Dyslexia does not usually favour the learning of another language, especially one as opaque as English, which is why we see many messages in forums about the difficulty that students with dyslexia have when they have to face English classes at school or high school. However, the experience we have accumulated teaches us that it is not an impossible task and that it is, above all, a matter of changing the strategy when it comes to learning and teaching.
A fundamental part of learning any language is vocabulary. It is the most important part, even more important than grammar. However, many English courses have a primary focus on grammar and leave the subject of vocabulary as something secondary, something to do at home.
However, it is precisely vocabulary that empowers us to communicate in another language. It gives us the tools to express ourselves and to make ourselves understood, but also to understand the other person.
Today we are going to talk about a strategy for a student with dyslexia to become proficient in English by strengthening vocabulary.
For this we have 3 keys (or phases) that are equally important and very practical for the dyslexic brain :
We know that most students with dyslexia function very poorly with written text, but very well with pictures. The first key, then, is for the learner to see not only the word to be learned in written form, but also an image that represents it. It can be a picture on paper (or the screen), but it can also be an object. There are people who fill their house with post-it notes. On the table there is a post-it with “TABLE”, on the chair with “CHAIR”, and so on. The important thing is that the learner can link the new word (in this case “table” and “chair”) to something visual, either the object in question or a picture of it.
People with dyslexia have little ability to decode written text, but they do have a high visual and/or kinaesthetic ability. Therefore, visual and kinaesthetic cues work well for their brain.
The first phase, linking a new word with the object that represents it, encourages the creation of new neural connections, which constitutes new information in the working memory or short-term memory. It is now important to anchor these connections, because if we do not do so, the connections disappear soon after they are created. It is important to bring the information from working memory into long-term memory. This anchoring is done through repetition. The more often we repeat this neural connection (between the new word and the object that represents it), the more firmly it stays in our long-term memory. But it is not a matter of repeating it 50 times in a row to consolidate this knowledge, but of doing it with few repetitions and with intervals between sessions. The intervals can be several hours or a day (they should not be too long, otherwise the new learning disappears from short-term memory). As we work with students with dyslexia, it is very important that repetitions are done in a multi-sensory way. Sometimes with pictures, sometimes with objects, sometimes with audio (or the spoken word) and sometimes (even if it is more difficult because of their dyslexia) with written words. We can not only change the channel, but also the presentation (list of words, game, puzzle, comic, story, video, song, colours, etc.). The more channels and presentations we use, the better the information is anchored.
The dyslexic brain does not tend to like abstract things. Therefore, the last phase of vocabulary learning is contextualisation.
We use the new vocabulary in real situations such as conversations or stories to make the learner see that the vocabulary is really useful in order to be able to communicate better.
Active use of the new vocabulary learned in situations that simulate real communication is much better than giving a list of words in the left-hand column and asking the learner to translate it on the right. It is much better to ask the learner to use the new words in a real conversation or story or to ask him/her questions and tell him/her that he/she has to answer using the new vocabulary. Through these exercises the new vocabulary makes communicative sense to the learner and is much better retained in long-term memory.
And a little extra secret …
Everything we have said here for pupils with dyslexia also works wonders for pupils without dyslexia, and this is true for almost all adaptations that anyone can make for pupils with dyslexia.