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Supporting students with dyslexia

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 18 May 2018, 09:04

On Saturday 5 November I attended an Open University in London associate lecturer staff development event, held in the OU's offices in Camden.  I attended two sessions.  The first session was all about developments to the virtual learning environment, and the second event was all about how to best support students with dyslexia from a tutor's perspective.

This blog post is an edited set of notes from the second session.  I'm mainly blogging this event so I can share some of the themes with my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students group, but I also hope that these notes might be useful for other Open University associate lecturers who might accidentally stumble across them.

The supporting students with dyslexia session was facilitated by Lyn Beazley who works in the South East region, she also tutors with the university.  I also understand that Lyn is also a full member of an organisation called PATOSS which is an abbreviation for 'the professional association of teachers of students with specific learning difficulties'.

Introduction

Lyn began the session by setting the scene.  She introduced what dyslexia is by pointing us to a number of definitions.  The first one was by the British Dyslexia Association, which is, 'dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills' and that it is 'present at birth and is lifelong in its effects'.  This definition gave way to a bit of debate, which is likely to echo some of the debates within dyslexia studies itself.

The second definition was from someone called McLoughlin (cited by Tonnessen) who define developmental dyslexia as 'a genetically inherited and neurological determined inefficiency in working memory ... It has particular impact on verbal and written communication as well as on organisation, planning and adaptation to change'.

One of Lyn's slides entitled, 'a social model of dyslexia' echoes one of the topics within H810, namely, the different models of disability.  The key points that Lyn made was that the social model takes account of human diversity where difference is emphasised as opposed to deficit.  Furthermore, materials that are dyslexia-friendly are likely to be user friend (which echoes a research finding which says that accessible technology is technology that is also easy to use).  A final point was people who have dyslexia also have particular strengths.

Some of these strengths were considered to be visual thinking, entrepreneurial skills, vision, creativity and lateral thinking.  People with dyslexia face difficulties whilst studying, these include writing assignments, that it takes longer to process information, reduced confidence and self-esteem, concentration, reading effectively, writing (and also the structure of documents) and spelling.

Assessment

An important question is: what happens if you think a student might be dyslexic?  One thing that you can do is discuss things with a regional advisor who can offer some advice about what to do next.  This may initiate the process of dyslexia being formally diagnosed (or assessed, as it is otherwise known).  Assessment is something that is done by a trained assessor who is able to determine whether someone is dyslexic or whether there may be other differences that might have to be taken into account.

Lyn told us that during the assessment process, assessors measure IQ and study strengths and weaknesses of personal performance.  There are, of course, financial costs associated to assessment.  If it is done privately, the cost can be between three and four hundred pounds.  If a student is receiving financial support then the university may be able to cover the cost of some (if not all) of the assessment.  

Being recognised as dyslexic enables students to access to a range of different resources.  One part of the assessment process is to determine the nature of the difference (or its characteristics?)  Another part is to determine what technologies or support might be best suited to an individual student.  After determining whether a student is dyslexic a student may then be eligible for something called the Disabled Students Allowance (or DSA).  The DSA enables students to receive finances to enable the purchase of a computer which may be then used with assistive technologies, such as text to speech software, for instance.

One thing that I didn't know was the extent that students can be offered one to one personal support with a specialist dyslexia tutor.  Another point worth mentioning is that students might be able to make use of the alternative formats the Open University provides.  One of the most popular alternative format is the use of comb binding.  Comb binding is where the materials are bound in a slightly different way, allowing coloured overlays to be more easily put on top of each of the pages.  Also, comb bound study materials can be more easily scanned using assistive technologies, enabling the textual materials to be manipulated.  Another alternative format might be the provision of the materials in audio form.

One thing is certain: the assessment process takes time.  It can take quite a while for the Disabled Students Allowance to come through.  If a student starts the assessment process at the same time as starting a module, there is the potential that a student might not be able to keep up with the pace of study.  Even if assistive technology arrives on time students still have to master the practicalities of working with the equipment and developing a repertoire of learning strategies to most effectively make use of the technology.

This wasn't something that was mentioned in the session, but the Services for Disabled Students team do have a solution to this impasse, which is the provision of loan items.  If a student is working through the assessment process, it might be possible to loan some assistive technology items as an interim measure.

Debates

Lyn's session gave way to a number of debates, some of which relate directly to H810.  One of them linked to the notion of reasonable adjustments.  I also remember a reference to the recent Equality Act (institutions, of course, have an obligation to respond to the needs of students).  I also have memories of a short conversation about that more and more Open University materials are being made available only on-line.  Whilst this might make accessibility difficult in one sense, technology may enable materials to be potentially accessible to a wider audience.

Another interesting debate centred around the sharing of study and writing skills.  It was concluded that tutors should feel free to give guidance about how to structure documents and compose paragraphs.  Sometimes, it was argued, that sharing things that are obvious can really help people to get a better grip of what they have to do.  Such advice isn't only useful to students who have dyslexia - it can be useful to all students too.  General guidance about how to present arguments, compose paragraphs and structure essays has been incredibly useful during my own Open University study.

Summary

I've been attending Associate Lecturer staff development on and off for what must be over six years.  I still remember attending my first one, where I was overwhelmed by seeing so many people who collectively help to present a myriad of different subjects.  I sense that they try to do two key things: to give useful information and encourage you to reflect on your own practice and think about how you engage with those who are taking the module you are helping to present.  This event was no exception. 

When I was leaving the VLE session I heard someone say, 'I always get something out of these events'.  That is certainly the case.  When it comes to the second event, I've taken a note of a number of resources that some members of the Open University might be able to access (depending upon their own access permissions).

The first is a set of web pages entitled: tutor resources for disabled students.  We were also guided to a really useful document which is called Associate lecturer's guidelines for marking the work of students with dyslexia.  I had not seen this document before; new things are added to the tutor guidance pages all the time. 

Another useful link is, of course, the Skills for Study website (which can be found through the Teaching and Learning link on Tutorhome, which you will have access to if you just happen to be an Associate Lecturer). 

All in all, the general Associate Lecturer development day was useful as well as being fun and friendly.  It emphasised, to me, that there are many different types of resources that both tutors and students can draw upon to help the journey of studying.

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