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Anne Margaret-Smith

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Anne-Margaret Smith teaches ESOL in a Technical College in England. In this short piece she explores issues connected with dyslexic language learners.

Professional bodies concerned with dyslexia in the UK estimate that up to about 10% of the population may be affected to some degree. It is hardly surprising, then, that at least some of the English language learners in our classrooms, wherever we are teaching, also experience difficulties in their learning due to dyslexia or other developmental learning differences. Dyslexia is often associated with reading and writing difficulties, but this is by no means the full story. Indeed, some dyslexic students may not manifest any problems with literacy skills, but have other problems which impact on their language learning. Typically these can include an extremely short-term memory, organisational problems, and a difficulty with phonological processing and sequencing.

I first became interested in dyslexia as a novice teacher in Sweden when I had in my class a bright student who was extremely communicative orally, but whose written work did not reflect his ability. This prompted me to learn more about dyslexia and I discovered that this apparent discrepancy in performance was one of the key indicators. I went on to qualify as a teacher of dyslexic students and these days I work in an FE college in the UK, both in the ESOL department and in the Learning Support department, so I am well-placed to identify and work with dyslexic language learners.

Deciding when a language learner is having difficulties in class because of dyslexia, rather than because of first language interference (or any other cause) is by no means straightforward. There are well-established batteries of tests normed for (English-speaking) populations of all ages, but unfortunately, these are not suitable because they are largely (English) language dependent. Instead, I use a combination of non-verbal tests and interview the students about their childhoods and educational backgrounds. From this it is possible to assess the underlying reasons for studentsí difficulties and, if appropriate, to put in place any exam access arrangements that the learners may be entitled to. I am currently developing and refining this assessment procedure, and would be delighted to hear from anybody else who is working on something similar. I believe that in the future we are likely to see more learners with dyslexia in our classes and that all language teachers will need to have some awareness of how they can identify and support these students. The good news is that most of the strategies that we can use in the classroom to help our dyslexic learners are generally beneficial to the class as a whole, and with the right support there is no reason why a dyslexic student cannot achieve as much as any other learner.