Deborah Jones, Head of SEN at Bredon School, examines some of the key issues that parents should ask about, or look for, when considering a school...
Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions you will ever make.
If your child has a diagnosis of dyslexia, choosing the right school first time, can mean the difference between them being happy and enjoying school, or struggling.
So do you opt for a mainstream school that offers learning support from within, or should you consider opting for a school with a specialist focus?
The qualifications of the teaching staff
If your child needs specialist one-to-one teaching, check to ensure that the staff hold specialist teacher qualifications often referred to as PG. Cert. SpLD or a Diploma in Teaching Learners with Dyslexia (Level 5 or Level 7 equivalent).
These are specific qualifications aligned to teaching students with specific learning difficulties.
Ask what the School’s policy is on copying from the board
As strange as it may sound, this is a teaching method which should be banned for dyslexic children!
Copying from the board causes a delay in a dyslexic students’ ability to process what they have just read and it will take them even longer to recreate it on their page. It can add unnecessary visual stress and can exacerbate tracking problems.
The distraction of copying-down means that few facts are actually being absorbed or retained.
To prevent an over-reliance on copying from the board, it’s really important that schools understand that dyslexic students need to have the information given to them on a handout – providing the information they need to help them learn.
Schools should not demand that dyslexic children take their own notes in a lesson, unless they are confident in the use of assistive technology to do so. Instead, a handout should be given at the start of the lesson so that the lesson content is clear and makes sense, the student then doesn’t need to worry about trying to record notes as well; they can use their time and their mind to concentrate on listening and understanding.
Some schools refuse to allow dyslexic students to use a laptop in class, others insist on it.
If your dyslexic child works well on a laptop there are some fantastic assistive technology programmes out there to help them to produce more quality ‘written’ work.
In an ideal world, a school will embrace these technologies and may even have a specialist assistive technologies teacher on the staff – someone who knows how to use the software to best effect and, importantly, can support both students and staff in implementing its use in class.
Ask whether the school supports the use of other software which is proven to benefit dyslexic students.
Tools to help with planning, such as mind mapping software, are brilliant in supporting a dyslexic student to map their ideas on paper before attempting to write it up.
A dyslexic child needs a genuinely multi-sensory teaching approach.
The traditional didactic teaching method of ‘chalk and talk’ will not maximise the potential of any dyslexic student. But simple methods developed in order to ‘hit all senses’ such as allowing time to get up and move about, providing visual prompts, incorporating audio sound bites or allowing students the chance to touch something or work with their hands, all increase a dyslexic student’s chance of increasing their understanding and improving the retention of information.
Specialist teachers should be accustomed to providing structured and cumulative systems for teaching. For example, teachers commit to only delivering one or two new teaching points per lesson, and spend the rest of the time focused on revisiting and reinforcing past teaching. In an ideal world this approach should be embedded through every subject and in all tuition.
A reduced working memory capacity is often a key feature of dyslexia. It is vital that students are not given too much new information at once and that teachers provide information such as key words, scaffolded worksheets and activity timelines to reduce the burden.
When teaching pupils with impaired processing skills or poor working memory, an experienced teacher will always give pupils thinking time before inviting a response, rather than a ‘first hand up’ approach.
This reduces stress immediately and maximises the time available to think, allowing students to process and reach their conclusion.
Although there are many, many sophisticated software packages available on the market to aid dyslexic students you don’t always necessarily need expensive technologies.
Simple adjustments in the classroom and around school can help a dyslexic child too; from the use of contrasting colours on posters – yellow and blue are reportedly the best contrast for many dyslexics – to the carefully chosen colour of ink in the pens used to record information. These things can make it easier for a dyslexic child to read more clearly.
Black text against a white background is too stark for many dyslexic students and can cause visual stress, so at Bredon School for example, all worksheets/handouts and even staff communications are printed on a softer, buff coloured paper.
Using dyslexia-friendly fonts can help too – traditional fonts such as Times New Roman that use a curly form of the letter ‘a’ can confuse. Simpler fonts like Comic Sans, which are more akin to printed handwriting, use the more familiar forms of letters. All these simple adjustments can be seen to reduce visual stress for the learner.
Process of checking access arrangements
In many cases, dyslexic students are eligible for additional time in exams or to receive specialist support in the form a reader or scribe.
If a dyslexic student’s normal way of working is to type using a laptop or to use assistive technology, an application can often be made for this to be the mode in which they complete ‘written’ examinations.
It is important that the school knows how to assess students for this additional support and ensures that the appropriate access arrangements are put in place; otherwise students can be at a distinct disadvantage. After all, the purpose of a special access arrangement is to provide a level playing field for all students.
Imagine being in a classroom and working twice as hard as some of your non-dyslexic peers to even just record the date and subject matter of the lesson.
Imagine instead finding that one special area in which, for once, you can be the star pupil – where you can shine and feel your confidence soar as you achieve great things!
To ensure that every dyslexic child has their opportunity to shine, it’s vital that a school offers a wide-ranging curriculum enrichment programme. As your child discovers their talent/s, they will grow in self confidence, ability, and in resilience to face challenges and take risks with their learning.
Whether it be a sport, art, music or engineering, the dyslexic child needs to find an area in which to experience success and to excel.
Deborah Jones, PG. Cert. SpLD is Head of SEN at Bredon School in Gloucestershire, a CRESTED-accredited Dyslexia Specialist Provision School and part of the Cavendish Education Group of schools.
Cavendish Education has a group of day and boarding schools that provide an all-round mainstream-style education with a particular focus on small class sizes, a broad curriculum and support for additional learning needs.