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Helping a Child with Dyslexia

Abbey Smithee By Abbey Smithee Published on August 29, 2016

Going to school can be a daunting time for any child, and for those with dyslexia the experience is frequently overwhelming and stressful. The classroom setting is not always ideal for children with dyslexia to get the one-to-one attention they may require, and the pace of the classes may not match their own ideal learning pace. This can leave children with dyslexia struggling to keep up.

While schools and teachers are gradually becoming better equipped to work with children with learning disabilities, dyslexia support is an ongoing process which doesn’t stop at the school doors. There’s a lot that can be done to improve a child’s learning processes and help them gain confidence in their reading and writing skills. Certainly, there are no instant solutions, much of supporting someone with dyslexia requires dedication, patience and determination. However in knowing how to approach dyslexic friendly learning we can find the best ways possible to really help a child to thrive and enjoy their school experience. Below are some tips on advice on helping and guiding a child with dyslexia.

It is important to note that dyslexia has a wide variance in symptoms and severity, and so your approach to helping a child with dyslexia needs to take this into account. Not only is dyslexia different for each child, but their individual personalities, preferences and situations impact how they will best respond to learning techniques. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another, it’s best to try a combination of methods and select what works best from each.

'What is Dyslexia?' - Understanding the scope of dyslexia

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For a comprehensive guide to understanding dyslexia, Abigail Marshall's book is a fantastic and authoritative reference point

In helping a child with dyslexia, one of the best things you can do is get a clear understanding of what dyslexia is and how it impacts your child's experience. Dyslexia refers to a condition that impacts how the brain processes written and spoken language. It is normally associated with struggles in reading, writing and spelling. However is also important to notes that there is a range of other ways dyslexia may be impacting their lives. As noted above, each experience of dyslexia is different, however many people with dyslexia experience it in a wide range of ways.

Dyslexia can impact the way a person handles social interactions. One of the characteristics of dyslexia is a difficulty in processing and understanding sounds. This can lead to issues with remembering people’s names or not being able to ‘hear’ or keep up with jokes in a conversation. At school this may create problems with making friends, especially as they may already feel self-conscious of appearing ‘slow’ or making mistakes in class. Helping a child in this situation can be difficult. Some practical steps can be taken, such as trying to arrange for them to meet with other children in a quieter environment so that they can hear conversations more clearly. However the experience of making friends is specific to the situation of every child and so the best advice is perhaps to be attentive to any developing problems and be ready to offer emotional support.

A further characteristic of dyslexia is problems in hand-eye coordination. This can lead to struggles in playing sports, in particular ball games. The culmination of all these experiences can be a drain on a child’s self-esteem. It is important then to find an activity that boosts the child’s confidence. Perhaps it’s trying out different types of sports, or maybe it’s drama or art, whatever gets them excited and motivated. Helping your child to make friends, and find activities is an important part of their development and shouldn’t be neglected.

Wordplay and Playing with Words

Playing word games can help a child with dyslexia to familiarize and confident with words. These can be as simple as games of ‘I Spy’ or they can be more complex, such as listing the words you can make out of the letters in another word, e.g. ‘weather’ contains ‘we’, ‘her,’ ‘hear,’ etc. Turning words and spelling into a game can take it out of a potentially stressful mindset of study and instead make it a fun and relaxing pastime. Getting comfortable and excited about words is a great step towards a love of reading, something that is strongly encouraged for those with dyslexia.

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For more on the use of drawing in study you can check out Fred Sedgwick Enabling Children's Learning Through Drawing

The techniques of wordplay can also be brought into a child’s school work. If there is a particular aspect of spelling that they are finding difficult, encourage them to try to come up with a mnemonic to help them remember, e.g. ‘An angel puts gel in their hair’ (highlighting the difference between ‘angel’ and ‘angle’). 

There are many resources for these online, but it’s also a good idea to work with a child to come up with their own, as the act of coming up with the mnemonic ensures they understand the ‘rule’ they’re trying to remember, and will make it easier for them to remember. These mnemonics can be a lot of fun, as the sillier the mental image, the easier it will be to remember. In fact these scenarios can then be drawn and coloured, as a kind of mnemonic comic. Adding visual elements and colour to the learning process is very beneficial as we’ll see below.

Explore the tools and technology available

The understanding of dyslexia has increased vastly in recent years, and with it has come the development of a huge number of resources. They range from phonetic spell-check software, to dyslexic friendly fonts, to eye tests for coloured-lens glasses, which help to separate the words on the page.

For younger children, it is worth looking at tools to make the learning experience as multisensory as possible, such as letter tiles to make words or books that include sounds. As they get older, you can look at different ways to record information in classrooms, such as voice recorders or digital pens. Constant note-taking can be both time-consuming and not very beneficial for people with dyslexia, so thinking differently about how to consume and record information can really make a difference.

Explore the stationary cupboard

Some of the resources above may seem a little daunting and complex, but there are many simple ways to help with a child’s learning process, starting with raiding the stationery cupboard. Using coloured pens or coloured paper, much like the multi-sensory learning approach described above, can really help a child’s learning process. 

Creating memorable visual links, such as colour coding, helps in emphasizing key information. Along with this is the opportunity to bring more creative elements into the studying techniques such as mind maps. An extension of brainstorming, mind maps are visual maps of interconnecting thoughts and ideas, which emerge from one central idea. Mind maps use keywords to prompt memory and association. Colour and imagery are important elements of mind maps. 

What makes mind maps distinct is that they allow you to lay out information in a nonlinear, nonsequential way. The patterns and links within an idea or topic are clearly visible and key ideas are highlighted. They can be used in a variety of ways: instead of traditional note-taking, in planning projects and essays, even in making to-do lists. Getting creative and silly with mind maps is not only a practical way to help a child learn, it can also help them to relax and enjoy the learning process.

Abbey Smithee works as an English teacher and in her spare time, volunteers with children with learning disabilities as a tutor and reading assistant.


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