Language Myth #2: "I can't learn a language because I'm dyslexic"

Dispelling common language fears

Many dyslexia sufferers are scared by their school experiences of being stigmatized and stereotyped as 'unteachable' or 'stupid' or 'illiterate'. Attitudes to dyslexia are much healthier nowadays, and nobody should feel ashamed of their dyslexia. Dyslexia is only a problem when a tutor is unaware of the needs of the student, and is inflexible in their approach to get the best results.

It's also much more common that you might think; it is estimated that as many as 1/5 people may suffer from at least one of the symptoms of dyslexia. Famous dyslexics include Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise and Jamie Oliver to name but a few.

So does dyslexia just mean that you can't read very well? Not at all. In fact, dyslexia is a complicated beast; it can mean working memory is shorter, making it difficult to retain information, letters appear mixed up, impairing reading ability, or the individual cannot easily understand how a word sounds just from looking at it.

The great news is that it is absolutely possible to learn a language when you suffer from dyslexia. All you will need is determination and a great tutor who is willing to adapt their lesson plans to help you. Take a look at the following tips:

1. Talk to your tutor. It sounds simple, but this will be the most important step in getting the most out of your lessons; if you don't tell your tutor what you are struggling with, and what your preferences are, he or she won't be able to help you.

2. Multi-sensory learning. A tutor that uses a variety of resources with a dyslexic student will have the most success; use all senses - try video clips, audio clips, conversation, role plays, games and songs, as well as tactile products which the student can touch, such as forming letters and sounds out of clay or a similar material.

3. Know your learning style. There are three main types of learners:

a. Visual learners learn best through seeing things; try overhead projections with clear instructions and vocabulary, with words spaced well apart to allow the individual to concentrate on just that single word. You can also try mind mapping, post it notes, writing syllables in different coloured pens and playing memory games such as 'pairs' to improve working memory and test vocabulary at the same time. Flashcards will also be useful, as repetition is key with vocabulary learning. Mind mapping is also a good way to make bold, visually impactful vocabulary notes which are easier to revise from than a long list of vocabulary.

b. Auditory learners learn best through listening; audio recordings, songs, conversations, and reading aloud will help these students. Applications like WordTalk also enable notes to be read aloud to you, in a text-to-speech function.

c. Kinaesthetic learners learn best by doing things and combining learning with physical activity; this could be memorising notes whilst walking around the house, taking field trips, talking with native speakers or practicing with friends. Touch is also an important sense for this learning group. Try tracing letters or sounds into the air or into coloured sand; it may help to better understand the sound you are making.

4. Did you know that the background colour of the paper you are working on or reading on can help to ease the symptoms of dyslexia? Try using materials printed on pastel colours such as peach or lilac; each learner will have their own preference. Apply this rule to your workbooks too; try to stick to a lined workbook with similar pastel coloured pages, readily available online from many dyslexia specialists.

5. The font a tutor types notes in can also make a difference; for dyslexic students avoid italics or underlining - instead use bold typeface to emphasize words; underlining can make all the lines run together. Sans serif fonts such as Comic Sans, Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, Century Gothic or Trebuchet are often used. There is also a specific open source font available for free online called OpenDyslexic; a font designed specifically for use in schools to aid dyslexic pupils, for those who find that letters often "swim" together on the page.

6. The most important thing you can to do help with dyslexia is to create a tidy, clutter-free space to work in; students should feel relaxed. There is scientific reasoning behind the need for relaxation; when we become anxious or stressed, these thoughts cloud our ability to think, and for a dyslexic pupil who may already be struggling with their working memory capacity, this can make it impossible to learn anything at all. To achieve this relaxation, building confidence is important, and the lesson should be taken at the student's own pace to reinforce the important relationship between teacher and pupil.

Having a tutor who is aware of your learning needs will be of utmost importance; all of my lessons are fully adaptable to your specifications. Additionally, I work closely with a dyslexia specialist, who is also available for consultation to help strengthen your confidence with literacy and language learning. Dyslexia just requires a different teaching approach, but with the correct support, you can excel. Please contact me for more details.

How the education system is failing our children in MFL lessons

"Students will gain more confidence in a 1 hour private lesson with me than a term at school!"

As a private tutor, you could perceive that every failing school student would leave me rubbing my palms with glee at the thought of all that extra cash.  Quite the opposite.  I cannot begin to express my frustration after working with students across several state and private schools in the area on their Modern Foreign Language studies.  I would much rather spend my time helping them to excel at languages and conversational competency than explaining the basics to them; when a GCSE student points and the word “et” in French (and) and asks me what it means, just two weeks before her mock exams, I believe I have cause for concern.  She is no exception.

Three months before they are due to sit their GCSE exams, I am working with a handful of conscientious students – truly great kids with caring families - kids whose language skills after five or more years of French classes are quite frankly lower than the skills of my “basic” beginners.  Moreover, students are so terrified at the prospect of actually having to speak a foreign language, due to the lack of practice opportunities in class.   

Don’t think for one moment that my criticism lies with the teachers; not at all.  Anybody outside of the teaching circle simply does not appreciate the sheer volume of work that goes into preparing exams and following a nitpicking syllabus.  The restrictions are such that children are left with almost no useful language skills outside of the classroom.  Ask them to write ten sentences detailing what we must do to protect the environment and they may oblige, but ask them to order in a restaurant and many are reluctant to even try.  Speaking proficiency and confidence really need to be addressed – and any teacher faces an uphill battle, given the increasing class sizes and the mountain of work in front of them to tick all the boxes from the exam board demands.

Every year after the GCSE results are published, we hear the familiar cries that “GCSEs are getting easier”.  If that is truly the case, then we are in even more trouble than it already seems.  We do have an increasing number of students achieving high grades – so how do we have such a disparity between the apparent capabilities of students and the results they are seemingly achieving?  The answer is simple; an increasing shift towards coursework and controlled assessments has allowed desperate teachers the potential to bow to the pressure exerted on them by school league tables and OFSTED visits. 

When the students I began working with achieved A grades in their controlled assessments – along with the entire class I might add, I began to ask questions.  In some classes, students have confided in me that the speaking assessments, which should be painstakingly prepared by the students themselves, are simply distributed to them by the teacher, to learn by rote and regurgitate under exam conditions.  Results simply do not correlate with the students’ abilities. 

Worse still are my findings from private schools; students without text books or exercise books just weeks away from their important mock exams.  With just a wedge of printed vocabulary lists for company, how is this student expected to engage with the material and suddenly comprehend French grammar and sentence syntax?  This fills me with even more disdain; these parents are paying for what is perceived to be a superior education, but perhaps this should not be assumed.  Should we be subjecting our children to the same dull, drab learning techniques of yesteryear when we know so much better than that now?!  Furthermore, surely this is even more topical now with the increasing rise in dyslexia or ADHD sufferers; does this rote learning provide a positive environment for all to flourish?  It is decidedly doubtful. 

My old professor was always an advocate of the shift towards controlled assessments; her view always hinged on the fact that there is nothing more unnatural than a 2 hour writing exam, completely devoid of interaction or creative stimuli; no books, internet access or dictionaries.  However, how can we be encouraged to move away from the stressful exam system when the new system clearly has more flaws than the last?  At least with exams, we could be reasonably sure that it was the work of the student, rather than the teacher...  

It may be simply easier to close our eyes to this shocking behaviour; to keep quiet and accept the A* grades, letting our children plough on to further education.  Do school league tables really indicate the quality of the education they are receiving, or does it simple indicate the amount of information they are being force-fed?  There is no escaping the looming question: what is the real purpose of education?  We are creating a culture of yes-men.  It seems that passing exams and propelling the school up a therefore meaningless league table has become far more important than equipping our children with any life skills.  If this is the aim, it is a resounding success.

If your child needs extra tuition to prepare for his or her exams, please contact me here