How does dyslexia impact on the writing process?

It is often commented that the characteristics of dyslexic students’ written work might equally be found in the work of a non-dyslexic student. The problems with composition that students with dyslexia experience may be accompanied by difficulty with spelling and handwriting. Students may try to choose words they can spell rather than those they want to use. Those with short-term memory problems may have difficulty transcribing a mentally composed sentence, thus much backtracking is required which disrupts the flow of thought. When this is coupled with reading difficulties, it is easy to see why written tasks are laborious. The techniques of editing and refining demand extra stamina and time, and need to be done in separate stages. To be effective, this requires good pre-planning and time management. Paradoxically these may be the very skills that students with dyslexia may find particularly challenging.

Those students who are familiar with their own problems and are used to academic study are often highly disciplined to the task and start work on assignments as soon as they receive them. Others will need some explicit help in pacing themselves and in the understanding of the separate stages of the writing process. It is also worth noting that many of the errors will not be picked up by a standard spell checker or, in some cases, by the student’s proof reading.

In any event, it is likely that the final outcome of the work presented may not reflect the time and effort that has gone into its preparation.

When giving feedbacks to students, it may be useful to bear the following points in mind:

  • students need to understand why they have gained or lost marks and if spelling, punctuation and grammar are considered an essential part of the brief, it is important to let them know this in advance;
  • prompt, legible and detailed feedback is especially helpful. Dyslexic students need encouragement on what they have achieved and explicit information about how they can improve their work;
  • feedback about exam performance is as important as feedback after coursework submission; it helps tutors and students to ascertain the reasons for possible low marks or failure. It is important for all students with a SpLD to realise the extent to which low marks are due to a lack of detailed knowledge or to an inability to reflect their knowledge adequately in writing;
  • it is helpful to identify the type (what kinds) of errors that have been made in the work, particularly if these can be pointed out in detail in a small section. Providing correct spellings of subject specific words is very useful;
  • in addition a common perception is that dyslexic students have fluency in oral language but difficulty with written language. However some dyslexic students also experience spoken language difficulties, such as word finding, hesitations, mispronunciations and incomplete sentences. This should be taken into account when assessing oral presentations.

Variations in processing difficulties and the effects of secondary factors, such as environment and self-esteem, contribute significantly to the individual profile. Many students may have developed excellent ‘compensation’ strategies.

Emphasis is usually given to problems with written work. However, writing is only one aspect of the range of difficulties reported by students. These can include some or all of the following:

  • listening and taking notes in a lecture; this is why many students are provided with digital recorders and microphones so that they can concentrate on listening and understanding rather than writing. In some cases students may also have a note-taker;
  • limitations in working memory, resulting in the need to go over texts many times to remember and understand them; this is one of the reasons why extra time is given in examinations;
  • handwriting which may be extremely slow, lacking automaticity, which contributes to spelling errors and/or word omissions;
  • pronunciation of polysyllabic and/or unfamiliar words;
  • slow speed of reading; word omissions, problems making sense of print without substantial re-reading; this is another reason why extra time may be given in exams;
  • difficulties in reading aloud;
  • tendency to misinterpret or miscopy complex written or spoken instructions;
  • word recall difficulties (spoken and written); often giving the appearance of immature language in relation to complexity of ideas;
  • estimating time, both in managing deadlines and for daily routines;
  • left/right confusion, leading to orientation difficulties, e.g. in the library;
  • fatigue as a result of the extra concentration and energy needed to meet both the literacy and non-literacy requirements of the HE environment;
  • difficulties with basic maths and statistics; this particularly affects students who encounter mathematical content within a non-mathematical discipline.

Dyslexia is the most common specific learning difficulty in HE but you may meet students who are dyspraxic, dyscalculic or who also have a pervasive developmental disorder such as Asperger syndrome or autism. Additionally, some students will have a combination of these difficulties and disabilities.

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