Teaching English to students with dyslexia

Anne Margaret Smith


Dyslexia is a difference in the brain develops which is found in around 8% of the population (European Dyslexia Association, 2013). It is often thought of as a difficulty with reading and spelling, but these are just the surface symptoms of underlying cognitive differences which can also result in other difficulties, for example with memory, co-ordination, organisation and speed of processing information. This article sets out some possible ways of thinking about dyslexia and the related specific learning differences (SpLDs) before considering the impact they can have on language learning. It offers suggestions for general strategies that can support learners in the language classroom and then outlines a method of developing initial literacy through intensive work specifically on phonics. 

Dyslexia and other SpLDs

Because of the wide range of ways in which it can affect a person, dyslexia is sometimes described as a syndrome. Although this is a medical term (and therefore not really appropriate, since dyslexia is not an illness) it can be helpful to think of it in this way, as it reminds us that it consists of a range of different indicators that can combine in different ways in different individuals. No two dyslexic people experience it in quite the same way. Another term often used for dyslexia is ‘specific learning difficulty’ which emphasises that people who have dyslexia may experience difficulties with certain aspects of studying – but by no means all, and they may have great strengths in some areas. Indeed, if they are able to make use of these strengths in their studies, they may not experience any difficulties at all, and for this reason the more positive term ‘specific learning difference’ (SpLD) is often preferable as a description of dyslexia, as it highlights that these students may need to take a different approach to studying, but we should not automatically assume that they will have problems.

A specific learning difference can be defined as a different way of perceiving the world, processing information and interpreting what our senses tell us about the world around us. This definition also covers other SpLDs such as dyspraxia (characterised by difficulties with fine motor control and awareness of space and distance), dyscalculia (difficulties with simple number concepts), AD(H)D (concentration and focus issues) and Asperger’s Syndrome (differences in social interaction and communication), which very commonly co-occur with dyslexia. Most students who are identified as having dyslexia will also experience some effects which are more closely linked to one of the other SpLDs. It is therefore more useful to think of SpLDs as being developmental differences which affect individuals in very different ways. However, whatever effects they experience as a result of their SpLDs, these learners may well find that it impacts on the way in which they need to approach learning an additional language – and in particular the development of reading and writing in English, because of the irregular writing system (its ‘non-transparent orthography’).

The impact on language learning

One of the key characteristics often observed in learners with SpLDs is the unreliability of their short term and working memories. Unfortunately, because English is a notoriously irregular language (and not just in the orthography but in the formation of grammatical structures too), there are a lot of elements that learners simply have to remember: past tenses; plural forms; which preposition to use; common words that have irregular spellings, and many words that have several meanings. Students who have SpLDs have to work harder and practice more than their peers to transfer information into the long-term memory, where it is usually secure.

Students who have SpLDs sometimes find it hard to focus on one thing at a time – the filters that most of us have to help us ignore unimportant stimuli (cars going past the window, or people talking in the corridor) do not seem to work in the same way, so that everything can seem equally important. This can be very distracting in the classroom, but the benefit can be that students who are affected in this way may be good at noticing details in the language, which will help their learning.

All students need to be able to organise themselves, to make sure that they get to class at the right time, with the right equipment and having done the right homework. The students who find this challenging may well have SpLDs. It is partly a memory issue, but a lack of time awareness can also play a role. Related to this can be a difficulty with sequencing – the ability to sort information according to given linear orders, such as the alphabet. This has an impact on learning English, not just in using a dictionary but in remembering the sequence of letters in words, and in getting the correct word order in sentences. This, of course, is quite important in English, as there is no other way of knowing which is the subject and which the object, now that we have lost most of our case endings.

In its simplest terms, phonological processing is the ability to recognise, differentiate and control the sounds of a language. Visual processing is the ability to differentiate symbols (such as letters) and extract the meaning from them. Students with SpLDs often have a weakness in one or both of these areas, which clearly impacts on their language learning. Phonological and visual processing can also be slower for students with SpLDs than is typical, meaning that they need more time to complete tasks than their peers. There may also be some delay in responding to spoken language, and this can sometimes be misconstrued as a hearing impairment.

Students who have dyspraxic-type characteristics may find that their handwriting is not as neat as they would like, and when they come to write unfamiliar words, particularly in a new script, these problems are worse. For students whose main SpLD is Asperger’s Syndrome, learning English can be very challenging. The irregularities outlined above may feel very illogical and uncomfortable for them, and differences in the norms of social interaction will have to be learned explicitly.

For students with SpLDs, the challenges facing them in the English language classroom may seem enormous, and there is no doubt that they are significant. However, with sympathetic teaching, it is quite possible for them to succeed in becoming confident users of English. There are many examples of learners overcoming these barriers to pass exams and go on to use English effectively in daily life. The key is the approach that they are encouraged to take to their studies.

Ways of working in the language classroom

There are a number of strategies that language teachers can adopt in order to make learning English more accessible for learners with SpLDs. An obvious starting point might be to have a conversation with the student about the differences in learning that have been noticed, and to gauge how aware the learner is of his/her own strengths and relative areas of weakness. This allows the learner to feel that the teacher is taking an interest and opens the door to on-going communication regarding what helps the learner and what aspects of the classroom situation are most difficult for him/her.

Sometimes small changes in classroom management can make significant improvements in accessibility for learners with SpLDs, and will probably benefit all learners. For example, ensuring that the lighting and temperature levels are comfortable in the room, and that the learner can see and hear the teacher and the material well could make a big difference to a learner is more sensitive to the environment than is typical. Exploring the technology that is available can be extremely helpful. Even using the voice recording function on a mobile phone to record homework, rather than copying it off the board, can save students with SpLDs a lot of stress and frustration. This is important, as their confidence and self-esteem is likely to have been systematically eroded over the years through unfavourable comparisons of their work to that of their peers, despite often working as hard as them, or sometimes harder. If materials can be made available in different formats this can be very helpful. If the school or college has an intranet or virtual learning environment (VLE) materials can be posted there so that learners can read texts at their own pace, perhaps with the support of a screen reader to reinforce the correct pronunciation.

These general approaches are widely recognised as good practice that most teachers will already be implementing, to the benefit of the whole class. When presenting new material to students, the following strategies will help all learners, and for learners with SpLDs they are crucial in enabling them to experience success.

1) Multisensory input

New grammatical structures and vocabulary items should be presented in context whenever possible and using activities that engage all the senses. Students should be able to see and hear the material, as well as link it to a tactile or kinaesthetic experience – an action, a gesture or an object to touch and feel. This is important at the practice stage, too, as the kinaesthetic / tactile element can help to reinforce the auditory and visual channels.

2) Small chunks

It is important that students with SpLDs are not expected to take in too much new information at once, particularly when extending their vocabularies. It is much better that they learn a few words securely than try to learn a lot and feel overwhelmed by the material, so that they end up learning nothing. Many learners will feel that they want to see ‘the big picture’ first, that is, to know what the end result of a task or activity will be – what they are aiming for. However, if a task is complex or very large, it is better to break it into smaller chunks of work, and set out a plan to tackle one aspect at a time. This will allow the learners to feel that they are making progress without getting lost in the scale of the project.

3) Repetition

Because learners with SpLDs often have difficulties with short-term memory, it is very important to provide lots of opportunities for practice and reinforcement of new material. Repetition of new language points in different contexts can help to make more connections to known language and so help transfer the new information to the long-term memory where it is likely to be retrievable when needed. This practice can be done in class, but learners should also be encouraged to develop their own routines for reviewing new material after class.

4) Explicit instruction

Some teachers feel that learners should be able to infer rules about language from their exposure to it in context, and indeed, this kind of ‘discovery learning’ can be extremely powerful. Unfortunately, because learners with SpLDs may interpret the data differently from most other people, this can lead to rules being deduced which do not match the standard rules. Because these rules are the learners’ own, it may be very hard for them to unlearn them and start applying the standard rules. For this reason, it is often better to offer explicit models of language use and rules, not just in grammatical constructions, but in phonemic articulation and pragmatic choices. This last area may be of particular value to those learners who have traits of Asperger’s Syndrome as part of their SpLD.

Developing initial literacy practices

As mentioned above, developing literacy practices in English can be especially challenging for learners, and the level of challenge is even higher for learners with SpLDs. English speaking students in the UK who have dyslexia often benefit from some intensive small-group or 1:1 tuition focusing specifically on the relationships between English sounds and the letters that are used to represent them in text. Despite the apparent complexity of these phoneme-grapheme relationships, there are rules that can be made explicit and practiced so that the learners become confident in decoding unknown words, as well as combing the graphemes to become better at spelling.  There are a number of programmes available to support teachers in working with dyslexic learners, but these are all aimed at English-speaking students, and the vocabulary used is often not high-frequency but rather chosen because of its value in demonstrating orthographic conventions. However, an intensive programme designed specifically for Greek learners of English (‘English Sounds Fun’: Metallinou and Smith, forthcoming) is currently being developed.

The main premise for all of these programmes is that the learners should have the opportunity to build up their knowledge of English orthographic conventions systematically and cumulatively, always working from what is known and extending their repertoires both top-down and bottom-up simultaneously. That is, as well as the course developing the learners’ general awareness and proficiency in English by providing extensive listening and speaking opportunities, it focuses in closely on the phonemes that the learners have already become familiar with and matches them to the graphemes that can represent them in text.

The best way to achieve this is to offer a programme that is built on the four principles outlined above. In each session a small amount of material is presented and explained explicitly and then it is practised and repeated many times using multisensory, interactive activities. For example, in one lesson the topic may be greetings, and the expressions ‘Hi’ ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ are introduced, among other phrases, and practised extensively, perhaps with a short role-play  or an ‘echo drill’ where the teacher says a phrase and the learner repeats it. The phrase can be said at different speeds or at different pitches but the learner has to echo as closely as s/he can. Physical gestures might also be incorporated into the drill (perhaps in this case, waving or shaking hands). A short video might then be shown in which several people are using the target language and the learner has to indicate (by making the agreed gesture) when the phrases are heard. This is part of the extensive input which forms the top-down language development.

In order to focus on the phoneme-grapheme correlation (bottom-up development), one phoneme is selected from the language already known; in this case, the sound /h/ is the focus. The learner is encouraged to make the /h/ sound in isolation as well as in the words already met (‘hello’ / ‘hi’) and to make the sound while s/he holds a hand mirror close to his/her mouth to see how the breath steams it up. Once the learner is confident with making the sound, the grapheme ‘h’ can be introduced. Wooden or magnetic letters can be used to show the shape of the letter, and the learner should be encouraged to handle the 3-dimensional letter and trace over the shape, to get a feel for it. Then the teacher and the learner together can write the letter ‘h’ in the air using large arm movements (‘sky-writing’) whilst making the /h/ sound and gradually  reduce the size of the letter until they are making the letter shape with one finger. It is important at this stage to establish the correct starting point and direction of movement to form the letter, so that later it can be joined smoothly to other letters. At this point, the student can breathe the /h/ sound onto the mirror again and write an ‘h’ in the resulting mist. More practice can be done writing on a white board or squared paper, even joining several ‘h’s together if the student’s pen control allows. Further practice activities might include identifying the ‘h’s on a page of random letters, making the /h/ sound each time one is found, and tracing over it with a coloured highlighter to reinforce the hand movement needed to create the letter.

As the learner progresses and develops a more extensive vocabulary, more phonemes are focussed on in this way, and their corresponding graphemes can be combined to make words. The spelling choices that have to be made can be discussed explicitly, too, so that the learner develops good metacognitive strategies that will allow him/her to think through similar problems in the future. The top-down activities developing the wider language awareness will inevitably introduce many of the very common irregular words that characterise English, and these words can be taught as whole units, that the learner will come to recognise through intensive practice activities like those described above.


As awareness of SpLDs grows amongst teachers and parents, more students are being assessed and found to have SpLDs. Learning English is not an optional activity in the world we live in, so we English teachers need to be prepared to accommodate these students. In the end, the good practice that we put in place will be beneficial for all learners, and for learners with SpLD, it might well make the difference between failure and success.



European Dyslexia Association (2013) Incidence and emotional effects. Available from: http://www.eda-info.eu/en/dyslexia-incidence-and-emotional-effects.html. [Accessed 6/3/2013]

Metallinou, A. and Smith, A.M. (forthcoming). English Sounds Fun. Available from www.ELTwell.co.uk


Dr. Anne Margaret Smith has been teaching English for over 20 years

and has also been a dyslexia specialist tutor for more than 10 years.

Her company, ELT well, aims to bring these two fields of education

closer together, by sharing good practice from both sides.