Supporting students with dyslexia in the run-up to exams

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In the run up to and during their GCSE exams, it’s important that dyslexic students are provided with support and assistance from teachers to help them achieve their best possible grades.

About 1 in 10 students have dyslexia, with more boys affected than girls. Students with dyslexia may have difficulty reading and interpreting meaning and though words are visible, they may ‘swim’ or ‘dance’ on the page. This can have a massive impact on their attainment, but with the right support, they can equal and surpass those without a learning difficulty.

Tips for creating revision worksheets
There are a number of things you’ll need to consider when preparing revision worksheets for dyslexic students:

  • Clear instructions – Ensure that all worksheets have a clear layout, short sentences, and an uncomplicated structure without any unnecessary detail that students may find distracting.
  • Fonts and background colours – Changing the font or background colour in Microsoft Word for example can make a big difference to reading ability

‘OpenDyslexic’ is a free font that teachers can download which adds gravity and weight to the text as shown in the image below. Students that find characters invert or swim should try using this font. Of course, this may not work for everyone but you can experiment with others such as Verdana, ClearType or Arial to see which works best.


Early planning
Many students find exams and exam preparation difficult and stressful – a task that is even more taxing for dyslexic students.  Therfore, it is important for teachers to encourage students to plan and organise their revision time early to help relieve the pressure.

Creating and sticking to a revision timetable and plan is always a useful coping strategy, allocating time for each exam topic and helping students to stay focused. The plan should be visible and in a particular location where revision is done. The area should be as quiet as possible, with a cleared space for work and required materials such as notes, PC or Mac.

Identify what time of day the student works best and organise the timetable around that. For example, first thing in the morning may be the time they have the most energy after a good night’s sleep.

Encourage students to keep their school notes and work together in folders so they do not get lost or damaged. Check that students are writing down their required revision tasks accurately or provide them with written instructions.

If possible, check that students are completing revision tasks correctly with parents or guardians. You can help build independence by asking the student to think about several different ways they could complete a task when faced with a problem and who they can ask for help when they have tried other strategies.

Organise revision notes
Teachers should also encourage their students to organise their revision materials. One way to make them more manageable is to colour code any paper notes.

With my students, I use the coloured highlighting feature in Texthelp’s Read&Write Gold literacy support software, which allows them to gather information using coloured highlighters from multiple sources e.g. Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word. This text can then be collated into a single Microsoft Word revision document, with a bibliography automatically created.

Many dyslexic students enjoy using mind-mapping tools when revising to help with remembering key words and ideas. These tools are perfect when brainstorming and mapping out ideas for revision. They allow students to build a visual representation of the study content, adding elements, sticky notes and imagery (which is great for visual learners).

Reduce the revision workload
Reading is a fundamental part of revision, but for dyslexic students, revision requires a lot of reading and re-reading of text to decode it. This increases the typical workload for a dyslexic student when preparing for their exams and can significantly increase their levels of stress.

Assistive technology features such as text readers, screen masks, word prediction and scanning can make a huge difference to a student and give them the confidence and independence to succeed. It is important to try a variety of strategies as something that works for one child may not work for the other.

For example, many dyslexic students are multi-sensory learners and benefit from listening to their revision notes rather than reading them. Text-to-speech features in assistive software can be used to read any text aloud on a PC or Mac (for example, in Microsoft Word, on the internet or in pdf documents) and allows the student to listen to their revision notes rather than having to keep re-reading them. It can also convert text to an MP3 file so students can play back their notes later.

Texthelp’s Read&Write Gold has many high quality voices that read back the text and the spell checker is more sophisticated than a standard one as it gives more options and a definition. The software also has a homophone or 'sounds like' facility which picks up on words which sound the same but have different spellings and meanings such as 'there' and 'their'.

Concentration and visual stress
If a student has trouble with reading, it may be because of visual discomfort and distortion of print on the page or screen. A white page may glare, causing eye-strain or headaches – words may then appear to move, to jumble or to blur. All these things interfere with reading and affect attention and concentration. Coloured overlays can be used with any hand-written revision notes and students can experiment to see which colour works best for them.

The screen masking feature in literacy support software allows the student to tint the entire screen on a PC or Mac. This reduces glare and visual discomfort and enables those with Irlen Syndrome (a form of visual stress which leads to difficulties with fine vision tasks such as reading), for example, to be able to concentrate on their revision notes for longer.

Coping under exam conditions
From September 2015, a new numbered grading system from 1-9, with 9 being the highest, will replace the current A* to G grade pass system in GCSEs. Additionally, coursework will be scrapped in favour of exams at the end of two years of study. This is a concern for many students with special educational needs (SEN) such as dyslexia who may struggle with memory recall and thought processing speed. For example, in an exam, a dyslexic student may get stuck on decoding a single word when they could have spent that time answering the question.

Support is available however, and many dyslexic students will be allowed a human reader in their exam to assist them. Additionally, recent changes to JCQ Exam Access Arrangements now allow for a computer reader, such as Read&Write Gold, to be used in place of a human reader, to read any text in the exam papers aloud if it is seen as the student’s ‘normal way of working’ (meaning that it is used regularly in the classroom and in previous school tests). This enables students to be independent and reduces their stress levels, as they no longer have to feel embarrassed or afraid to ask for help.

Students will be given a reading assessment to determine the level of support they require and depending on the results, they may also have the option to use a spell checker and a homophone checker (to help distinguish between words which sound the same but have different meanings – e.g. 'there' and 'their' – in the exam).

Every dyslexic student will have different requirements in exams and following their assessment, may be entitled to access arrangements which can include extra time (25 per cent is usual). They may also need to take exams in a separate room from other candidates.

There are also many websites, including Load2Learn and Books4All, which provide a range of free accessible resources to download to help dyslexic students, developed by educational professionals like myself who have an interest in providing support.

And of course, encouragement and support from tutors, friends and family is invaluable, enabling students to blossom academically and to achieve their goals. It’s also important for teachers to help dyslexic students recognise and build on their coping strategies in order for them to progress and do well in their exams and beyond.

David Imrie is biology teacher at Ashcraig School in Glasgow and uses Texthelp’s Read&Write Gold literacy support software to support his students with revision and in the exam room.

Images: childrensdyslexiacenterallentown.org (top); schoolatoz.nsw.edu.au (middle); school.familyeducation.com (bottom)

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