How we did it - All Greek to me

18th September 2009 at 01:00
An Essex school used a foreign alphabet to help teachers understand how children with dyslexia feel

The issue

Notley Green Primary School in Essex is an inclusive school of 377 pupils and has catered for a wide range of children, but since opening in 1999 it has been admitting pupils almost on a weekly basis, making it difficult to create stability in the classroom. Teachers have had to make great strides to cater for children with special needs, especially those with dyslexia.

Although the main category of educational need at the school was children on the autistic spectrum, there needed to be a particular focus on dyslexic pupils, says Suzanne Edwards, the school's inclusion manager (pictured above). "The school needed to trigger some form of debate on dyslexia," she says. "Not only was dyslexia getting increased media attention, there was a need at Notley Green for a discussion among teachers about how to deal with it."

What they did

Ms Edwards attended a seminar on specific learning difficulties, and decided to apply some of the methods at her own school.

She began by running a series of PowerPoint presentations to raise awareness of dyslexia among the teaching staff. One involved incorporating the Greek language into different slides and encouraging staff to copy the Greek words from the board on to a sheet next to them.

"This very quickly and simply highlights how dyslexic pupils may feel if they are asked to copy information," says Ms Edwards.

In the second exercise, teachers were asked to talk to the person next to them about their hobbies, without using words with the letter "s". This proved difficult.

"This is to highlight the fact that children have word finding difficulties," Ms Edwards says. "It is quite challenging and highlights to staff the extra time that dyslexic pupils need in order to process information."

By doing this, Ms Edwards helped the teachers understand how dyslexia can affect children's performance in the classroom. Following this exercise, the teachers were encouraged to discuss whether children really needed to be copying chunks of information from the blackboard - they soon started discussing alternatives.

Ms Edwards encouraged staff to come up with suggestions for making their classrooms more dyslexia-friendly. "If you encourage teachers to put forward their own initiatives, they are more likely to use them," she says.

The suggestions the teachers put forward included changing the colour of interactive whiteboards to make it easier for children with dyslexia to read, copying worksheets in a range of colours and using more visual information. "These strategies will benefit not only the affected children, but the other pupils too," Ms Edwards says.

Notley Green also employs a team of learning support assistants who work alongside teachers in order to support the children who have learning difficulties. Their knowledge of dyslexia is of inestimable value to the school, says Ms Edwards. "Their in-depth knowledge and experience of the condition and capacity is invaluable in supporting the child."

Challenges

Although teachers are experienced in identifying the symptoms of dyslexia - such as problems differentiating between right and left, and difficulties with word retrieval and learning the alphabet - it is often hard to imagine what this means for the child.

The toughest step, according to Ms Edwards, was getting the teachers to put themselves in a dyslexic child's position. It was up to her to come up with creative approaches to this dilemma.

She is convinced that it takes no more than some simple exercises to get a discussion going - it definitely worked at Notley Green. "Once the teachers had done the exercises, an animated discussion followed," she says. "They seemed to be riveted by what they had experienced."

The outcome

As a result of the training, the teachers at Notley Green are more understanding if a child demonstrates traits of dyslexia.

Ms Edwards also gained personal recognition for her efforts, when she won iansyst's Dyslexia-Friendly Best Practice Awards last year.

As an alternative, teachers now use a range of techniques to support dyslexic children in the classroom - from "closed passages" to key notes on whiteboards.

They also encourage children suffering from dyslexia to listen to texts that are beyond their level of reading. This way, they are introduced to a more complex vocabulary without having feelings of incompetence due to their slower reading.

"The tools we use include mind maps, dictaphones and checklists that are made with the children. Dictaphones help a child to write creatively by asking himher to write only the first part and then dictate the next few sentences," Ms Edwards says.

A combination of these factors has allowed Notley Green pupils to gain confidence as they learn in a dyslexia-friendly environment. With specialist support, most people with dyslexia can learn to read and write perfectly well, which is what Ms Edwards hopes to achieve at her school.

www.dyslexic.com

YOU CAN DO IT

- Initiate discussions among staff about what constitutes dyslexia.

- Encourage teachers to put themselves in a dyslexic child's position.

- Teachers should be asked to put forward their own initiatives, as they are then more likely to use them.

- A member of the teaching staff could take part in a course in dealing with specific learning difficulties, and relay the information for other teachers.

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