How can I develop literacy skills for learners affected by dyslexia? by @debsmusing

A common question asked in our teaching sessions.

There are so many specific learning difficulties in terms of literacy. One such difficulty is dyslexia, which can affect learners significantly in terms of their personal and professional lives if not addressed. In this blog, I will compare and contrast the strategies used to develop literacy skills within the context of dyslexia support.  Please bare with my ramblings!

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Deborah Jones and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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To summarise, dyslexia is an information processing difficulty which can affect aspects of working memory, phonological awareness, sequencing and visuo-motor skills (Bartlett, D 2000).   Working memory stores the information we need to keep in our minds for a short period of time. For example, when meeting someone for the first time, we need to remember their name. The retaining and manipulation of information in the mind can prove challenging for the dyslexic person. In terms of phonological awareness, dyslexic learners may have difficulty decoding the phonological segments of words and of associating letters to sounds and sounds to letters (ibid). Sequencing is needed to recognise order of letters in a word and ordering of sounds in these words. Examples of sequencing difficulties are reciting the alphabet and following instructions. Visuo-motor skills are used in tasks such as writing, copying and orientation (ibid). The reversal errors of misplacing b with d are argued to be due to poor visuo-motor skills.

The dyslexic learner requires coping strategies which have these key areas of concern at the forefront of the consideration. If these problem areas can be addressed and assessed on an individual basis, the tutor and learner can begin to work with the specific areas of concern.  It is important to remember as a teacher, however, that dyslexia is individual. All learners will have individual learning styles and different profiles (Green and Reid 2007). Assessment of the areas of concern in terms of literacy development include testing accuracy and speed of reading, reading comprehension, spelling, copying, note taking and free writing (Bartlett, D 2000). I have on occasion carried out a miscue analysis with learners to pinpoint the type of spelling errors made. A learner with a poor visual memory may spell phonetically and confuse homophones. A learner who has poor phonological skills may position letters in the wrong place or omit altogether.

This is why it It is so important to carry out an initial assessment; to establish a level at which the student is currently working to ensure the texts used in the various literacy tests are appropriate for the learner. Learners should be consulted on any problems with hearing or seeing, as they may be contributing to a particular difficulty (Pollock and Waller 1994).

To the dyslexic learner, acquiring and learning literacy is likely to be hindered by the physical and cognitive barriers described. I tend to recall the teachings of Broomfield and Combley (1997) that over-learning is necessary in teaching dyslexic adults, as skills are more likely to become automatic this way.  There is a significant benefit to using this strategy in my experience. I believe that this approach should also be combined with a multisensory teaching programme to tackle the specific literacy needs of the learner. It is important for dyslexic learners to see, hear and feel in terms of learning to read and write. Broomfield and Combley (1997) write that the multisensory approach assists the development of automatic links between sound and symbol. Kinaesthetic approaches to teaching are also associated with the multisensory approach. This approach combines input (seeing and hearing) with output (speaking and writing) (ibid).   For a number of years, I used a computer programme called the Adult Literacy Programme (2004) with some learners, which is a structured, multisensory programme which focuses on over-learning and tackles literacy at word and phoneme level before moving onto text level. It is mapped to the Literacy Core Curriculum (2001), which is still useful to refer to today, and therefore relevant to learners’ specific literacy needs. The use of ICT for dyslexia support is growing. Programmes to aid the learner with spelling, planning and writing are continually being developed and updated. Concept keyboards can be used which use overlays in response to a particular programme. These often include pictures and symbols to further aid the learner (Broomfield and Combley 1997).

It is useful to start sessions with phonological awareness exercises to ‘warm up’ learners; often comprising of various multisensory games involving an alphabet arc and magnetic letters on a magnetic board. The learners are asked to identify the alphabet in a sequence and to identify phonemes in words at a particular level.   Broomfield and Combley (1997) recommend a focus upon phonemes for initial sound cues and for developing spelling.  Blending sounds in words is an effective strategy to develop word level skills, as is the use of onset-rime strategies for learning. The teaching of base words and suffixes is then effective and develops the learner’s text reading skills, with the understanding that these techniques can affect meaning, for example ‘help’ and ‘un-help-ful’. The learner can then identify syllables in words and use the separation of these ‘beats’ to understand meaning of the word.   At text level, a sentence or passage may be tackled by the learner by using shared reading strategies, as recommended by Broomfield and Combley (ibid). The use of larger, coloured letters or overlays could be beneficial as could tracking with a pencil or a ruler. The learner could also be asked to represent the text in pictorial form to aid comprehension.

Any priority words relating to the learners specific needs are learned using multisensory spelling strategies. The learner is asked to establish a word which they have difficulty spelling. The problem area of the word is identified and then the process of look, say, cover, picture, say, write is followed to learn the spelling of the word. I ensure that my learners over-learn with this strategy by revisiting the same word each week for around 3 or 4 weeks depending on the learner.

There is also an argument that writing cursively allows the learner to develop automaticity skills and therefore spelling skills. When the pen is continuously on the page, the learner is ‘feeling’ the word and therefore learning it in a multisensory way. The argument is that once the pen is lifted from the paper the greater chance of error when it is replaced (Pollock and Waller 1994).

So, that’s it…  I have suggested the importance of using a multisensory approach to over-learning as the most successful and appropriate technique, along with developing each learning plan as individual.  I hope this helps with the planning for specific literacy needs in the classroom.


Bartlett, D., Moody, S. (2000) Dyslexia in the Workplace. London: Whurr Publishers.

Broomfield,H., Crombley, M. (1997) Overcoming Dyslexia. A Practical Handbook for the Classroom. London: Whurr Publishers.

DfES. (2001) Adult Literacy Core Curriculum. London: DfES

Green, S., Reid, G. (2007) The Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Dyslexia. London: Continuum International.

Pollock, J., Waller, E. (1994) Day to Day Dyslexia in the Classroom. London: Routledge.

The Dyslexia Institute. (2004) Adult Literacy Programme. Surrey: The Dyslexia Institute.

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