History and Language / Comprehension Difficulties
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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 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
Despite advances in E-learning, the widespread use of hard-copy written material to inform HE study is still fundamental. 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 dyslexia 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.
Lecturers and tutors can attempt to engage with the more common learning styles and patterns normally associated with students with language and comprehension difficulties in a number of ways, including the following:
The key task is to extend the range of educational method substantially beyond the traditional word-based means which tend to include e.g. lectures, seminars, guided reading, preparation of assignments, exams, etc. To some degree education began to extend beyond such means some time ago, increasingly using e.g. role-play, simulation, video-based skills workshops and a range of individual and small group activities which focus on elaboration, discussion and debate designed to enable students to help each other explore ideas and their applicability to real-life situations.
However, among other approaches, the development of information and communication technology extends the possibilities still further, in a number of ways. For example it is possible to develop high quality multi-media packages (available on CD-ROM or through local networks) which help students individually or in groups to explore creatively and in their own way a range of dimensions of given problem situations, and to access back-up learning materials which are specifically linked to the issues in the given situation. This helps to ensure that learning is problem-based and focused, but in addition it gives the opportunity for students to use more than one of their senses in pursuing learning. For example, the use of video clips in such a presentation allows the student to see and hear roles in the situation being acted out. If the student is required to understand a similar series of issues by reading a written case study, the effectiveness of their learning is likely to be far more limited than is possible either with role-play or with such a technology-based package.
Generally, such interactive approaches are more effective for most students because they bring the use of different mental processes to bear simultaneously on the learning being addressed. However, they are particularly effective for students with language and comprehension difficulties because they tend to place greater emphasis on “right-brain” learning processes, e.g. visual-spatial learning and a holistic approach. They allow the student to pursue learning by clarifying and addressing her/his own questions, rather than being required to follow the perhaps differently structured mental processes of others. They are also less dependent on the use of the written word.
Approaches such as those indicated above allow the student to come at specific learning from a range of different angles, and in addition to the advantages already outlined these approaches allow the student more than one, and perhaps numerous, attempts at the learning in question. Generally the main point about over-learning is that repetition is helpful, and the implications of this for campus-based teaching include the following:
- Instructions should be given more that once.
- Presentations (e.g. lectures) should be begun with an explanation of the ground to be covered, and concluded with a summary of the main points.
- Main points should be displayed on a chalk-board, white-board or OHP.
- Summary notes should be made available.
- Areas and points of learning should be revisited at intervals to reinforce and consolidate the learning achieved.
Students with language and comprehension difficulties may make more sense of an argument that is presented to her/him if the way in which the argument is built up is clear and explicit. Lecturers can be guilty of leading a class through a complex line of reasoning by means of a fairly circuitous route, and whereas some students may be able to discern the thread for themselves and build up the whole picture without too much trouble, a student with language and comprehension difficulties is likely to find this more difficult. Lecturers can incorporate a number of approaches into their work that may help to provide invaluable assistance for such students, e.g:
- Ensure that the points to be covered in a lecture are ordered into a logical sequence, and clarify at the start of the lecture both the structure of the presentation and the progression of the argument.
- As each point is made it should be related explicitly to the last.
- Relate the developing argument to practice - this helps to clarify its relevance, which is important for learners in general but for students who have language and comprehension difficulties in particular.
- Summarise the main points at the end of a presentation, both verbally and on a chalk-board, white-board or OHP slide.
- Ensure that any potentially unfamiliar terminology is clarified, both verbally and in writing (e.g. on the board or in a hand-out).
- In more general work be prepared to give additional help with planning and structuring.
Progression in learning
Lecturers and tutors can help students by engaging with her/him in the planning of learning so that it becomes a clearly and explicitly staged process. Thus the lecturer or tutor can help the student to work towards the integration of values, skills and knowledge as an end point that can be reached by a series of steps which follow in a planned sequence, each building on the previous one. To achieve this, the lecturer can:
- Clarify progression in the learning to be achieved by breaking down the processes into a series of identifiable steps.
- Help the student to focus on taking each step at a time, and to try to avoid tackling too much at once.
This approach, as well as assisting the student to develop a map for her/his own development, is also more likely to provide an experience of understanding and success which can serve as a basis for confidence-building and further learning. The confidence that this can provide is of particular importance for such students if their confidence has been damaged by previous experiences. Building self-assurance in this way contributes towards the development of increasing self-direction in learning, and this is a key factor in any student’s development as a learner.
Using shortcuts and aids to learning
In this regard, an important form of support that academic staff can give to students with language and comprehension difficulties is to actively encourage them to identify and use shortcuts and aids that work for them. There are a number of possible aids (including mnemonics and mind-maps), but it is the way in which these and other such devices are used will inevitably be individual to the student and therefore they cannot easily be provided by a lecturer. What a lecturer or tutor can do, however, is to acknowledge the validity (indeed the importance) of such tools for learning, and to value them as a means of achieving the results that are sought. The message to the students must be "if it works for you, use it", rather than for the lecturer to succumb to any temptation to cling to more traditional learning methods, either because they have somehow come to be regarded as academically more respectable, or simply because they have worked for others, perhaps including the lecturer her/himself.
Such encouragement and recognition of individualised tools is very important, but there are also more direct forms of help which lecturers/tutors can provide or at least facilitate. These could include the following:
- Opportunities to see the work (including the written work) of others, as a means of helping the student develop a clear sense of possible methods of approach to a given task. Care needs to be taken to avoid any inappropriate suggestion that an identified task can only be tackled in one way, and that this one way can be demonstrated by the provision of a single example of someone else’s attempt at the same or a similar task. Rather, a number of examples should be offered, as a means of helping the student achieve a clear sense of the whole-ness of the completed task, as a basis for developing her/his own approach. This is clearly different from simply giving the student a model to copy which, far from advancing her/his learning, might in fact inhibit it.
- Provision of materials in diagrammatic or pictorial forms, rather than in text. The value of diagrams in education has long been acknowledged, but there is still a tendency for much handout material to consist of text rather than other forms of representation. Greater use of a range of diagrammatic forms such as flow-charts, mind-maps, tree diagrams, tables, etc. would be of considerable benefit to students. In addition however, many find it helpful to devise their own pictorial representations of situations and concepts, or to use for example a colour code to organise ideas in their minds. For the lecturer, the most important thing is to acknowledge and engage with what works for the student.
- More generally, handouts need to be clear, well structured, well presented and easily readable, whether they are in text or some other form.
The most successful learners are those who can actively harness their own self-knowledge, and their knowledge of available learning resources and how they work, to pursue their educational objectives in a purposeful and largely self-directed way. Therefore, the success of educators can be measured by how far they are able to help learners to develop their capacity to exercise responsibility for their own learning effectively. For students who have language and comprehension difficulties, no less than for others, this means enabling them progressively to take on this responsibility and to exercise it with awareness. One of the main differences however is that the student with such difficulties is much more likely to have been undermined by earlier educational experiences, and so their readiness to operate in this way may have been inhibited by negative feedback and the effect on their developing self-concept and self-esteem. There are a number of ways in which educators can facilitate the development of the effectiveness of students as self-aware and self-directed learners, and these include the following:
- Encourage, facilitate and support the student’s efforts to engage in aware and purposeful self-assessment.
- Encourage, facilitate and support the student’s efforts to plan the approach/process to be used in relation to her/his own learning, both at a general level and in relation to specific educational tasks.
- Encourage the student to make connections that are meaningful for her/him, and be prepared to engage with these connections in discussion.
- Be open and explicit about the rationale for undertaking particular educational tasks, and for tackling these in any given way.
- Offer different approaches to teaching/learning, from which the student can determine the one(s) which s/he finds most effective, and which the student can use to reinforce learning (for instance by working from specific examples to general concepts, as well as in the reverse direction).
Case study A: a History and Criminology student with dyslexia and asthma.
Case study B: an Archaeology student who has dyslexia and depression. The university allows her to study a largely practical topic as her final year project, rather produce the traditional, long, written dissertation.