid’s useful template on this student reflection exercise). Use vocabulary recap as a standard wrap-up.

I hope these ideas help you. They have certainly enabled me to become a better teacher and trainer, not just for those with dyslexia but for everyone else in the group too.

If you have any other suggestions or strategies particularly aimed at enabling adult students with dyslexia to flourish, please do get in touch. We are particularly keen to hear of any IT or integrated technology ideas.

Resources: : also provides very useful classroom materials for adult students. 

Research sources:

ELT Notebook:

Gavin Reid: ‘Metacognition, learning  styles and Dyslexia’, Edinburgh University

Hannah Bienge, Basil Paterson College, Edinburgh ‘Learning a second language when your first is a struggle’, IATEFL 2011




One comment

  1. I have just completed an OCR Level 5 specialist teaching course (dyslexia) for primary aged children and it is really interesting to see how many of the teaching strategies we have learnt are recommended here for dyslexic adults learning a second language; the kinaesthetic
    approach being important for many dyslexic learners. On our course, as well as teaching through touch and the visual we have been encouraged to ask our learners to verbalise as much as possible. This is based on the fact that people remember: 30% of what they see, 50% of what they say and 90% of what they hear, say and do.

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