Strategies for specific problem areas

Poor phonological processing ability

The evidence that training in phonological skills facilitates literacy development is extremely strong (for reviews see Bryant and Bradley, 1985; Goswami and Bryant, 1990; and Rack, 1994). In the Cumbria study, Hatcher, Hulme, and Ellis (1994) found that integrated sound-categorisation and letter-knowledge training produced the largest improvements in reading and spelling of a group of seven-year-olds who were failing in reading. However, at secondary age, the need for basic teaching on phonological skills is much less likely than at the primary stage. Only in most severe cases are you likely to find that the student still requires work of this nature, and in such cases care must be taken to ensure that the student does not perceive such activities to be babyish and therefore demeaning.

Phonological awareness can be developed by a variety of methods. For example:

Rhyming and alliteration — suitable techniques include playing rhyming snap or ‘odd-one-out’ games with pictures and objects; using plastic letters to discover and create rhyming word families

Deletion of the first sound (e.g. ‘near–ear’) or of the last sound (e.g. ‘party–part’), or of whole syllables (e.g. saying ‘alligator’ without the ‘all’)

Elision of the middle sound (e.g. snail–sail) or syllable (‘alligator’ without the ‘ga’).

Correspondence — e.g. tapping out the number of syllables in a word.

Many phonological discrimination activities are also useful for phonological training. For ideas on phonological awareness activities see Goswami and Bryant (1990); Layton and Upton (1993); Layton, Deeney, Tall and Upton (1996); Buckley, James and Kerr (1994); James, Kerr and Tyler (1994); Yopp (1992). Sound Linkage (Hatcher; 1994) is based on the Cumbria project on phonological awareness (Hatcher, Hulme and Ellis, 1994) and includes materials for testing and training. Snowling and Stackhouse (1996) provide a useful compendium of recommendations on teaching dyslexic students with speech and language difficulties. Unfortunately, most computer-based activities for practising phonological skills are more suitable for younger children (e.g. Rhymes and Analogy, Sound Stories, Tizzy’s Toybox and Talking Animated Alphabet [Sherston], Talking Rhymes [Topologika], Letterland [Harper Collins]), so these must be used with caution.

Dyslexic students who continue to experience persistent phonological difficulties into secondary age are likely to require particularly careful literacy teaching. In such cases, a well-structured multisensory approach incorporating plenty of practice in phonic skills (over-learning) is strongly recommended. Without adequate training in applying phonics, students with such weaknesses are liable to develop an over-reliance on visual (whole word) and contextual strategies in reading (especially if they are bright). This, in turn, will have a deleterious effect on their text comprehension, especially in dealing with more complex curriculum-related material.

Poor phonic decoding skills

For the reasons explained above, the student who displays major difficulties in auditory-verbal memory is likely to have problems in acquiring effective phonic skills. Nevertheless, this type of student may make satisfactory progress in the early stages of reading — where the emphasis tends to be on building up simple visual word recognition skills — if visual memory skills are quite good. Because of this, it is very easy to overlook this student’s problems and assume that because an apparently satisfactory early start has been made, everything else will follow automatically. In fact, this student would probably learn to rely almost exclusively on visual strategies in reading. It could be as late as nine or ten years of age (or even into secondary age) before the underlying problems become fully appreciated, by which time so much learning opportunity has been wasted. Many dyslexics have a pattern of development like this. The recommendations here would be for an early introduction of a highly-structured multisensory phonic approach to literacy learning. This should not only provide ample practice to compensate for memory weakness, but should in this case also make use of the student’s strong visual skills in order to reinforce learning and help to maintain confidence.

Examples of well-structured phonics schemes suitable for students with dyslexic difficulties include the following (books marked † also have worksheets):

Alpha to Omega (Hornsby and Shear, 1975) †

Spelling Made Easy (Brand, 1988) †

The Bangor Teaching System (Miles, 1989)

The Hickey Multisensory Language Course (Augur and Briggs, 1992)

The Star Track Reading Scheme (Beadle and Hampshire, 1995) †

THRASS (a collection of printed, audio, video and software resources to teach phonics; see www.thrass.co.uk) †

Good computer software for use by older students for developing phonic skills includes Wordshark4 (Whitespace), Gamz Player (Inclusive Technology), Nessy (Iansyst) and Lexia Reading System (LexiaUK). In addition, AcceleRead, AcceleWrite (Clifford and Miles, 1994) is a structured scheme for basic literacy learning that can be used with any good talking word processor (Miles, 2000).

Wordshark4 offers 36 different computer games which use sound, graphics and text to teach and reinforce word recognition and spelling. The program includes phonics, onset and rime, homophones, spelling rules, common letter patterns, visual and auditory patterns, prefixes, suffixes, roots, word division, high frequency words, use of words in context, alphabet and dictionary skills and more. In an evaluation of Wordshark by Singleton and Simmons (2001) in 403 schools (about one-third of which were secondary schools), teachers reported significant benefits to reading, spelling and confidence in using the program, which was used up to age 15.

Gamz Player is a computerised version of a range of card games designed to develop word recognition, spelling and memory skills. Nessy is a collection of worksheets and multisensory games

Lexia Reading System is an interactive computer program designed specifically for students who are not yet proficient readers. Students work independently as voice prompts lead them through a comprehensive set of activities. The program introduces over 3,000 words in hundreds of phonic exercises that ease the acquisition of reading skills. It was originally designed for dyslexic students but many schools use the program with a wide range of special needs students (e.g. MLD, SLD, EBD and ESL).

Use of a talking word processor is beneficial because it gives the student auditory feedback and encourages them to pay attention to the phonic components of words when writing. Recommended software includes: Write:Outloud (Don Johnston); Penfriend (Iansyst); textHELP! Type and Talk (textHELP Systems). Further information on techniques for teaching the dyslexic student can be found in Augur (1995); Cooke (1992); Crombie (1992); Hornsby (1982); Pollock and Waller (1994); Reid (2003); Thomson and Watkins (1990)

Talking books, which use digitised speech to accompany story texts are very useful classroom resources. They enable poor readers independently to practice reading skills at text level, and develop confidence, fluency and comprehension. Most of these programs allow the reader to click on individual words and hear these read aloud, so enabling reading to continue and understanding to be maintained. The books and CDs in the Read Right Away series (Don Johnston) are a particularly useful resource, as they have been designed specifically for secondary-age students with reading problems.

Poor auditory-verbal working memory

It is commonly found that memory limitations are more difficult to improve by direct training, especially with younger children, than are weaknesses in either phonological awareness or auditory discrimination. On the other hand, older students can respond well to metacognitive approaches to memory improvement, i.e. techniques designed to promote understanding of their own memory limitations and to develop appropriate compensatory strategies (see Buzan, 1986). The emphasis should be on variety and on stretching the student steadily with each training session. The tasks should not be too easy for the student (which would be boring) nor much too difficult (which would be discouraging), but just give the right amount of challenge to motivate the student to maximum effort. Use of prizes, star charts for improvement, etc., should all be used if these will help motivation. Activities can usually be carried out at home as well as in school. Competition between students can be motivating for some students, but it can also be discouraging for the student with severe difficulties, because they will easily perceive and be embarrassed by the discrepancy between their performance and that of other students. 

Auditory-verbal training activities include:

I went to the supermarket — teacher says to the student sentences of increasing length and complexity and the student has to repeat these back verbatim (e.g. “I went to the supermarket and bought three tins of beans, one loaf of bread, a carton of milk, a packet of sweets, two bars of chocolate....” etc.)

Find the changed (or missing) word — teacher says sequence of words to the student (e.g. dog, cat, fish, monkey, spider) and then repeats it changing one (or missing one out altogether), either slightly or more obviously (e.g. dog, cat, fox, monkey, spider) and the student has to identify the change.

What’s their job? — teacher says to the student a list of name-occupation associations (e.g. “Mr Pearce the painter, Mrs Jolly the grocer, Miss Fish the hairdresser, Mr Brown the electrician”) and then asks for recall of one (e.g. “Who was the grocer?” or “What is Mr Brown’s job?”). Occupational stereotypes can be avoided if desired.

Word repetition — teacher says sequences of unrelated words to the student (e.g. hat, mouse, box, cup, ladder, tree, biscuit, car, fork, carpet) and the student has to repeat them in the correct order. The length of the list can be gradually extended. If the words are semantically related it is more difficult, and if they are phonologically related (e.g. fish, film, fog, fun, phone, finger) it is more difficult still.

Phoneme repetition — as word repetition, but with phonemes (“oo, v, s, er, d”). Note that phonologically similar lists will be much more difficult (e.g. “p, b, k, d, t”)

Letter name repetition — as word repetition, but with letter names.

Digit repetition — as word repetition, but with digits. About one per second is the maximum difficulty for short sequences. Slightly faster or slower rates are both easier for ordinary individuals to remember, but dyslexics tend to find a slower sequence harder (because their rehearsal processes in working memory are deficient).

The computer program Mastering Memory (CALSC) is most appropriate for developing memory skills. This program, however, requires close supervision by the teacher, applying the memory training techniques explained in the manual. Use of the system AcceleRead, AcceleWrite (Clifford and Miles, 1994; see Section 6.3) has also been found to improve working memory ability while students are learning phonic rules (Miles, 2000).

Students who have poor memory skills may find learning and revision for examinations very difficult. Their revision tends to be badly organised and because typically they are conscious of the fact that their memory generally lets them down they become discouraged and feel that there is no point in revising for examinations. The solution is to help the student to revise more efficiently. Timely Reminders (CALSC) is computer program designed to achieve this. This is a content-free program into which the student (or the teacher) enters material to be learned, and the program will test the student on that material in a structured and progressive fashion over a period of time so as to maximise recall. A version for junior-school children (called Time 2 Revise) is also available. Many books about developing study skills have advice on how to improve memory skills (see Section 6.2.7).

Poor visual memory

It is widely acknowledged that the predominant problems found in dyslexic students are phonological rather than visual (Pumfrey and Reason, 1991; Snowling and Thomson, 1994). Indeed, dyslexic individuals often have excellent visual skills (West, 1991). Nevertheless, teachers and educational psychologists are not infrequently confronted by cases of students who appear to have inordinate difficulties in remembering various types of information presented visually. Such cases are undoubtedly less common than those of students with phonological difficulties. However, they do form a very important group because these are the students who are likely to struggle with whole-word reading activities, including recognition and spelling of irregular words (for which phonic strategies are ineffective). They will tend to remain slow, inaccurate readers.

In cases where the student is experiencing difficulty with word recognition or spelling because of visual memory problems this can lead to discouragement and frustration which can easily affect the whole of the student’s educational activities. The student can become a reluctant learner. Spelling and writing are also likely to be a struggle. Visual memory training would be beneficial (see below). However, the most effective solution is to use a rigorous multisensory approach to word recognition and spelling, building on any auditory and kinaesthetic strengths. By ensuring that phonic skills are thoroughly learned, well practised and applied fluently, there is less vulnerability to visual inadequacies. A list of suitable phonics programmes and associated activities is given in Section 6.2.2.

The following are suggested training activities for students with poor visual memory:

What’s wrong here — use pictures of everyday things with parts of the pictures wrong (e.g. house with the door halfway up the wall; person with feet pointing backwards instead of forwards) and ask the student to identify what is wrong. To do this the student has to recall visual images of the relevant objects.

Kim’s game — an array of familiar objects on a tray (or picture of an array of objects). The student scans this for two minutes (or whatever period of time is appropriate) and then has to remember as many as possible.

Symbols — show student a sequence of symbols, letters or shapes of increasing length, and then jumble them up and the student has to rearrange them in the correct order. Remember that this can become more of a verbal task than a visual task — if you want to practice visual skills then it is best to have stimuli which are not easily verbally coded.

Who lives here? — make a set of pictures of people (these may be cut from magazines) and a set of houses of different colours, or different appearance in some way. The people are matched with the houses, and then jumbled up. The student has to rearrange them in the correct relationship. If the people are given names then the task becomes more verbal.

Pelmanism — remembering matching pairs of cards from a set, when cards are individually turned over and then turned back. The student has to remember where the other one of the pair is, and if both are located these are removed from the set, and so on.

Card games — e.g. Snap, Happy Families. Mastering Memory (CALSC) is a very suitable program for developing visual memory skills. This program, however, requires close supervision by the teacher, applying the memory training techniques explained in the manual.

Mastering Memory (CALSC) is a very suitable program for developing visual memory skills. This program, however, requires close supervision by the teacher, applying the memory training techniques explained in the manual.

Students who have poor visual memory skills may also find learning and revision for examinations very difficult. See Section 6.2.3 for possible solutions.

Writing skills

Word processing

Writing is one of the most demanding intellectual activities faced by all students. For students with dyslexia or other learning problems, writing is typically the area that presents the greatest difficulties and is the hardest to deal with. The reason for this is that when writing the student is forced to do many things at once — deciding what to say, what words to use, how to spell those words, making sure that letters are legible, remembering to keep writing aligned on the page with appropriate gaps between words, putting punctuation in the right places, etc., etc. — and still keep track of what the message s/he is trying to convey. No wonder it doesn’t always come out right! Often, some aspects — such as spelling and punctuation — have to be abandoned altogether in order to bring the cognitive load to within manageable proportions.

A talking word processor is probably the single most effective support for writing and this can be provided in a specially designed program such as Pages, Talking TextEase, Write:Outloud6, Write Away, or Read&Write 9.

Many students with dyslexia have strong visualisation skills and are helped by the speech plus rebus word processing in Co:Writer6, where rebuses (small symbols and images) can be seen above or below the text in traditional orthography. Younger, less confident readers can have a rebus for every correctly spelt word; as their skills and confidence increase, the use of rebus support can be decreased, until it is only used to check the odd word. At any time, the rebuses can be removed from the final printing, so the essay looks like any other piece of word processed work.

Some dyspraxic students, who have ill-formed handwriting, lose many of their spelling errors once they see the words clearly displayed in word processed text. Others who have neat, clear handwriting may use excessive pressure, shown by marked indentations through several pages. They may be called lazy, when they appear to produce too short pieces of work, but can be liberated by using a word processor to create work more suited to their apparent ability.

AcceleRead, AcceleWrite is not a computer program, but it is a structured teaching programme which uses sentences related to a spelling pattern, in conjunction with a talking word processor. The student is required to type in the sentence from memory and use the speech in the word processor to help identify errors. This activity is undertaken, preferably daily, for a period of at least 20 sessions. This programme has proved helpful in developing spelling, typing and reading skills, but especially in improving short-term memory and the ability to stay on task, including work away from the computer.

Spelling

Computer spell checkers are a mixed blessing for students with spelling difficulties, as the list of suggestions can be daunting, when the original word was already a problem, and completely misleading, if the wrong initial letter was chosen.

The algorithms for computer spellcheckers are mainly based on likely typing, rather than conventional spelling errors, but they do indicate to the writer that there is a problem with a word. Some individuals with dyslexia find that when the word is identified as incorrect, using a Franklin Spellmaster to try and help can solve the problem, especially with the Elementary Spellmaster, where the page reference to the dictionary gives the meaning of the word.

When someone finds it hard to remember how to spell words, it is usually easier to recognise a specific word than recall its spelling. There is specialised word processing software that provides access to word banks and there are utility programs that will run alongside mute word processors, databases or spreadsheets (for suggested software see Section 6.4.3). Most of these allow the words to be spoken before selection and some can also contain picture or rebus prompts. This is a more positive approach to spelling than spell checking for a weak speller, as correctly spelt words will be seen more regularly, which helps the brain to remember them. Where the utility allows phrases to be stored, it can be an effective prompt for organising ideas and reduces the likelihood of the student not ‘getting started’, when faced by a blank page.

The best simple support for a poor speller is a word processor that provides speech feedback and an error indicator (highlighting or underlining) to indicate inappropriate spellings. However, especially as they get older, students with dyslexia may feel the need to try and improve their spelling skills. There are many titles of spelling software, which address spelling in different ways. In a school, it is a good idea to have several programs, partly to provide a variety of approaches to cater for different learning styles, but also to enable the student to tackle the tedious activity of learning spelling rules, in as many ways as possible.

Most spelling programs can be customised to cater for the word/phonic patterns that are being currently taught; all have some files that come with the programs and many now have the primary Literacy Hour words and/or lists from recognised teaching schemes like Alpha to Omega, Gamz and THRASS. Regular, daily access to a customised spelling program (e.g. Wordshark, Starspell) does build confidence and spelling skills. In an evaluation of Wordshark by Singleton and Simmons (2001) in 403 schools, teachers reported significant benefits to reading, spelling and confidence in using the program.

Predictive typing

Most poor spellers can recognise more words than they can recall, so predictive typing can be much more helpful. Choosing the first letter of the proposed word generates a list of possible words in the prediction window; if one of those words is the correct one, then that word can be selected; if not, typing in a second letter produces a new list of possibilities and so on; the more frequently a word is used, the more likely it is to come up in the first window. Where the prediction program has speech, the word can be heard before selection, there is an even greater chance of prediction succeeding. Recommended programs include Penfriend, Read&Write, WriteOnline and Co:Writer.

Touch typing

If students are going to do most of their writing using a word processor then it is usually a good idea for them to learn to touch type. Although many students become competent typists once they have regular access to a computer, unless they can touch type, a considerably number of mistakes will be inevitable when they attempt to type with any great speed. If the student has spatial awareness or dyspraxic difficulties, it is usually essential for them to use a keyboard training program to avoid frustration later on.

Learning to touch type is an activity that should be undertaken for short, daily sessions, so is ideal for doing at home or during lunchtime or in after-school sessions. It is purely a function of practice so there is no point undertaking it unless the student is prepared to do their daily practice until the required level of proficiency is reached, which can be surprisingly quick with many students. Recommended computer programs for developing touch typing skills include Type to Learn v3; Typequick for Students; Kaz Typing Tutor; Typing Instructor Deluxe For a review and comparison of different typing tutor programs see the website link: http://www.dyslexic.com/typing-tutors

Reading comprehension difficulties

Many students have difficulties understanding what they read. Although sometimes this may be due to an underlying cognitive problem such as dyslexia or a general limitation in intelligence, more often will be due to lack of practice in reading more complex texts. Reading is a skill (actually a composite of several skills) and so unless students engage in reading they won’t get any better at it. Many students do little, if any, reading outside school, and often the reading they are required to do when in school is of insufficient length to challenge and develop their comprehension skills. So the first recommendation for any student who is suspected of having poor reading comprehension is to ‘read more’. It doesn’t particularly matter whether the texts are fiction or non-fiction, as long as they meet the student’s interest and provide sufficient challenge. But beware texts that are far too difficult — these are likely to cause frustration and be counterproductive. However, the mere act of reading — in the sense of passing one’s eye over the print or vocalizing the words — does not guarantee good understanding. Students have to learn the trick of reading the words whilst simultaneously registering (and remembering) the meaning. This is partly achieved by ensuring that the processes of word recognition and phonic decoding are sufficiently well-practised so have become automatic (so that the student does not have to think about them), and partly by an active focus on the meaning of the text. When word recognition and phonic decoding are not automatic, these activities take up a lot of conscious cognitive processing capacity, leaving little capacity for processing meaning.

There are various ways in which the student can learn to focus his or her mind on the text being read, but basically these all boil down to making reading an active rather than a passive process. One way is to take notes while reading — not simply copying down the text that is read, but paraphrasing and summarising it. Another active method is to frame questions about the text before reading so that the task, in effect, becomes one of searching the text for answers to these questions. This, in essence, is the principle underlying the well-known ‘SQ3R’ (survey – question – read – recall – review) technique. These approaches, used alone, or in combination, are very suitable for what might be called ‘reading for study’, in which the important thing is to grasp the essential concepts in the text and recall the key facts. But students benefit from reading for pleasure as well, and these techniques may not be so well suited to this type of reading.

In story reading the anticipation of ‘what might happen next’ is an important factor in maintaining good understanding. This may be broken down into four key strategies:

  • Summarizing — i.e. identifying the main events in the story so far
  • Questioning — i.e. generating questions about what might happen next
  • Predicting — i.e. describing what is most likely to happen next
  • Clarifying — i.e. identifying difficult or unusual words and ideas in the text

A number of studies have highlighted the importance of these strategies in effective story reading and have shown that when students are helped to develop these strategies, either by direct instruction, by interactive sessions in which the teacher first models the strategies, or by shared group work, reading comprehension tends to improve as a result (see Doran and Cameron, 1995; Paliscar, Brown and Martin, 1987). For a review of research on reading comprehension, see Oakhill and Garnham (1988), and for practical insights on developing reading comprehension in the secondary classroom, see Dean (2000).

Study skills

The term ‘study skills’ covers an enormous compendium of skills that students need if they are to be effective, independent learners. Such skills include being able to:

  • locate information as and when required
  • read and assimilate such information
  • combine information with existing knowledge
  • apply information to answering questions and resolving issues
  • analyse and think about questions and issues
  • write coherent reports
  • learn and prepare for examinations
  • recall facts and ideas in examinations and demonstrate understanding by written answers

This is not an exclusive list, but it covers some of the main tasks that confront the learner. LASS provides clues to teachers about which of these skills certain students may find difficult. In the case of students who have dyslexia or other types of literacy difficulties, the chief stumbling blocks are likely to be reading and writing, although many students with dyslexia are also very disorganised, so that they do not use their study time as effectively as they could. If a student has memory weaknesses (which is also the case in dyslexia), it is probably examinations that will be the principal problem, both in learning/preparation and recall/execution. If a student has low reasoning ability, then analyzing questions and thinking through issues are likely to be problematic.

There is insufficient space here to provide a comprehensive discussion of techniques for addressing all these various difficulties, although in this chapter as a whole there are many suggested solutions to some of them. Teachers are recommended to consult the following books for practical suggestions on how they can help their students to develop better study skills:

Study skills and dyslexia in the secondary school: a practical approach by Marion Griffiths (published by David Fulton, 2002). This is a practical guide for classroom teachers that includes many photocopiable resources.

Study skills: a pupil’s survival guide by Christine Ostler (published by Ammonite Books, 1997 and available from SEN Marketing.) This is a practical, self-help guide for secondary students who have studying difficulties (e.g. due to dyslexia), written in plain language by a special needs teacher who is also the mother of a dyslexic student. A version called Advanced study skills is also available from SEN Marketing; this is more suitable for students at A level.

The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell (2nd edition; published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). This is a very comprehensive guide to studying, designed for students in, or about to enter, higher education.

Maths difficulties

Students with dyslexia or other specific learning difficulties often experience problems with maths, not necessarily because they cannot understand the concepts or grasp the principles, but because their cognitive or literacy weaknesses (e.g. in memory, visual perception, attention, reading or writing) interfere with the application of their understanding. The following examples illustrate these difficulties.

1. The student can understand and do the maths, but makes errors from misreading the problem, misreading mathematical symbols (e.g. reading × as +), reversing numbers or mis-sequencing digits. Such errors, which may be interpreted by the teacher as ‘careless’, then make nonsense of the calculations. Such students will need to be trained to check their work carefully. 

2. Students who cannot read the maths problems, or do not read sufficiently accurately, will be unable to work to their mathematical ability level. Tapes of the maths book can often solve this problem, especially when the recorder has small headphones for privacy. A talking word processor can help with ‘wordy’ problem worksheets, but not when formulae are involved (see above). 

3. The student understands the maths at a conceptual level, but has memory difficulties that interfere with the application of that understanding, e.g. failure to remember multiplication tables, or to recall the correct sequence of procedures required when carrying out a particular calculation. Often, the problem lies in the student having insufficient practice in doing calculations, so that the rules and operations have not become automatised (e.g. in carrying digits in arithmetic). Students with memory weaknesses will require additional practice, and one of the most efficient ways of gaining that practice is by use of appropriate computer programs, such as NumberShark4 (White Space), MathsBook (Topologika), Maths Circus (4Mation), and Easy Peasy (Easy Peasy). 

4. Poor co-ordination and spatial awareness can be a problem for the student with dyspraxia. The ‘craft’ aspect of drawing, cutting and pasting involved in tessellation, tangram, some data handling activities and some geometry, can be reduced by using My World screens or a CAD (Computer Aided Design) or art program. MathsBook (Topologika) can be used as a maths processor, with prompts when errors are made. The Foundation Bundle (E-Soft) provides interactive ways of learning fractions, decimals and tables, which can help students with visualisation or spatial problems to look at the processes in another way. 

All students with numeracy problems can help improve their understanding of maths by exploring maths adventure programs (see Hillage, 2000). This approach can be especially effective if there is an element of maths phobia and it is undertaken at home or in a computer club, where they learn the maths incidentally. For further suggestions regarding strategies for supporting students with maths difficulties, see Chinn and Ashcroft (1993), and Henderson (1998).