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Biosciences and Language / Comprehension Difficulties

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Case Studies

Verbal Comprehension

Written Comprehension

Mathematical Comprehension 


Verbal Communication and Comprehension


To ensure that students appreciate the significance of what is being said to them - the subtleties of competing perspectives in a lecture theatre, or the health and safety arrangements in a laboratory/workshop, or the detailed planning for a field trip - it is important for staff to ensure that strategies are in place to support the desired understandings. Given that the interface for this is likely to be the quality and degree of comprehensiveness of student note taking, it is important to adopt teaching practices to facilitate this. Students with dyslexia may purchase assistive technology through the DSA for this purpose, and the support of a non-medical helper for note taking and amanuensis.

Verbal Communication - Inclusive Strategies and Adjustments
  • Ensure that the overall discourse allows for reiteration, clarification of new terms and regular pauses for reflection and to catch up
  • Temper overall speed of delivery
  • Provide clear examples and explanations
  • Supply handouts and explanatory lists of new concepts and unfamiliar terms
  • Utilise other media (DVD, OHP, PowerPoint, etc.) as dynamic means of reiteration  

Written Communication and Comprehension


Despite advances in E-learning, the widespread use of hard-copy written material to inform HE study is still fundamental. Although many disciplines have exploited the benefits of e-learning, paper-based communication remains important and much that is electronically delivered is ultimately downloaded in paper form. Making this means of communication effective and accessible to students with language difficulties is vitally important for their participation in: lectures; tutorials; laboratories; practice-based learning; fieldwork, assessment and placement.

Written Communication - Inclusive Strategies and Adjustments 
  • Specialist terms need explaining through word lists and glossaries.
  • Style of writing should be clear and concise in all departmental publications including publicity, marketing course handbooks, and learning materials.
  • Provide overviews, briefings and summaries for lectures, tutorials, practical and lab work.
  • Practical briefs need to be given to laboratory assistants and demonstrators to support the student.
  • Supply printed handouts and not hand-written ones.
  • Utilise a minimum 12 point font size
  • Use Arial or other Sans Serif font
  • Don’t mix fonts
  • Avoid too much underlining, capitals and italics
  • Simplify dense blocks of text
  • Use bullet points
  • Leave wide spaces
  • Left justify text
  • Avoid visual clutter, text overlaid on graphics or “ghosting”
  • Use a range of presentation devices such as flow charts, diagrams and mind maps
  • Use coloured or re-cycled paper
  • Make documents available electronically so that students can modify them to meet their needs and to read at their own pace.  

Mathematical Communication and Comprehension


Many disciplines demand that students develop at least a basic competence in data handling, statistics and numerical analysis. Although numeracy does not pose a conceptual problem for students with language and comprehension difficulties, mathematics and its attendant symbolic protocols can lead to difficulties with mental arithmetic, calculations, symbol recognition and ordering. Misunderstanding the numerical task because it is embedded within worded problems may lead to an inaccurate response from some students. Directional and orientational confusion can arise when translating symbolic information and may affect tasks such as map reading and understanding timetables.

Mathematics, Statistics and Symbols - Inclusive Strategies and Adjustments 
  • Present problems in different ways to help those with different learning styles.
  • Assistive technologies such as talking calculators and text-to-speech software such as SpeakOut or TextHelp Read and Write (for reading and writing accuracy) may be purchased through the DSAs.
  • Allow time, offer clear guidance and present problems plainly to reduce student anxiety and errors.
  • Investigate assistive software for concept or mind mapping that can accommodate mathematical formulae, e.g., Mindmanager.
  • Ensure that photocopying of timetables is clear.
  • Encourage highlighting of key information.
  • Allow extra time for proof reading and checking work.

The above information was extracted and amended from: Waterfield, J., West, B. and Chalkley, B. (2006), Developing an inclusive curriculum for students with dyslexia and hidden disabilities. The Geography Disciplines Network (GDN) Inclusive Curriculum Project (ICP), HEFCE Project, University of Gloucestershire, (information accessed March 2008). These strategies are also relevant to biosciences. 

Issues for Students Undertaking Traditional Fieldwork Activities

When undertaking fieldwork, students with language / comprehension difficulties may experience problems with tasks such as:

  • taking accurate notes in non-classroom environments
  • multi-sensory tasking - listening, observing, recording and reading
  • speed of handwriting and legibility
  • organisation of time
  • orientation, reading maps
  • slow reading speed for accurate comprehension
  • visual perceptual difficulties with poorly photocopied material, particularly black print on white background
  • remembering field trip arrangements
  • group work
  • recording data and making mathematical calculations

The number of the above difficulties experienced will vary between individual students depending on the severity and nature of their difficulties. Some might experience only one or two symptoms: others might experience several.

If students with language and comprehension difficulties are to receive the support they need, it is important for staff to focus not only on the actual fieldwork itself but also on relevant activities before and afterwards. The pre-fieldwork phase is especially important in that this is the period of planning and preparation. It is at this time that students should be invited, if they wish, to alert staff to their difficulties and to the kinds of assistance they would appreciate (though obviously disclosure must not be compulsory). It is at this stage that students and academic staff are most likely to liaise with and seek advice from colleagues specialising in disability support. The post-fieldwork stage is important both because of students completing assignments for assessment and because this is the period when students can reflect back on the trip and evaluate its successes and its problems.

In line with the need, therefore, for a comprehensive and longitudinal approach to student support, the tables which follow deal with all three phases (pre, during and post) and try to identify likely problems and possible solutions. Many of the ideas in the tables stem directly from interviews with students who have language and comprehension difficultie and recently completed residential fieldwork. The six students who provided detailed interviews for this volume had all hugely enjoyed and benefited from their fieldwork but everyone identified some ways in which more attention to their needs could have further enhanced their fieldwork learning experience. From research by Hall et al. (2001) we know that in geography, earth and environmental sciences over 70 per cent of academic staff have been involved in taking students with dyslexia on fieldwork. This is, therefore, not a small issue and it certainly merits our serious consideration. The Hall et al. survey uncovered several examples of existing good practice some of which has informed the guidance, given below. A key ambition for the future must be to disseminate and embed the good practice as widely as possible.

Support before the fieldtrip
1. Staff awareness of dyslexia
  • Staff development session on dyslexia
  • If disclosure is agreed, information exchange procedures need to be in place between fieldwork staff, support services and the relevant students
  • Assessment of need for fieldwork to be part of Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) assessment. (This can, for example, fund specialist equipment such as laptop or a non-medical helper)
  • Disability awareness training for all staff and students, (supports equal opportunities and breaks down misconceptions and myths)

2. Short term memory, information processing, sequencing problems

  • Remembering arrangements (date, time place)
  • Organising time
  • Packing the appropriate equipment; clothes, arranging money etc
  • Travel arrangements must be transparent
  • Information is required in variety of formats - verbal, written, e-mail
  • Information reminders prior to departure
  • Purchase of Personal Organiser through DSA
  • Study Skills support for time management, organisation and recall strategies through DSA
  • 'Buddy' system and peer support
3. Timing of preparatory reading
  • Allow time for slower reading and processing
  • Give pre-reading titles early to allow for dyslexic students' difficulty with short-term library loans
  • Give out course handbooks well in advance
  • Supply written list of unfamiliar key subject words and place names
4. Design of written material for students
  • Minimum 12 point font size
  • Use Arial or other sans serif font
  • Avoid too much underlining, capitals and italics
  • Use coloured paper
  • Avoid "ghosting" or text overlaid on graphics
  • Use bullet points
  • Leave wide spaces
  • Left justify only
5. Note taking
  • Arrange study skill sessions on taking accurate notes in the field - arranged through DSA

 Support during the fieldtrip

Difficulties Solutions
1. Written language
  • Writing and spelling unfamiliar words - blocks thinking process
  • Exposing weakness in spelling to peers when undertaking group work
  • Writing at speed
  • No time for personal field observations and 'sense of place' when struggling to record information
  • Verbalising experience from field notes which are an incomplete record
  • Taking legible full notes in the field: therefore longer time required for writing up detailed field note-books afterwards
  • Handouts
  • Key words and names on a sheet prior to visit
  • Need to negotiate on necessity of a field note book being kept in the field Negotiate specialisation of role (e.g. leadership or co-ordinating role) to maximise strengths and minimise weaknesses
  • Laptop computer for writing up notes
  • Use of dictaphone to capture the moment/place/experience
  • Amanuensis
  • Access to specialist software (Text-help or Inspiration on a laptop to assist speed of sorting, planning and proof reading)
  • Work with peers in evening to share information and thinking
  • Electronic thesaurus for use at base to improve quality of field notes
  • Allow students time to improve notes
  • Use of 'Alpha Smart' for word processor
2. Numerical data
  • Recording accurate data
  • Making sense of graphs (tracking difficulties)
  • Making accurate calculations
  • Recording sheets/forms
  • Shared tasks with peers
  • Talking calculator
  • Text to voice software such as Text-help on laptop
3. Multi-tasking
  • Listening, recording, observing and creatively and critically thinking causes overload, fatigue and anxiety and reduces performance
  • Be clear about the principal tasks in hand
  • Paired/shared responsibilities
  • Reduce amount of information processing required
4. Listening to lectures
  • Speed of delivery
  • Difficulty retaining, processing and recording
  • Alert guest lecturers, who may not be professional presenters, to the need for short delivery and sensible pace
5. Distractability in the field
  • Background noise
  • Visual stimuli
  • Transport disturbance
  • Difficulties concentrating/listening when faced with the above
  • Staff need to be cognisant of problem
  • Select quieter locations
  • Separate observation, listening and recording tasks
  • Make clear to students the relative significance and level of priority of the points made
  • De-briefing and feedback session in the evening
6. Visual perception
  • Use of coloured paper for handouts and fieldwork note-books
  • Use blue marker on white board for seminar/lecture instead of black
  • Student wears coloured visor or coloured lenses
7. Group work/peer assessment
  • Reluctance to reveal weaker areas e.g. spelling, handwriting, inaccurate calculations
  • Not wanting to be treated differently
  • Verbal skills
  • Reading notes at speed
  • Give students with language difficulties the opportunity to show possible strengths in other areas e.g. holistic creative ideas, leadership, good visuo-spatial strengths, lateral thinking skills
  • Alternative assessment if appropriate / necessary


Support after the fieldtrip
Difficulties Solutions
1. Producing work commensurate with understanding in a brief time-scale
  • Submission time allows for slower organisation, processing, drafting and writing speeds
  • Alternative assessment
2. Numerical data
  • Meeting to address dyslexia issues (positive and negative) to enhance future fieldwork

Information taken from: The Geography Discipline Network (GDN). Providing Learning Support for Students with Hidden Disabilities and Dyslexia Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Case Studies

Case Study A: A Biology student has difficulties with the Maths courses and seeks support. 
Case Study B: A biology student has dyslexia and seeks extra time and computer access during exams.
Case Study C: A marine biology student has dyslexa and hearing difficulties. She describes how this impacts on her studies including laboratory and fieldwork.
Case Study D: A biological science student has acquired dyslexia and memory loss.
Case Study E: A biology student with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Case Study F: A biosciences professor describes setting an alternative - non-written - assessment for a severely dyslexic student.

Case Study

Last modified 2010-03-01 12:35 PM

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