I first met Martin Bloomfield when I was a trainer on summer courses at York Associates. I’ve seen him in action doing presentations and running an incredibly engaging guided tour of York, and can spend hours talking to him 🙂 I’ve been watching his Dyslexia Bytes community grow over the past few years, and am very happy that Martin agreed to share the story of the site with you here.
What is your own experience with dyslexia and how has it affected your teaching?
In a way, being dyslexic made me want to become a teacher! As an unrecognised dyslexic, I’d had so many horrible experiences at school that affected me so negatively as a child (and therefore into adulthood) that one of my reasons for going into education was to retrospectively somehow “right those wrongs”! I didn’t want others to suffer in the same way that I’d done.
I found school life completely dis-spiriting. Childhood is supposed to be the best time of your life and my overwhelming memories of school (where I spent most of my childhood) are miserable, suffocating, demeaning, humiliating, terrifying, and genuinely heartbreaking. No child should have to go through that. And my memories aren’t unique – you ask just about any dyslexic person, and they’ll tell you the same. Education has to change.
But there were other ways it affected me as a teacher – when I was working as a Business English teacher in Germany, I noticed that a lot of intelligent students I came into contact with hadn’t been doing very well in their lessons, and I recognised my own dyslexia signs in them… so I taught them appropriately to how I wish I’d been taught, and their results went up! This led to the school asking me to give some dyslexia awareness workshops to the other teachers, and that was really the start of my deeper engagement with the subject – twenty years ago. It gave me a very student-centred perspective, always keeping in my heart the sensitivity that not “getting something” when learning is an emotional and psychological issue, at least as much as it is a learning issue.
How widespread is dyslexia?
Did you know different countries define dyslexia differently, and even some countries – such as those with a federal state system – have different official definitions within their own boundaries? And then, within these definitions, different organisations around the world apply different measurements to dyslexia.
This is important because these two facts lead to vastly different understandings of dyslexia, vastly different figures for how many dyslexic people there are in the world (Turkey puts it at 0.05% of the population; while Nigeria puts it at 33% of the population), and hence vastly different national, governmental, and social approaches to dyslexia. If we took those two extremes in global terms, for instance, we’d have to conclude that somewhere between 3,750,000 people and 2,497,500,000 people have dyslexia worldwide. This would equate to a difference in estimates of 2,493,750,000 – nearly two and a half billion people – more or less the combined populations of China and India! And with such differing views of what dyslexia is, there follow different approaches to the law, to funding, to education, to social programmes, to awareness raising, and to workplace accommodations.
Dyslexia does not “belong” to the Anglo-American world; yet almost all research and perspectives are focused on the Anglosphere, and carry with them Anglo-American “white” cultural biases and preconceptions. This risks marginalising BAME dyslexics, and the different impacts dyslexia has on cultures whose language is non-alphabetic, or whose cultures involve interactions which will be differently affected by dyslexia.
Dyslexia Bytes is an online “one-stop shop” to show an international, intercultural perspective on what dyslexia is. It acts as an information resource about dyslexia facts and statistics, helping people understand what executive function difficulties dyslexic people have, what benefits research shows dyslexic thinking to have, and how educators, businesses, and law-makers can understand dyslexia from a variety of viewpoints.
It began life as a way of bringing together people from around Europe who had attended my SEN (dyslexia, autism, ADHD) workshops and training courses to allow them to exchange experiences once they got “back to work”. There’s a Facebook Dyslexia Bytes group open to anyone who wants to join, that can act as a space for such discussions! It quickly developed into a dyslexia awareness resource website, with key tips on understanding dyslexia, weekly video releases (also available on a YouTube channel) to inspire conversations, and even a Twitter presence!
Martin has worked in the field of intercultural ethics and dyslexia awareness for twenty years, speaking in front of the British Government, the British Swiss Chambers of Commerce, departments of International Trade, and international conferences worldwide. He holds visiting lecturer positions at universities in Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and Switzerland, trains teachers from around the European Union, and is currently authoring a chapter for a major publication on Innovative Teaching for Early Years Education.
He was a top three finalist in the Bank of England Innovation in Enterprise awards, initiated and presented the UK’s annual Dyslexia In Business award, is a finalist in the 2020 British Council Innovation in ELT awards, and sits on various international advisory committees for inclusion and neurodiversity. Currently driving pan-European projects to provide a consistent and interculturally-acceptable measuring tool for dyslexia assessment across the EU, and to provide free online Special Educational Needs training to schools around the continent, Martin runs the Dyslexia Bytes project, and is also completing his PhD at the University of York, England.
If you’re interested in learning more about dyslexia, I would definitely recommended exploring Dyslexia Bytes for yourself. Two other useful resources I’ve regularly used are ‘Special Educational Needs’ by Marie Delaney and Jon Hird’s website. You might also be interested in the IATEFL Inclusive Practices and Special Educational Needs Special Interest Group (IP&SEN SIG).
Every morning I use the Memrise app on my iPad to learn a little bit of Mandarin. I’ve been doing it on and off for about seven years now, and almost every day for four years. Since it’s the only way I practise Mandarin, I’m still very much A0, though my progress has been slow, but steady.
Occasionally, I use the browser version of Memrise rather than the app, and it inevitably results in a bit of depression! I always score much, much lower, with only around 10-20% accuracy, compared to my normal 80% or so.
I think the reasons for this are threefold:
There is a time limit for typing in the browser – I often need a lot more time than it allows to pull the characters out of the depths of my memory.
On the app, I have the option of a kind of multiple choice, where I can select from a limited range of letters that make up the word rather than typing from the whole keyboard. These letters generally appear in a similar pattern each time the same word comes up, and if I think for a while, I can normally get to the right answer. I have it set to automatically accept the answer when it’s correct, so I can keep trying until I get it right. Not necessarily great for my long-term retention though, as I don’t end up repeating the problem words as much.
The fonts are different. This is the biggest one for me. Words I’ve been seeing for years in the same font, such as ‘good’ (part of the word ‘hello’, so introduced on day 1!), look completely different and I can’t recognise them at all. I got that one wrong this morning, as well as ‘teacher’.
I feel like this gives me a little bit of empathy with people who have dyslexia, understanding that a word can look completely different in different typefaces, and therefore unrecognisable. These two may not seem that different, but the serifs and line thicknesses add extra detail. I’m used to the more simplified version in the second image.
I knew about how challenging different fonts could be theoretically, but feeling it myself as a learner is different. This is why we should keep learning ourselves! Something to remember when making materials and tests.
This post brings together talks on a variety of topics which I have loosely grouped under the heading ‘supporting students’. It covers SEN (Special Educational Needs), dyslexia, students who find English scary, and other areas of inclusivity.
If this is an area that you’re interested in, you should consider joining IATEFL’s proposed new Special Interest Group (SIG) on Inclusive Practice and SEN. They need fifty people to sign up to be able to found the SIG.
Forum on special educational needs
Phil Dexter, Sharon Noseley and Sophie Farag presented in the forum on SEN. Phil gave a general overview of what SEN are, Sharon focussed on SEN in British universities (EAP – English for Academic Purposes) and Sophie suggested ways for teachers to adapt their lessons, not just to help students with SEN, but to help all students. You can watch the whole session here:
Impairments are not identities, but they can affect access.
– Phil Dexter
This makes me think of two recent podcasts I’ve listened to: Sign Language on Martha’s Vineyard from Stuff You Missed in History Class and Why I’m not just blind from BBC World Service’s The Why Factor – both podcasts I would highly recommend. The sign language episode talks about how it was normalised on Martha’s Vineyard, and everybody could use it regardless of whether they were deaf or not. The Why Factor talks about how blindness can come to define the identity of many people with little or no sight, and about society’s reactions to them.
Phil also showed us a clip from Rosie’s story My autism and me, where a girl with autism takes us into her world, and explains what makes her unique. 1 in every 100 children has some form of autism, but medical labelling can sometimes cause more problems than it solves since so many conditions co-occur or are on a spectrum.
Sharon has severely dyslexic family members, and has seen how dyslexia can affect their lives. She works with university students in the UK, and says that some of the problems her students have may be down to SEN, rather than cultural differences or a lack of English. For example, her son has trouble with telling the time and sequencing events, so how easily could he write an academic essay with correct cohesive devices?
Dyslexia can affect short-term memory and fine motor skills, and can therefore make note-taking in lectures very challenging. It can affect 1 in 5 learners. Some international students studying in the UK are not entitled to support as it comes out of the budget for home students.
English is a dyslexic language…[which]…actually causes more dyslexia than other languages.
– Schwartz (1999)
Sharon gave examples of three students she has worked with:
A student from Kuwait, diagnosed with dyslexia at 39 after comments from her English teacher. She was given a report in Kuwait, came to the UK, but it was noticed too late and she had to go home as she couldn’t cope with the pressure.
A Chinese student who was always late, handed in work late, and seemed to have no interest in the course. After Sharon spoke to her, it turned out she had trouble telling the time, was depressed because of the lack of support, and had no idea about SpLDs (Specific Learning Difficulties). She was diagnosed at Sharon’s university: “This report is my medicine and you are my nurse.”
A Cypriot student found out at 22 she is dyslexic, dyspraxic, and has ADD, after struggling to take the IELTS exam. She was supported through her MA and ended up passing with a merit, having created an app to help dyslexic children tell the time.
Sophie suggested using open-ended tasks in the classroom where possible, as there is no single, right answer, and students can work at their own speed. This benefits all students, not just those with SEN. It gives them the freedom to express themselves in the way that suits them best. Some examples of tasks might be journals, diaries, reflection or response tasks or making posters.
By using a dark font on a pale, non-white background, you can help your students to read slides more easily.
Activities can be differentiated in a variety of ways:
by outcome: let students choose whether to make a video, do a presentation or draw a comic strip in response to a prompt.
by resource: e.g. longer, more complex texts for higher-level students, for example through Newsela.
by task: having different activities for different students, or having a worksheet with tasks which get harder as students progress through it. Have extensions for students who finish first. If students want to work alone, let them, unless there is a key reason why they should work together.
Listening/reading differentiation example: A writes notes/summary on blank paper; B has gapped summary; C has multiple-choice.
Writing differentiation example: A has no support, B has guiding questions; C has outline/incomplete text to complete.
Some tools which might be useful:
Voicethread: learners can choose whether to respond by writing, recording an audio comment, or recording a video comment. They can also doodle while recording.
Quizlet: students can play the games which suit them. It is multi-sensory, you can print a list or cards with the vocabulary, and you can hear the words. [See my student guide to Quizlet]
Newsela: up-to-date news articles presented at five different reading levels. You can annotate articles, and many of them have a little quiz.
My Study Bar: a toolbar which can be downloaded onto a USB stick and used on any computer. Designed to help dyslexic students read and write more easily on computers.
Other tips that came out of the talks were to recycle more and revise more to help students build on their short-term memory, to use as many different ways of encountering the language as possible (see it, hear it, have a picture etc), and to consider what other ways tests can be administered in, as giving extra time often isn’t sufficient. One audience member suggested using stop-start-continue as a way of getting feedback from students on if/how they want you to change the lessons to suit them better.
Teaching English to students with SEN: Challenges and opportunities (Marie Delaney)
I bought Marie’s book Special Educational Needs – Into the Classroom [affiliate link] just before the talk (and reviewed it later), so I couldn’t miss seeing her in action 🙂 At first glance, it looks like a very practical book, broken into sections with tips for teachers about various different Special Educational Needs, including dyslexia and ADD.
Marie started off by telling us that many boys in the UK would prefer to be thought of as naughty than ‘labelled’ as having SEN. Behavioural difficulties isn’t just about being ‘naughty’ though – these students need more support. Every school should have a register of children with medical conditions of any kind, including epilepsy or allergies, not just SEN.
One of the main problems is that the definition of SEN is quite woolly:
Students have special educational needs if they have significantly greater difficulty [how much?] in learning than the majority of students of the same age and special educational provision [what?] has to be made for them.
Marie’s general message is that it is possible for anyone to support their students, and that we shouldn’t expect to just magically know how to do this. As with any skill, it is a question of exposure, experience, and asking for help when you need it. Remember to ask students and parents, as they probably have a lot more experience of dealing with the day-to-day realities of SEN than you do. They should be able to tell you something about what works for them. Here are some typical teacher concerns:
I am not qualified to teach these learners.
Other children’s learning will suffer if we include children with SEN.
Other parents/carers will complain.
It takes a lot of extra planning and different types of activities.
These children cannot become independent learners.
Most of the tips are about ‘good solid teaching strategies’ and will therefore benefit all of our learners.
You might be able to get away with poor instructions with many students, but a student with problems with their short-term memory will need you to give instructions in the order you want them performed, and one at a time so that they don’t forget them.
Focus on what they are good at too, not just what they can’t do.
To counter parents’ concerns (while still acknowledging them), remind them that there are benefits to inclusion: their children will learn empathy and will get a broader, more diverse view of the world. Research shows that children benefit from this.
When talking to parents, focus on the fact that you want to help all of the students to learn as much as possible, rather than focussing on the SEN.
Think about how you react if a child says ‘He’s your favourite.’ Children do understand who needs help: ‘I don’t know why you’re upset. I know you’re a kind person and you know that everybody needs more help sometimes.’
If you’re planning for hours for something you’ll only use for a few minutes, think again about your planning! [Also generally true of many first-year teachers!]
Measure progress, not attainment. Be encouraging and supportive, and don’t focus on marks. Don’t focus too much on behaviour either, as some children may then become disengaged from learning. (Marie told a story of a boy who was proud because he’d sat still throughout a lesson, but when questioned had no idea what subject it was!)
Don’t speak to the teaching assistant or talk down to the child. Speak to them in the same way you would any other member of the group.
Get students with anxiety to tell you about the feelings they are having. It’s OK to be anxious.
Use Find Someone Who… or finish the story type tasks to develop empathy between all of the students.
Ask students to show fingers based on how fit they are for learning: 10 is excellent, 1 is I’m not listening [Or ‘give me the prosecco’ in this case! We got an average of five, in the last session of day 3 of the conference!]
Edit the language you use. Rather than ‘You’re not listening. Listen.’ which can lead to a defensive response, try ‘I need you to listen.’
Separate your description of the behaviour from what you think it means.
Get students to share the thought processes behind how they do activities. ‘You’re good at pelmanism/pairs. How do you remember which card it is?’
Acknowledge behaviour: ‘I understand you think it is unfair, but I still need you to do it.’
Give ‘naughty’ children a job straight away. They are more likely to fight to keep a job than to try to behave in the way you request in order to be rewarded with it.
Some children with ADD are hyper-alert and always on the lookout for danger. Ask them where they NEED to sit, e.g. by the door for easy escape, or at the back so they can see everything.
Marie left us with the point that a lot of our approaches imply that the child should change, but what about school systems? If somebody’s wearing glasses, you wouldn’t assume that you know how to help them, so why do we do it if somebody with autism is in our class? Labels mean we might assume that all of our learners are the same. This is not true at all.
We cannot solve the problems of today with the same level of thinking which created them.
Marie’s blog has a lot more information and links to her other books.
How to help students who find English scary (Ken Wilson)
Ken started by saying that the problem with good and bad teaching is that we often know what not to do, but it’s not always easy to say what we should do instead. He also pointed out that none of us in the room were scary, because scary teachers don’t go to conferences 🙂
Question 1: Are they scared, or are they just bored?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell! Students get bored when they sit for too long, when the teacher talks too much, when it’s all talk and no action, when things are too complicated or too easy for them, when they can’t relate to the material, when they’re tired, when the lesson is boring… They might also be suffering from tech withdrawal, so try to include at least one activity where they can use their technology! (Sandy: Kahoot is great for this)
Ken asked his facebook friends what they used to dread about going to class. Here are some of the themes from the answers:
The teacher shaming the students
The teacher telling them off
Reading aloud in front of the class
So, things not to do:
DON’T single out a student for criticism.
DON’T reprimand students who are already having problems.
DON’T ask students to do something that you haven’t trained them to do.
DON’T ask students to read aloud.
But that’s a lot of ‘don’ts’, so what should we do? Ken has five tips:
Don’t teach grammar!
Or at least, don’t introduce it as such. ‘Today we’re going to do the present perfect.’
Instead, teach the language in chunks wherever you can. Have a conversation, tell a story, draw a cartoon, use a diagram, do a role play. Introduce it in context first, and make it fun whenever you can. And most importantly: don’t look like you’ve had an electric shock when you have to correct grammar 🙂
Devolve responsibility In a class of 25-30, how long is it before you know which students respond best to your teaching method? Pick the ten ‘best’ students in class, ask them to see you after the lesson, then get them to help you support the ‘weaker’ students. ‘When I say get into groups, I want you all to work in different groups, not together. I need you to help me to help everyone.’
Work with group dynamics and build confidence to help them get to know each other. What makes us different? Get all students to stand up, share statements about yourself (the teacher) and ask them to sit down if the statement is not true. By the end you should find out who is most similar to you 🙂 They can repeat this in groups.
Find out what they already know
Use this to help you personalise the experience of using coursebooks. At the beginning of the year/book, give students a list of some of the topics in the book, e.g. moon landings, sharks, fashion. Get them to write one fact each on post-it notes, then give them to another student. Don’t read them yourself! Student’s read each others notes, then stick them into their coursebook on the relevant page. When you get to that unit, ask them to tell you what they know about X as a warmer.
Flip the lesson.
Do the homework before the lesson rather than afterwards to increase their confidence. Anticipate the following lesson. For example, give them the name of a person you will read about. Showing them a picture and ask them to make predictions. Tell them to find another picture of that person at home and send it to the teacher. This will raise their interest.
Mystery tip! Unfortunately Ken ran out of time! Hopefully he’ll share it in the comments for this post 😉
Tweets from other talks
Throughout the conference, I retweet anything which I think is interesting from other tweeters. These tweets are all related to supporting students in some way.
From Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th January, I had the pleasure of attending my third IH DoS conference, or the AMT conference as it’s now known: Academic Management & Trainers. As always, the conference was a very useful weekend, not least for the networking. It was a great opportunity to meet with representatives from across IH Poland since I started as the Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz:
Monica Green‘s presentation about how to maintain positivity and morale in our schools was one of the highlights of the first day. A key point was that the focus should be across the school, including support staff, not just in the staffroom. As she said, “You’re paying the same whether teachers are happy or not, but it’s nicer to work somewhere everyone is happy.” Here are a few of her tips:
Morale has to start with managers. If they’re positive, their team is more likely to be.
Simple things make a big difference: say ‘Good morning’. Be warm, kind and considerate, show an interest, and listen to people.
Be approachable. If you have your own office, leave your door open whenever you can.
Make the physical environment pleasant to be in.
People who eat together work better together.
Make a particular effort with THAT member of staff, rather than avoiding them and hoping they’ll go away.
Build relationships based on trust and fairness. Be genuine and believable. Be consistent.
Give credit. Show respect. Define your expectations. And avoid micro-management!
And if all else fails, great wifi is a good way to increase morale 🙂
The change in name led to a slight change in focus, with two tracks of afternoon sessions for day one, one covering management issues, and one focussing more on training. It was a difficult choice, but I ended up spending all of my time in the training sessions.
It made a pleasant change to hear Paula de Nagy speaking up for pre-service courses, and highlighting all the ways they really do help teachers, rather than focussing on all the problems with these short courses, which is all too often the dialogue we hear.
Magnus Coney shared some of the things he’s learnt from three books. All of them sound interesting, and the first was mentioned a few times during the conference. [These are all affiliate links, so I’ll get a few pennies if you buy through them.]
Visible Learning by John Hattie.
A meta-analysis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement in learning in general, including a ranking of which factors have the most impact on learning. The two excerpts from the list we saw during the conference included some surprises! Hattie has also published a couple of other books following up on the original.
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger and Mark A. McDaniel
Magnus shared a few interesting tips from here about how to help students remember things. One of the most interesting was that students learn things better if they’ve been tested on them before learning. I assume this is because they notice what they don’t know and are therefore motivated to fill in the gaps – a definite argument for test-teach-test! Another idea which I’ve got personal experience of is that things which are harder to learn stick better because you’ve processed them more.
By far the most useful talk on day two of the conference was by Jon Hird. His title was ‘Reaching every student in the classroom: dyslexia and learning English’. I’d highly recommend heading over to his blog and downloading the handout to find out more about what causes dyslexia, and how you can adapt materials so that they are more accessible for dyslexic students. Spoiler: dyslexia doesn’t just mean problems with reading and writing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the person is not intelligent.
Day three brought my first experience of an Open Space event, ably coordinated by Josh Round. Here is a brief description of the format. We started by suggesting ideas/posing questions on post-it notes, which were then loosely grouped. I ended up in a group with questions about supporting newly-qualified teachers. Each group had a secretary who summarised the discussion, and all notes were shared on the IH management pages after the conference. It was a fascinating way to deal with issues pertinent to us, and to remind us that we’re not alone, and many other people have had the same problems as us!
Naomi Epstein writes one of my favourite blogs. She teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and shares lesson plans and reflections on her teaching, among many other things. Some of the categories which you might find useful are:
Joanna Malefaki has written about how colour blindness affects her life and her teaching, from which you can gather suggestions about what (not) to do to help colour-blind students in your classes. She also pointed me in the direction of the Colour Blind Awareness YouTube channel, particularly the Rainbow Song, which is the first time I’ve really understood how different the world looks to someone who’s colour blind.