How a simple change in writing coursework can help to boost engagement and productivity for dyslexic students

Heading reading: The emotional impact of dyslexia

In 2019, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dyslexia published the report entitled ‘The Human Cost of Dyslexia: The emotional and psychological impact of poorly supported dyslexia.’

In that report, in a survey of 1300 parents, 88% of the respondents cited that their children suffered from poor self-esteem whilst 95% reported that their children experienced frustration due to their dyslexia. Given that dyslexia is a language disorder that affects the ability to read and write for an estimated 15% of our student population, it is unsurprising that subjects involving lots of reading and writing risk alienating a sizeable part of the student population if taught in a way that plays to their dyslexic weaknesses.

When experiencing frustration and poor self esteem within a busy classroom environment, there is a challenge for teachers to be able to tune into and meet the emotional and academic needs of dyslexic children. In not meeting those needs, we see a decline in engagement and an increase of poor behaviour despite it being commonly recognised that children with dyslexia are more likely to have strengths in creativity, out of the box thinking and verbal reasoning. Wonderful strengths for learning!

The good news is that there are simple teaching strategies that can be used to support dyslexic pupils in utilising their strengths and developing enthusiasm for expressing learning and being productive.

Let me tell you about my experience of working with Sarah, a 13-year-old student with special educational needs, who refused to engage with anything in class, apart from her mobile phone...

Header reading: Meet the need and boost student engagement

In a workshop I lead with year 9 pupils, I showed how to engage in writing coursework using visual learning techniques, such as concept mapping. The difference with my strategy was that we did this work using the concept mapping software, Inspiration 10.

Initially, we started with the pen and paper approach, highlighting the limitations of that approach from a productivity perspective. The students were aware of this way of concept mapping but could not see a value in using it. This was made clear by Sarah, the 13-year-old student who, despite the bans on using them in school, seemed to be surgically attached to her smartphone and was not hesitant in displaying it disruptively.

I pressed on and repeated the concept mapping exercise again, but this time using the software. The pupils started to take notice as we added items to our concept map about Henry VIII’s reign. Sarah was still playing with her phone, but was starting to engage. I told the pupils that they did not, at this stage, need to worry about spelling and grammar, they only needed to focus on learning and capturing what they learnt using concept mapping. Once we were all happy with our concept maps, the behaviour of the smartphone user in the class changed drastically!

Example concept map on Henry VII, created using Inspiration 10.

Example concept map on Henry VII, created using Inspiration 11.

Concept mapping software, such as Inspiration 11, has the ability to take a concept map and convert it into a fully formatted Microsoft Word document. By pressing a button, in seconds, one’s concept map is exported into a Microsoft Word document ready for editing. There is no cheating taking place, no unfair advantage as all the text has been written within the concept mapping software already. The format of the information has changed from a non-linear format to that of a linear format, ideal for essays.

When I pressed the ‘export’ button, Sarah put down her smartphone and then enthusiastically proceeded to start writing her own essay using this new strategy.

Once the concept map had been exported, the pupils could simply use the editing tools of Microsoft Word to proofread and edit as required. Students now can use Microsoft Word to read out text and uncover errors that tired eyes fail to spot.

Heading reading: A small change in approach, a huge change in productivity

The process of essay writing using concept mapping and conversion to Microsoft Word takes the stress and anxiety away in the initial creative part of the process. It makes the process fun and engaging, playing to the strengths of many dyslexic pupils giving them a way to express their learning that conventional approaches make difficult. 

Exporting to Microsoft Word allows for further editing to take place easily and confidently, with the freedom of using accessibility features if required.

This whole approach reduces overwhelm, increases engagement, and reduces poor behaviour, ultimately improving attainment. 

About John Hicks

John Hicks is an accredited therapeutic counsellor and assistive technology advocate who supports young people and adults in unlocking their strengths and managing their weaknesses. He is responsible for The Studying With Dyslexia Blog and for supporting some 2500 families with his Parenting Dyslexia online initiative.

Author, John Hicks