When faced with a student with severe dyslexia, I know that, as an English teacher, I have to get creative to help my students develop coping strategies that will work for them in the classroom and in real life. After all, you do not merely stop being dyslexic when you walk out of your English class.
And yes, the implantation of Microsoft Teams as a fully remote learning platform has been interesting, to say the least. But love it or hate it, Microsoft Teams is, in my humble option, one of the best tools we have at our disposal to support dyslexic students.
Trust me, I'm dyslexic, and there is profound wisdom in the knowledge that it does genuinely take one to know one. That is why I want to talk about some of the ways I have found Microsoft Teams helpful in supporting dyslexic students to thrive.
Covid-19 rapid testing: How will it work in FE?
Back to college: Everything you need to know
So, let's start with the obvious. Dictate, Immersive Reader and screen coloured tinting are life-changing tools. Yes, they have existed for a long time in the form of reading pens, Dragon, read/write software and flimsy pieces of coloured plastic overlays (which you never get back after you lend them out). However, the seamless integration of this technology into a learning platform is truly revolutionary. Not to mention that it is far more effective than older versions of the tech.
How Microsoft Teams helps students with dyslexia
Although most people know that dyslexia, in its most common form, affects reading and writing, they don't realise that this is merely a symptom of the difficulties and not the cause. In fact, the challenges with reading and writing are linked to "sequencing", the method by which we perceive order and can successfully remember that order.
Being able to understand, recognise and apply sequences is of paramount importance in the construction of language. After all, words are nothing more than sequences of sounds that are attributed to meaning. Using the immersive reader and dictate tools, students can complete work whilst building recognition of sounds and their sequences, even if they are not actively aware of it at the time. In particular, speech-to-text software is an excellent lesson in pronunciation and sound formation that can be essential to phonetical compression.
Everything in one place
Today, there are millions of different apps, platforms and websites. When used correctly, they can be an amazing way to communicate and interact with learners. In the past year, I have used Kahoot!, Forms and BKSB for checks on learning, Padlet for collaborative work, and a mix of emails, phone calls and in-house platforms to communicate and inform students of any news. Each one of these has served a purpose. Yet the issue with further education is that my lessons are only one exceedingly small part of my students' educational journey. They might have three or four different classes on any given day, each with a different teacher, implementing different learning strategies, tools and communication methods. The students are expected to seamlessly navigate these many different systems and, quite frankly, it's confusing.
One of the most understated aspects of dyslexia is the difficulties it can cause with processing and organising information. This is amplified tenfold when educational institutions and their practitioners lack continuity in their practice. Imagine trying to sort a bowl of jellybeans by colour whilst someone is continually adding to the bowl – that is what it is like. One of the most significant aspects of Microsoft Teams for dyslexia management is that everything can be integrating into one place.
Lessons, class notes, assignment instructions, communication and reminders, as well as websites that may be useful, all in one place, all assessable all the time. Whether that be from a fancy new smartphone or an out-of-date, beat-up desktop. It sounds so simple, and, honestly, it is. The difference that simplicity can make is incredible, not least because it eliminates the need to remember your many different passwords.
Timetables, organisation and memory
Due to current events, continuity is an elusive goal, and, as teachers, we have had to take flexibility to a whole new level. However, for dyslexic students, the constant chopping and changing can become a nightmare, and small changes in routine can have huge knock-on effects. Dyslexia has long been attributed to short-term memory issues that affect concentration, processing, information retention and organisation. Reliance on a routine is a common coping strategy. It can be incredibly challenging to adapt these routines, particularly when students are removed from an environment that provides them with prompts.
That is why Teams Calendar can be a game-changer. No more flimsy paper timetables that spend a week crumpled at the bottom of a bag before being lost altogether. What's more, the reminders of lessons and assignments may be annoying for most, but for those battling with their short-term memory, it can be just the prompt they needed.
It is no surprise to anyone that you very easily become exhausted when you have a lot on your mind. Yet, if I had a pound for every dyslexic student who, at some point in their life, has been told that they are lazy, then I would be a millionaire many times over. Dyslexic students must work a lot harder to get the same results. Now, I know what you are thinking, and yes, we allow for extra time. However, have you ever stopped to think about how draining it can be to concentrate on your task and then put in an additional 20 minutes after all your peers have moved on or finished? The irony is that the more tired you become, the less likely you are to employ your usual coping strategies. Meaning that the task can take even longer, and round and round it goes. Gosh, I get tired just thinking about it!
It is such a small and straightforward feature; however, Autosave can make a world of difference when you are tackling work in chunks, with regular breaks in between. There is nothing like peace of mind, working at your own speed and knowing that your work is safe.
Too often, students with learning difficulties like dyslexia suffer in silence. They nod along with their classmates, parrot back instructions and then happily copy the answers of the person next to them without any comprehension of the skills they are supposed to be applying. This behaviour has nothing to do with being lazy or a bad student. Instead, it is a sophisticated coping strategy that allows students to fly under the net, sparing themselves the embarrassment that comes with the label "special needs".
Before the current lockdown began, something interesting started to happen in my classroom. Students started to utilise Teams during in-class sessions to seek support. Leaving my work laptop open during lessons, struggling students who did not want to draw attention to themselves would send me a message on Teams. I was then able to support them discreetly. One of the newest and, in my option, best features of Microsoft Teams is the breakout rooms. These separate "safe" spaces, for lack of a better word, have taken helping struggling students to a whole new level by bringing back the one-to-one aspects of support that 16-plus-year-olds are so eager to reject out of fear of being singled out.
It starts with us
Teachers, let's be honest, it's hard to meet our students' many different needs, particularly as we don't always have the understanding to fully grasp the myriad of ways that a disability can play out in the classroom. Each year, with each new cohort, the battle begins again to remove my students' anxiety toward literacy, anxiety that stems from so many bad experiences. I know these stories well because they mimic my own in so many ways.
Dyslexia is so much more than a learning difficulty; it is an entirely different way of viewing, processing and contextualising the world. These differences can inspire great creativity and innovation. For precisely this reason, as teachers, it falls to us to keep searching for new tools that will empower students, giving them the means to build a bridge, closing the gap between themselves and their peers. So, love it or hate it, Microsoft Teams are leading the way in helping students with dyslexia thrive with technology.
Jennifer Wilkinson is a functional skills English lecturer at a college in England