Author Archives: eclaydon

I'm an English Language Teacher and for the last four years I've been living and working in Brighton. I've taught abroad in the Netherlands and Peru and before retraining, I used to work in Marketing for the corporate and not-for-profit sector. When I'm not working I enjoy lindy hop, walking on the South Downs and watching films.

Problem Page

If you’ve got a problem you’d like our advice about, drop us a line at:


Q:  I’ve just gone from teaching an exam class back to general English and I’m finding it difficult to motivate my students.  The course seems to lack focus and it’s pretty book-based.  What do you suggest?

A:  I guess one of the problems with general English classes is that the students all have different needs, so with rolling registration you’ll need to do needs analysis so that you  can create a path for them and everyone is on board.  You’ll need to vary the way you do this but it’s important that they feel they are contributing to their learning.  You will also need to tell them what you think they need based on their performance in class, that way you’ll be negotiating the syllabus.

Another thing is making sure you state your lesson and task aims clearly to the students so they know why they are doing something.  If they know what they will get out of it they are more willing to participate.

As you’ve said many courses or schools are heavily book-based and often just gong through the book means that the students are not particularly focussed as the lessons become predictable.  So speak to your Director of Studies and see how much you can deviate from the book or supplement.

Q:  I’ve got a mix of Arabic speakers and Asian students and they don’t particularly mix well.  I’ve tried varying interaction patterns but the Arabic students keep interrupting and the Asian students can’t seem to get a word in edge ways.  Of course I nominate students to make sure everyone participates but for more natural discussion this is a real problem.

A:  As these two groups have such different approaches to interaction it would be good to start with a lesson on conversation strategies including things like politely interrupting and turn taking.  It may also help if you make your students explicitly aware of the difference in the concept of silence and interruption in different cultures.   For example, in many European cultures silence may be seen as awkward and interruptions are rude, whereas in Japan and many Asia Pacific cultures silence is positive and a sign of contemplation and in Arabic and Mediterranean  cultures it is possible for several people to speak simultaneously.  Once they are more aware they can then practise conversation strategies so make sure that all students can participate.


Q:  I’ve recently inherited an Upper-Intermediate class and I’m finding that they are not particularly motivated.  Also I feel they are testing me and ask grammar questions that are often distracting or confusing for other students.  In order to keep the class on track and so that I can look into it,  I tell them that we’ll deal with it in the next lesson, but they don’t respond well to that.  I used to teach lower levels and I wanted to try higher levels to get more experience but they seem quite a tough crowd.  What do you suggest?

A: Regarding the grammar question they have you could keep a section of the board for those kinds of points they raise and build it up over a few days.  Then you could split the class into groups and assign different questions or points and they have to do the research and then report back to the class in a later lesson.  Of course you’ll still have time to look into those points yourself but as you’d be facilitating guided discovery, it’ll be more memorable and it will foster greater autonomy.  Alternatively you could bring a range of reference material to class and the students could do the research during the lesson, like a kind of grammar workshop.  You could even turn it into a monthly routine.

A quick introduction to…Virtual Learning Environments (VLE)

By Emma Claydon

In this post we’ll be looking at how you can encourage your class to become more responsible for their learning and work productively online.  It will cover:

  • What is a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)?
  • What VLEs do?
  • Why do you use one?
  • How do you use it with rolling registration?


What is a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)?  A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or a learning platform gives you virtual access to classes, class content, tests, homework and assessments.  It’s also a social space where students and teachers can interact without having to exchange contact information, which of course is important from a safeguarding point of view.

VLEs are one of the basic components of distance learning but can also be used for blended learning, which is a combination of face to face and distance learning, and that’s how I’ve been using it for the last two years. Basically, a learning platform is a safe and secure environment that is reliable, available online and easily accessible to many users.

What do VLEs do?

VLEs are mainly used for four purposes:

  1. Content management:  This is the creation, storage, access to and use of learning resources
  2. Curriculum mapping and planning:  This may involve lesson planning, assessment and personalisation of the learning experience
  3. Learner engagement and administration:  This allows managed access to learner information and resources and tracking of progress and achievement
  4. Communication and collaboration:  This can be done through emails, notices, chat, wikis and blogs.

There are plenty of functions and you can decide what you need it for and how it best meets your needs and those of your students’.


Why do you use one?

When I was doing my Grad Dip TESOL at Brighton university back in 2012, we used the VLE ‘Blackboard’ to access documents like timetables and reading lists and of course to submit our assignments.  I remember thinking how easy it had made my life as I could access everything in one place.  Of course this kind of access is normal these days but it was a totally different experience to when I did my undergraduate degree.

Whilst doing the Materials Design module of the Grad Dip TESOL I worked at a school that didn’t have any IWBs and I started thinking about how I could help my students to become more autonomous and do more outside of class.  With such a range of IELTS resources online of varying quality, I was keen to make recommendations.  I’d keep giving out web addresses and suggesting materials but with rolling registration it was hard to be consistent.  So I was on the lookout for something.

At around the same time I was unable to go to IATEFL in Glasgow,  so I was keenly following it on Twitter and it was Sandy Millin’s presentation ‘Go Online:  Getting your students to use Internet Resources’ that first introduced me to Edmodo.  You can access Sandy’s original presentation here.

edmodo logo words

As my entire class had smart phones in class or tablets / laptops at home, it didn’t matter that I had no IWB access at school, so I started using Edmodo straight away as a place to keep all of my favourite IELTS resources.

To begin with, I created an account at and then made a library of resources by adding links to folders.  Then I created a group called IELTS and gave out the group code to my students.   I had created my first online class and used it solely for content management purposes.  

Since then I have created a number of groups including CAE, Business, General IELTS and Teachers.  I’ve also worked in school that have IWBs and it’s great being able to refer to posts or resources during class as well.  For more details you can watch the introductory webinar here.

Teacher’s may often reject the idea of setting up their own VLE if their institution doesn’t have one as they see it as extra work and more hassle.  So yes, initially there is a small investment of time to create folders and add resources but once that’s done, maintaining it with new or interesting content is minimal.

How do you use it?

edmodo library screenAs I’ve said I use it for content management  and communication purposes so I’ve organised my library into folders such as ‘Speaking’, ‘Listening’, ‘Reading’, ‘IELTS Topics’, ‘Dictionaries’ and ‘Videos’ and then added links to my favourite resources like TedTalks, Radiolab and BBC podcasts.  Each time a new student joins the class I give them the access code.  Once they have signed up and joined the group they can then download the free app for their phone or tablet.

So, I mainly use Edmodo for:

  • Sharing resources used in class  (e.g. a  hand-out or sample of an essay)
  • Setting homework (e.g.  posting a link to a Ted Talk I want them to listen to and summarise)
  • Reinforcing grammar / language  / topic from the lesson (e.g. sending them a relevant news article / video)
  • Promoting resources requested by students (e.g. particular language or exam strategies they wanted)
  • Sending sound files from monthly speaking mock tests
  • Sending reminders, notices or updates (e.g. room changes)

edmodo cae screen

Students can also use it to ask the teacher or the group a question, they can also share resources they find and to have a discussion online.You can also get students to submit work online and you can track their progress.  However you use it, you need to be clear on what you want it for and how it can enhance the overall learning experience.  Students are able to choose their level of engagement so by controlling the content and promoting certain resources, you are guiding your students towards useful resources.  Of course not all students use Edmodo and some can be reluctant at first, but when they see what others are doing they usually realise they are missing out and soon get involved.

Looking for support and ideas?

square peaceful waterFeeling a bit stuck?  

Can´t work out why your student is so demotivated?  

Not sure how to approach exam classes?  

Teaching Development is here to help you develop your students and yourself.  If you´re looking for support and ideas, you might be interested in:

Teaching a second language to a student with dyslexia, Part 1

How teachers can help dyslexic language students in the classroom, Part 2

Empowering your students: What makes me an effective learner?

make hole in wall-breakthrough

Tired of your students´ passivity and reliance on you as the teacher?  Wanting to get your students more involved in their learning process?  This article will help you understand why your students may not as yet be at the heart of their learning journey, and offer you one key activity to do with your students to set them on their way.

Empowering your students:  Managing Exam Stress

athlete pose 2

Many of us get stressed when taking exams.   Unfortunately, teachers sometimes have little training in this area to help  students .  This post will invite you to consider different cultural reasons for the build-up of stress in your students and will offer you six classroom activities to give your students the tools to alleviate their stress themselves and to help each other.

Process Approach to Writing IELTS Task 2 Essays

teenage-college-student-100103862Is writing often neglected in the EFL classroom?  Perhaps some teachers don’t consider it to be a ‘communicative’ activity or a priority for their students, while others don’t enjoy teaching or marking it.  Find out how to make writing lessons collaborative and productive by using a process approach.


puzzled man test

Student-made IELTS Reading quiz

Have you tried student-made quizzes only to realise that student’s aren’t that great at writing questions?  Have they turned out to be more trouble than they are worth? Well, that’s probably because they need some training.  Here’s a lesson idea that you can use to demystify the reading exam.

Student-made IELTS quiz

By Emma Claydon

Have you tried student-made quizzes only to realise that student’s aren’t that great at writing questions?  Have they turned out to be more trouble than they are worth? Well, that’s probably because they need  some training and the general content needs to be chosen by you.

puzzled man test


When learners are trained, student-made quizzes can help to:

  • foster a more enjoyable way of learning
  • practise all 4 skills
  • reduce anxiety towards test taking
  • give students more power over their learning

So here’s a lesson idea that I’ve used many times with my IELTS class and has really helped them to get to grips with the reading exam.

Lesson idea:  

Helping students prepare for the IELTS reading exam


Max class of 15 with 5 groups of 3 (Min class of 6 with 3 pairs, only 3 articles needed)

Lesson Aims: 

  • to practise reading strategies (making predictions, skimming and reading for detail)
  • to review the features of true, false, not given questions
  • to practise rephrasing parts of a text

Authentic Materials

Often when we’ve done tests or reading passages in class, I ask them where they would find articles like these and elicit publications such as The New Scientist, The Ecologist, The Economist and National Geographic or papers such as The Guardian.  For lower levels you could also use graded readers.

guardian article 1


I select 5 different texts between 700 and 950 words each to reflect the length of the exam texts from one of the above publications.  Each group will create questions for one article only so I print them a copy.  Then for each group I create a pack containing all the articles as they will need this is the second part of the lesson.

Step 1:  Review the exam format and question types

I start by eliciting what they know about the reading exam:

  • How many questions are there? (40)
  • How much time do you have? (60 minutes)
  • How many passages are there? (3)
  • How long is each passage? (700 – 950 words)
  • How many different question types are there? (14)
  • Can you name them?  (e.g. labeling a diagram, short answer questions, summary completion, sentence completion, true / false, yes / no etc.)

Then I ask which question types they have difficulty with and they usually say true/false and yes/no and summary completion.  I then elicit the difference between the two question types (yes / no questions are about the writer’s opinion whereas true/false are about facts in the text).  They also find three aspects challenging:

  • distinguishing between false and not given,
  • understanding the vocabulary in the question or the text
  • paraphrasing the question
  • employing reading strategies (predicating, skimming, scanning and reading for detail)

Then I refer back to the reading passage we recently did and elicit the strategy for true, false and not given:

  • The questions are in order in the text
  • You can make a false question true by making it negative
  • Not given means there is not enough information in the text to say with confidence if the answer is true or false.


true false ng qs

Step 2:  Practise reading strategies:  predicting and skimming

Each group then receives their own article. They read the title and make predictions about the content.  Then they skim by reading the first paragraph and the first sentence of the subsequent paragraphs.  They check their predictions and discuss what they understand about the overall topic of the text. Source:  Focus on IELTS

Step 3:  Reading for detail and selecting the areas to test

Then they read carefully and choose which areas of the text to test.  Once they have gone through the text and identified the areas then they have to write 4 or 5 questions (in text order) and on a separate piece of paper they record their answers with justifications.  They must do this together and not divide up the tasks.

Step 4:  Writing the questions

During this stage I ask if it’s ok to put some music on low so that they can discuss their questions at a normal level without whispering or getting distracted by others.  They all agree and I usually put on something relaxing.

They look back at the questions from the course book to see how they are written (as statements, using modals etc.).  They use dictionaries and discuss how to use parallel expressions, this is the most challenging part and I’ll go around monitoring and scaffolding where necessary.

Also I will discuss their questions with them, asking them to justify their answers but I try and not to help them too much.  Even if I see that they have created a false question when in fact it’s a not given, I’ll wait to see if the other students will figure this out which will lead to discussions at the feedback stage.  I try to focus on clarity and point out if the questions are too easy.

Once they have written their questions, I take pictures to display them on the IWB.  For classrooms without IWBs students can take pictures of the questions as they circulate as they will need them in the feedback stage.  Alternatively they could be photocopied.

Step 5:  Passing the questions round

Students are now ready to answer each other’s questions.  They receive a full set of the articles so that they can annotate each one as required.  Each group needs a third piece of paper where they will write the title of the article they are working on and their answers with their justification.  They need to discuss the questions and try to reach an agreement as a group.

feedback student made quiz board shot

Step 6:  Feedback on answers

Once they have passed around all the sets of questions, each group takes it in turn to come to the front and elicit the answers and checking where in the text they found their answers.   Students then discuss their answers and it can get quite heated.  Sometimes the authors got the answers wrong and their classmates got it right, but this is helpful and usually clarifies the difference between false and not given.

To round off we discuss what was difficult about the task:

  • writing good questions
  • limited by lack of vocabulary
  • ability to paraphrase
  • being caught out and really testing the difference between false / not given

Subsequent testing has shown improved results in students reading for detail and not just guessing the answers.  The actual score are not important instead the facilitation of student quizzes gets them to practise their skills in L2, develops /and consolidates lessons, encourages learner autonomy and makes lessons less teacher-centred.


  • Different question types e.g. short answer, sentence completion, multiple-choice
  • Here are the answers, what are the questions (looking back over the week to recycle lexical items or grammar points)
  • Creating gapped sentences for each other


Recommended Reading

Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Teaching Large Multilevel Classes by Natalie Hess

Learner Autonomy: A Guide to Developing Learner Responsibility by Agota Scharle and Anita Szabo




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




The Missing Link: teaching a second language to a student with dyslexia, Part 1

By Jenny Harris: Dyslexia and ESOL, EFL, ELL (English language learning). Part 1: the theory, the overview, the student perspective: dyslexia and second language learning. Part 2: How teachers can help dyslexic adult students in the classroom…… follow


How do you teach a second language when your student has challenges in their first language?

Over the last few years this is a question I have regularly asked myself. I know that statistically I must have taught a good number of dyslexic language students. Yet I didn’t really know how to tackle it effectively. Teaching in an ESOL or EFL environment you are immersed in skills methodology: reading, writing and phonology processing is core to the job. Any problems a student has with these skills you are likely to notice quickly. But when is a lack of student progress a language problem, and when is it a deeper learning issue?

Current lack of resources

We often lack the specialist resources for learning support that are available in mainstream schools. Even within colleges it hasn’t always been easy: as a College Lecturer I taught three years of ESOL evening classes and the learning support staff had all gone home by then; my students worked during the day. And in private language schools it is very rare to find additional specialist support. For adult community learning, it can often be just one teacher with a rucksack in a community centre! In line with the ethos of this blog, this post is very much based on teachers helping teachers. This post includes a full list of the websites and materials I found and that are quoted here.

Why are English language teachers in a particularly special role?

Because our primary focus is on reading, writing, speaking and listening development. Our marking codes and practices are remarkably similar to the ones used by dyslexic and literacy specialists (MW: missing word, WF: word formation…..), pre-teaching challenging vocabulary or ‘tricky word’ sheets as primary teachers call it. But it all comes back to two fundamental questions:

–         How do we know when it is a language learning problem, and when it is a deeper learning block?

–         More significantly, what should we do about it? (Our students are typically over 16 and may be learning outside their home country).

Questions, questions, questions

The more my staffroom colleagues and I discussed dyslexia in language learners, the more we realised we needed to know more. marking code

 How do we mark written work when we suspect the student has dyslexia?

 Is it ok to mark for effort and spelling separately?    

          Is the student even dyslexic – how would we know?

         When is it lazy spelling or something more?

Should we address it when they are here only for a limited time?

For students over 16, what referral systems are there?

What if dyslexia isn’t sympathetically dealt with in their home country, are we doing them any favours in raising the issue when they return back to an educational establishment which may not be supportive?

This post (part 1) and the accompanying post (part 2) aims to :

  • inform teachers about dyslexia; particularly educators who focus on reading and writing skills or language teaching
  •          signpost to resources
  •          give practical ideas about how to integrate useful strategies within your teaching, training, coaching or facilitation 

What is dyslexia? A broad overview man words head

Dyslexia is not about intelligence or a lack of interest in learning; it’s about neurological sequencing and processing. Dyslexic students use the visual cortex of the brain far more than non-dyslexic students (

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.

This is sometimes not just with language, but also with numbers. The word itself is derived from the German prefix ‘dys’ meaning difficult and the Greek ‘lexis’ meaning speech. The term was first used in the late 19th century.

What is the scale of dyslexia?

The numbers tended to vary in the research I looked at but the most well-researched reckoned a 5-15% occurrence level (ELT well – a fantastic website and one of the best set of resources for ELT/ESOL teachers, states a ‘5-15% occurrence level in a population’).

But assessment and occurrence levels are problematic – if home countries tend not to test for dyslexia, there’s unlikely to be an accurate picture on the true size and nature of the issue. The international cultural nature of recognising dyslexia is probably the subject of a whole other blog post – for now, I only address the practicalities of teaching.

But it is safe to say if you are teaching a class of 20 students, the probability is there will be at least one student in your classroom with a form of dyslexia (whether from mild to severe)*

How can the teacher identify it? 

wordsI think it is really useful to know exactly how dyslexia can manifest itself, because you will see how much it overlaps with typical errors a language teacher is trained to look out for.

‘Bright Solutions for Dyslexia’ website recommends keeping an eye out for:

  • phonological mix-ups: aminal, instead of animal for example
  • spelling phonetically, spelling incorrectly – letters jumbled in their order and their form (no control over lower or upper case for example)
  • difficulty with reading, especially with timed reading
  • short-term working memory (for example remembering instructions, turning to other students to be reminded)
  • letter decoding abilities – legible handwriting

For more on this go to: (


What does second language learning feel like for a dyslexic student?

mountain top view Dyslexic students use the visual cortex of the brain much more. They often process the overall picture, rather than the specifics. (

Hannah Bienge, from Basil Paterson College in Edinburgh describes the experience of taking an ESOL lower level group of students to the post office to practise everyday target language in a real context: ‘’they (students with dyslexia) may notice elements of the experience such as the shape the queue made in the space, the colour of the cashier’s hair and feeling of the metal tray where you put your mail these will all help them remember the process for next time’’.

 Other commentators feel that second language learning can be a positive experience for a dyslexic: when you learn the rules in a new language (for example, the use of articles, word order, modal verbs etc.) it can help make the linkages in your own.

A case study: Peter

What we can learn from primary teaching

A few years ago Fairlight Primary School in Brighton had a new pupil who arrived from Poland in the last couple of weeks of Reception Year (the first year of school in the UK for children aged 4 or 5).

Peter was starting a new life in the UK with his dad. Peter’s dad speaks very little English so the only language at home was Polish. In Year 1 Peter was very unsettled and the school arranged bilingual support, focusing only on improving Peter’s speaking skills so that he could communicate in the classroom and outside school. During Year 2, Peter became increasingly comfortable in class but after each holiday his English language skills slipped back.

What started to become significant was that the bilingual support assistant reported back that Peter’s Polish language skills were not developing either. So once he reached about age 7 the school arranged for Peter to be screened for dyslexia in both Polish and English and he registered as ‘moderate’, the level just under ‘high’ (E is the highest rate for this screening test and in Fairlight’s experience, very rare; Peter came in at a ‘D’).

The Assistant Head, Donna Barbar says: ‘The classrooms are already ”dyslexia friendly”: lots of visuals, tricky word lists, image/word flash cards for vocabulary association, and coloured reading rulers are all standard practice for topic lessons. All the teachers have access to a dyslexia toolkit of resources they can dip into, or make their own and share with each other.”

Peter is now in Year 3. He is much happier. He sees a specialist literacy support teacher once a week and then their advice is implemented by a trained teaching assistant for 30 minutes each day. Donna says: ‘Half an hour a day is just about right for Peter now. He loves learning about the Romans and the Egyptians so I’m very careful to ensure that his literacy is embedded in the topic, rather than over-do the specialist support at this stage’.

Donna reports that the screening tests that Fairlight uses are about £5 or £6 each and the school orders 20 tests a year on a subscription cost of £80, after they have paid the joining fee. Referrals are then made to the local Literacy Support Service in Brighton.

I asked Donna if she had a pupil who was only in her school for a short time but had been screened for dyslexia yet was returning home to a country which didn’t have the same level of support in place, would she still raise the issue with the parents? She reflected and then after a moment she said yes: ‘it’s about giving the choice, isn’t it? After that it is up to the parents’.

She finished on an interesting point: ‘We use the same resources and the same good practice for dyslexia support as we do for our EAL children.’. (English as an Additional Language).

Perhaps that is the challenge that adult ESOL and EFL colleges and schools have yet to grapple with in quite the same way as the embedded practice within primary teaching. Ann Margaret Smith who has created a site which has practical ideas for supporting  adult dyslexic language students, maintains a handwriting database so that writing in a first language can be cross referenced for speed and legibility with example scripts.

How the adult student feels

Liz Ball, a severe dyslexic, and now a teacher herself, writes an insightful account in her article ‘From one teacher to another’. Talking about her own experience at school she says: sad book man “Letters and numbers floated and jumped around on the page in front of my eyes, while other children sat happily at their desks reading and writing and spelling what I assumed were perfect little sentences.  I could see the letters strung together on the page; I knew they spelled words, because I had memorized many of them to deceive my teachers into believing I could actually read.

The truth was, I had no idea how to read. Matters were only made worse by the fact that I had a twin sister who was not dyslexic, who often sat happily by herself reading beautiful little books with colorful pictures and intricate plots. Nothing about language is automatic for dyslexics. We are constantly engaged in the process of pulling apart the linguistic pieces we are presented with in order to make sense of their whole.”  


(Full article is fascinating and can be found here:

Hannah Bienge,  from Basil Paterson College gives particularly good advice: ‘Whenever you are teaching dyslexic students, you need to always be aware that they are putting in twice the amount of effort but working at half the speed. This can be draining and difficult to sustain for them so a level of understanding and compassion must always accompany your teaching.’[1]

Are we prepared enough during teacher training?


In 2010 I completed my Diploma in Teaching for the post-16 age group[2] where a whole unit was dedicated to the issues of learning support for language students. Another unit was dedicated to embedding language learning within a specialist subject (I was tasked with vocabulary support on the principles of displacement water theory in mechanical engineering!). We learned about practical strategies – avoiding white paper with black print, using pastel colours wherever possible, knowing when and how to refer a student for assessment. However, in private language schools this is less likely to be part of the educational culture. The aim of this blog post is to signpost teachers that want to have a better idea of what strategies would help them in their lesson planning and their marking. Part 2 has a list of practical ideas that can be quickly implemented in the



1. A fantastic website that answers questions and provides very useful classroom materials:

2. Bright Solutions for Dyslexia:

3. The Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity:

Research sources:

Ann Margaret Smith:,

Sue Swift (2007), An ELT Notebook: ‘Helping Students with Learning Disabilities: part two’,

Gavin Reid (2007): ‘Motivating Learners in the classroom: Ideas and Strategies’, Paul Chapman Publishing, London

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

Liz Ball, From One Teacher to Another, The Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity

Interview with Donna Barbar, 2014, Assistant Head Teacher, Fairlight Primary School, Brighton UK

creative brain

[1] Learning a second language when your first is a struggle, Hannah Bienge, Basil Paterson College, Edinburgh, IATEFL, Brighton 2011
[2] Diploma for Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector: DTLLS with an ESOL specialism

Process Approach to Writing IELTS Task 2 Essays

By Emma Claydon

This post is about improving your students’ writing by considering:

  • attitudes to writing in class
  • two approaches – Process vs. Product
  • the concept of audience
  • collaborative writing
  • structuring
  • proof-reading and editing
  • giving feedback
  • classroom routines

Attitudes to writing in the ‘communicative’ classroom


Is writing often neglected in the EFL classroom?  Perhaps some teachers don’t consider it to be a ‘communicative’ activity or a priority for their students, while others don’t enjoy teaching or marking it.

Having asked my colleagues about their attitudes towards teaching writing, it is clearly a priority for exam classes but not so in General English, as some feel it takes up too much class time so it can be set for homework.  Consequently, they don’t see much of an improvement and it’s demotivating for everyone involved.

When students move into exam classes you may notice that their writing needs considerable work.  I’ve always seen it as an important skill to work on, not only because it is used for assessment and consolidation purposes, but  also involves different kinds of mental processes.  So, I embrace writing and make sure that my students get the chance to do lots of it.

Students are required to think about a question and then they need time to formulate a response.  However, I do not see it as a solitary activity just to get some peace and quiet in class.  Indeed, it can be used to change the pace of a class, but for it to be effective it needs to be collaborative, creative and broken down into manageable stages.

My beliefs probably come from my own difficulties in writing.  It can be a daunting task and I prefer to break the task down into pieces.  In a three hour lesson devoted to writing, only half an hour is taken up with students actually writing in a solitary fashion or in pairs.  The rest is used to prepare and review the writing which is usually conducted through speaking and reading activities with a variety of interaction.

Approaches:  Product vs. Process

Until I started reading about teaching writing, I was unaware that I had been using a mix of both approaches.  The ‘process approach’ considers writing to be a creative process which requires time and positive feedback at various stages and ultimately ends up with improved writing skills.  Whereas the traditional ‘product approach’ analyses model texts and sees writing as a solitary act.  For a comparison of the two approaches you can read more here:


Writing for IELTS:  Essays

In the IELTS exam students have to produce two pieces of writing totalling 400 words on their own in sixty minutes.  For part 2 they have to write a 250 word essay in under 40 minutes.

The process of analysing the question, brainstorming ideas, planning paragraphs and putting them together logically is something that students can train together so that they have the skills to go into the exam and perform on their own.  But they need to be explicitly aware of this so that you can get them on board.

To ensure my IELTS students become better writers I actively help and encourage them through a series of prepared stages before I can expect them to produce a final text.

When they are more aware of this preparation process they become more autonomous and create good habits which hopefully they will use in the exam.   The majority of my students are going onto university where they will need to develop an academic style of writing but essentially they are expected to convey ideas clearly.

Pre-writing and Audience


Not only do students struggle with writing in English because of their language skills, it is often a problem that they lack the ideas and content, so we see brainstorming and planning as essential part of the writing process.

We facilitate the generation of ideas through discussion or we use an interesting article related to the essay question as a starting point to get them thinking about the topic or question, but do we all introduce the concept of audience?

With a genre approach for FCE or CAE, this fits naturally into the writing process as, for example, you need to know  to whom you are writing the letter and why.  In IELTS task two students know they are writing for the examiner and they understand the assessment criteria but a sense of audience can be developed further by writing for each other or a student blog.

Writing Collaboratively

I have used group compositions with some success, but as students know they won’t have people to ‘help’ them in the exam they can at first be reluctant to do this.  I have approached group compositions another way where students write two main body paragraphs and then swap so that they have to focus on meaning by reading and understanding someone else’s writing and then write their introduction and conclusion to see if they have understood the opinions and the flow of their partner’s writing.  They then sit together and discuss what was clear or confusing about each other’s writing.  Then they rewrite their main body and write their own introduction and conclusion.


Once they have produced a paragraph plan the students write their essay.  I set a time limit of 30 minutes, which is the time they have in the exam after they have analysed the question and spent time planning.  My rationale for this is that I want them to finish a piece of writing in class and to get used to writing under pressure.


As we’ve done so much ground work in preparing to write they cope reasonably well and I have seen my students produce more words and a better quality of writing within that time frame over a few months.  However, to add variation to my writing lesson, I get students to write out ideas with supporting evidence and examples on pieces of paper or large post-it notes and work out an order rather than committing their ideas to A4 paper which can still be limiting at this stage.

Proof-reading and Editing

Having finished their first draft, they proof-read it and look for their typical mistakes.   I often organise peer reviews, but they aren’t always effective because some students feel unable to find any errors in a classmate’s work or are unwilling to give feedback through lack of training and confidence, so again this takes time and training for students to be able to do this well.  Others embrace it and enjoy reading their peers’ work.  I find it most effective when they work in pairs looking at one piece of writing at a time. I encourage them to use a pencil and first we focus on meaning buy putting prompts on the board e.g.

  • Is there a clear main idea in each paragraph?
  • What is the supporting information?
  • Have they included examples?
  • Are the examples clear?
  • What is the writer’s opinion?
  • Is it well structured and easy to follow?

They write some comments at the bottom giving the writer some advice. Then they read it a second time and focus on the language and I put the correction code on the board.  After peer-correction, the students then rewrite their essay on the IELTS exam paper and hand it in.

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback is an essential part of writing and many of us use correction codes to encourage students to notice their problem areas, fix them and perhaps log them in a learner diary so they build up a log of their typical mistakes.

It is important to work on the grammar and vocabulary that distort meaning, but in IELTS students can gain so many marks for answering the question in a well organised and coherent way that this is an area that needs so much more attention.  White and Arntd (1991) state that writing will improve by focusing on the message the students are trying to convey instead of concentrating on the language errors.

If I find it very difficult to follow a student’s essay, I feel the correction code is somewhat redundant; instead I respond with a brief letter asking for clarification of their points and requesting a rewrite. I don’t give any feedback about language at this point and usually the rewrite is clearer so I can then give feedback on the language too.  I also find it helpful to reformulate sections of their writing to make it clearer for them.

Classroom Routines


I do fortnightly writing workshops like this which follow on from the biweekly mock test.  Under exam conditions I use the IELTS assessment criteria; giving them marks for Task Response, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource and Grammar.  The following week after the workshop and I mark the rewrite using the 4 criteria above so we will all see which areas have benefited from the rewrite and help students see the value in the workshops.

I find it helpful to integrate the product approach into writing lessons where we analyse other students work or model answers, but prefer to do this after they have written their own response to the task.  I make it clear that it is just one way to answer the question.  We use it to see what makes it a good answer, why it is easy to follow and we examine the kinds of cohesive devices used. Together we use the assessment criteria and grade it together.  This helps the students to think like the examiner.

By setting up writing workshops and training students to use a process approach, they are more capable of expressing their ideas in writing and I have become more of a reader and less of a marker so that the critical stage of focusing on the message is not lost.


White, R. & Arndt, V.  (1991) Process Writing. Longman

Vanessa Steele. (2004). Product and process writing: A comparison. Available: Last accessed 23rd May 2014.

Recommended Reading:

Badger, R. & White, G.  (2000).  A process genre approach to teaching writing.  ELT Journal, 54(2), 153-160.

Burgess, S. & Head, K.  (2005).  How to Teach for Exams. Harlow:  Pearson Education Ltd.

Hedge, T.  (2005).  Writing (2nd ed.).  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Hess, N.  (2001) Teaching Large Multi-level Classes. Cambridge CUP.

Nunan, D.  (1995)  Language Teaching Methodology.  Phoenix

Rao, Z.  (2007) Training in brainstorming and writing skills.  ELT Journal 61 (2): 100-106

Scharle, A. & Szabo, A .  (2000) Learner Autonomy : A guide to developing learner responsibility.  Cambridge CUP.

Scrivener, J.  (2005) Learning Teaching.  Oxford: MacMillan Heinemann.

Ur, P.  (1996) A Course in Language Teaching.  Cambridge CUP.