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ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 8 (March 2016)

Enjoy reading our selection:

Teaching creative writing to dyslexic students

Rachel Harris

ETAS Journal, Volume 32 Number 1 (Winter 2014), p. 49

I read Rachel Harris’s article about teaching creative writing to dyslexic students just as I was widening my horizons on learners with special needs. So, when given the honor of choosing the article for this Editors’ Choice edition, this one fits the bill of making an impact on me. It made a lasting impression especially as language teaching has expanded into the public schools, so this topic is also timely. It also raises the reader’s awareness of the learners’ special needs at any age.

Rachel Harris addresses the topic of dyslexia in a very constructive way. After a short introduction to what exactly dyslexia means and the challenges dyslexic learners must overcome, the article moves on to its central focus – how to support learners in creative writing, an area many would rather avoid when working with dyslexic learners. And it is this author’s willingness to take on the difficult and look for ways to support expression that is particularly admirable in this article. The challenges are acknowledged, but the focus is on giving these learners a voice, a written voice, no less. Accomplishing such feats can do wonders to the dyslexic learners’ self-esteem, and the reader of this article is given the courage to tackle writing in a positive and creative setting with these particular learners.

Rachel addresses the method, which is also useful for weaker learners in general, discusses the necessary organisation and preparation, and also offers advice regarding software programmes to help with the writing. There is also advice on how to evaluate the texts.

Throughout the text Rachel is encouraging and one can feel the spark of creativity flowing through her own fingers.

Dear Reader, I hope you will also find inspiration and courage as you read this illuminating article!

Illya Arnet-Clark

ETAS Journal Editorial Board

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Teaching creative writing to dyslexic students

Rachael Harris

In this article we will look at some of the challenges facing dyslexic students and discover practical ways of supporting these students through creative writing based lessons.

Teaching writing to students with learning difficulties has always been seen as a challenge by both teacher and learners. For this reason, reading and writing skills were often neglected while teachers concentrated on listening and speaking, which were seen as easier for the dyslexic student. Indeed, some schools of thought previously suggested that learning any form of foreign language at all was beyond the scope of certain learners and therefore they should be exempt from these classes.

Since the UNESCO Salamanca Statement (http://www.csie.org.uk/inclusion/unesco-salamanca.shtml) in 1994, insertion and equal rights in education have been encouraged. Insertion leads to the need for differentiation, allowing each student to achieve their potential and progress in the classroom. Nowadays, it has become imperative to find ways to help students with learning difficulties to fulfill their potential in all areas, including learning foreign language and all that this entails.

Challenges

Spelling is not the only difficulty facing dyslexic students, although it may be a major one. They also find organization of ideas and sequencing hard. Many dyslexic students have trouble with working memory, meaning they find it difficult to know where to start and how to plan their writing. According to some sources (e.g. Reid, 2011, up to 60%  of dyslexic students also suffer from related learning disabilities such as dyspraxia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This overlap means that many dyslexic students must overcome the physical difficulty of actually writing their text once they have planned it. These difficulties can seem insurmountable, especially to the students themselves. However, one of the major obstacles is a lack of self-esteem and motivation that can often lead to the students giving up before they have even started.

Support methods

While these factors may make successful creative writing seem an almost hopeless objective, there are in fact many ways to help dyslexic students. What I have found even more interesting is that these methods are also effective with weaker learners without learning difficulties and in general with all learners in the language classroom. In fact, you are probably already using many of these tips when teaching creative writing.

Preparation

Since many students need more time to collect their ideas on a given subject, I often give the topic for homework, or post it on the class blog so students who wish to can prepare some thoughts or vocabulary before the lesson. Some students prefer to draw scenes of their story before describing them with words and bring these drawings to class. This not only provokes an interesting discussion on the subject but also allows some students to demonstrate one of their strengths in a place where unfortunately it is rarely the case. At the start of the lesson, I use some of these students’ work and other visual resources to encourage brainstorming in pairs. If you choose your pairs carefully, then this part of the lesson actually becomes a form of informal peer tutoring.

Organisation

To help students organise their ideas in a visual way, I encourage them to produce a mind map and use the various sections to form paragraphs later. I also offer students a writing framework, with checklists including, for example: Who? When? Where? What happened? Describe what you can see, smell, hear, or feel. Some frameworks include paragraph titles, first and last lines, keywords, and connectors that must be used, etc.  Sometimes I give out these lists, but often we come to a group agreement about what to include.

Production

There are many ways to support dyslexic learners in the actual writing of their texts. If you are lucky enough to be able to allow word processors in the classroom, then there is a lot of great software available. Programmes such as Texthelp® and iReadWrite® have features that include word prediction to help students find the word they are looking for, phonetic spell checks, definitions for homophones, image dictionaries, and the possibility of reading the finished text (or any other imported text) aloud. Even with no special software, changing the background colour to a pastel shade and avoiding black ink can help, as can using a dyslexia-friendly font such as OpenDyslexic or the more commonly used Comic Sans or Times New Roman. If this material cannot be used in class, then perhaps students should be allowed to complete the work at home, thus removing the stress of having to complete the work within a given time.

If the writing is to be done in class, there are still opportunities to support dyslexic students. Offering a scribe can be detrimental to self-esteem, but pair writing can overcome this, with one student providing more work in terms of preparation and ideas and the other producing the majority of the written work. During writing activities, I encourage dyslexic students to have a word list of commonly misspelt words at hand, and refer to it when necessary. Many students prefer writing on coloured paper, too.

Evaluation

During evaluations dyslexic students can appreciate being given extra time and permission to use their spelling lists or a computer spell checker. When marking, teachers can choose not to use the same assessment grids, for example for spelling, for the entire class. Since every student needs positive feedback, it is important to add a comment to the result. Such positive comments are even more important for those with learning difficulties.

Conclusion

Teaching creative writing to dyslexic students may seem at first like the TEFL equivalent of a 12-meter fence to be jumped. What teachers should realise, however, is that many of these students are often holistic thinkers with brilliant imaginations. For this reason, using creative writing in the classroom offers dyslexic students plenty of learning opportunities. When taught in a non-intimidating manner – such as using various scaffolding techniques –creative writing is a great opportunity to motivate students and make them feel positive about their language learning.

References

Buzan, T. (2010). The mind map book: Unlock your creativity, boost your memory, change your life. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Ltd.

Nijakowaska, J. (2010).  Dyslexia in the foreign language classroom. Bristol, UK; Multilingual matters.

Reid, G. (2011). Dyslexia: A complete guide for parents and those who help them. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Schneider, E. & Crombie, M. (2003). Dyslexia and modern foreign languages. Oxon, UK: David Fulton Publishers.

 

About the Author

Rachael Harris has been teaching EFL for over 20 years. After starting out teaching Business English and ESP classes, she now works as Advanced English coordinator as well as external examiner at a French-speaking secondary and primary school in Geneva for whom she wrote the SEN policy statement. Rachael may be contacted at fabenglishteacher@gmail.com, www.fabenglishideas.wordpress.com, or @fabenglishteach