Strategies for specific problem areas

Poor phonological processing ability

The evidence that training in phonological skills facilitates literacy development is extremely strong (see Bryant and Bradley, 1985; Goswami and Bryant, 1990; and Rack, 1994). Lundberg, Frost and Peterson (1988) showed that relatively short daily sessions of phonological activities (15–20 minutes) carried out with kindergarten pupils resulted in improved phonological skills and significant gains in reading and spelling (compared with a control group) through at least to their second year of schooling. In this particular study, activities progressed from simple listening and rhyming games, to segmentation of sentences into words, words into syllables and, finally, syllables into phonemes. In the Cumbria study, Hatcher, Hulme, and Ellis (1994) found that integrated sound-categorisation and letter-knowledge training produced the largest improvements in reading and spelling of a group of seven-year-olds who were failing in reading.

Phonological awareness can be developed by a variety of methods. For example:

  • Rhyming and alliteration – suitable techniques range from simple rhyming songs and games to more structured activities involving making books with rhyming or alliterative themes, playing rhyming snap or ‘odd-one-out’ games with pictures and objects; using plastic letters to discover and create rhyming word families
  • Deletion of the first sound (e.g. ‘near–ear’) or of the last sound (e.g. ‘party–part’), or of whole syllables (e.g. saying ‘alligator’ without the ‘all’)
  • Elision of the middle sound (e.g. snail–sail) or syllable (‘alligator’ without the ‘ga’)
  • Correspondence – e.g. tapping out the number of syllables in a word

Many of these activities are very suitable for playing at home, so parental involvement is strongly encouraged. Many phonological discrimination activities are also useful for phonological training. For ideas on phonological awareness activities see Goswami and Bryant (1990); Layton and Upton (1992); Layton, Deeney, Tall and Upton (1996); James, Kerr and Tyler (1994); Yopp (1992). Sound Linkage (Hatcher, Duff & Hulme, 2014) is based on the Cumbria project on phonological awareness (Hatcher, Hulme and Ellis, 1994) and includes materials for testing and training. Snowling and Stackhouse (2006) provide a useful compendium of recommendations on teaching dyslexic students with speech and language difficulties. The PAT books (Phonological Awareness Training; Buckinghamshire County Council) includes levels that are suitable for primary students. Recommended computer-based activities for practising phonological skills include Tizzy’s Toybox and Talking Animated Alphabet (Sherston); Letterland; and Sounds and Rhymes (Xavier).

In general, younger students respond well to phonological training activities and skills swiftly improve. However, some dyslexic students may have more persistent difficulties that will require particularly careful literacy teaching. In such cases, a well-structured multisensory approach incorporating plenty of practice in phonic skills (over-learning) is recommended. Examples of suitable schemes are given later. Without phonological awareness training, many students with such weaknesses are liable to develop an over-reliance on visual (whole word) and contextual strategies in reading (especially if they are bright). They can easily slip through the net, only to re-appear as a student who is failing in reading and spelling later in their schooling.

Poor auditory working memory

Commonly, weaknesses in either phonological awareness or auditory discrimination are easier to improve through direct training than memory limitations are, especially with younger students. On the other hand, older students can respond well to metacognitive approaches to memory improvement, i.e. techniques designed to promote understanding of their own memory limitations and to develop appropriate compensatory strategies (Buzan, 2006; Reid, 2016). However, that does not mean that memory training is not worthwhile with young students. Indeed, it may well be the case that with improved training techniques, remediation of memory weaknesses could turn out to be a much more promising approach in the future. The emphasis should be on variety and on stretching the student steadily with each training session. The tasks should not be too easy for the student (which would be boring) nor much too difficult (which would be discouraging), but they should give just the right amount of challenge to motivate the student to maximum effort. Use of prizes, star charts for improvement, etc., should all be used if these will help motivation. Activities can usually be carried out at home as well as in school. Competition can be motivating for some students, but it can also be discouraging for the student with severe difficulties, because they will easily perceive and be embarrassed by the discrepancy between their performance and that of others.

Auditory memory training activities include:

  • I went to the supermarket – teacher says sentences of increasing length and complexity and the student has to repeat these back verbatim (e.g. ‘I went to the supermarket and bought three tins of beans, one loaf of bread, a carton of milk, a packet of sweets, two bars of chocolate. .. ’ etc.).
  • Find the changed (or missing) word – teacher says a sequence of words to the student (e.g. dog, cat, fish, monkey, spider) and then repeats it changing one (or missing one out altogether), either slightly or more obviously (e.g. dog, cat, fox, monkey, spider) and the student has to identify the change.
  • What’s their job? – Teacher says to the student a list of name–occupation associations (e.g. ‘Mr Pearce the painter, Mrs Jolly the teacher, Mr Fish the hairdresser, Miss Brown the electrician’) and then asks for recall of one (e.g. ‘Who was the teacher?’ or ‘What is Miss Brown’s job?’).
  • Word repetition – teacher says sequences of unrelated words to the student (e.g. hat, mouse, box, cup, ladder, tree, biscuit, car, fork, carpet) and the student has to repeat them in the correct order. The length of the list can be gradually extended. If the words are semantically related it is more difficult, and if they are phonologically related (e.g. fish, film, fog, fun, phone, finger) it is more difficult still.
  • Phoneme repetition – as word repetition, but with phonemes (‘oo, v, s, er, d’). Note that phonologically similar lists will be much more difficult (e.g. ‘p, b, k, d, t’).
  • Letter name repetition – as word repetition, but with letter names.
  • Digit repetition – as word repetition, but with digits. About one per second is the maximum difficulty for short sequences. Slightly faster or slower rates are both, generally, easier to remember, but dyslexics tend to find a slower sequence harder (because their rehearsal processes in working memory are deficient).

Recommended computer software for developing auditory memory includes Mastering Memory (CALSC), which is a very flexible tool for practising memory strategies, but it does require quite a lot of teacher input. Use of the phonic teaching system AcceleRead, AcceleWrite (Iansyst) has also been found to improve working memory ability (Miles, 2000).

Poor phonic decoding skills

For the reasons explained above, the student who displays major difficulties in auditory memory is likely to have problems in acquiring effective phonic skills. The recommendations here would be for a highly-structured multisensory phonic approach to literacy learning. This should not only provide ample practice to compensate for memory weakness, but it should also make use of the student’s strong visual skills in order to reinforce learning and help to maintain confidence.

Examples of well-structured phonics schemes suitable for younger students with dyslexic difficulties include Alpha to Omega, Toe by Toe, The Bangor Dyslexia Teaching System, The Phonics Handbook, Sound Linkage, Spelling Made Easy, The Hickey Multisensory Language Course, Star Track Reading and Spelling, Sounds-Write and Sound Discovery.

Good computer software for practising phonic skills includes: Wordshark5, Talking Animated Alphabet, Nessy and Lexia.

Wordshark5 offers 60 different computer games which use sound, graphics and text to teach and reinforce word recognition and spelling. The program includes phonics, onset and rime, homophones, spelling rules, common letter patterns, visual and auditory patterns, prefixes, suffixes, roots, word division, high frequency words, use of words in context, alphabet and dictionary skills and more. In an evaluation of Wordshark in 403 schools (Singleton and Simmons, 2001), teachers reported significant benefits to reading, spelling and confidence in using the program. Talking animated alphabet helps young children develop their knowledge of the shapes, sounds and names of the alphabet. Nessy Reading and Spelling is an online program including 100 structured lessons for students (age 5–12) to work through. Lexia (suitable for Reception to Year 6) provides explicit, systematic, personalised learning in six areas of reading instruction (phonological awareness, phonics, structural analysis, automaticity/fluency, vocabulary and comprehension). Lexia is web-enabled, allowing students to access the software seamlessly between school and home.

Use of a talking word processor is beneficial because it gives the student auditory feedback and encourages them to pay attention to the phonic components of words when writing. For example: Clicker 7, DocsPlus, SymWriter 2 and Texthelp Read and Write. A generic structured learning scheme such as AcceleRead, AcceleWrite (Iansyst) can be used with any good talking word processor.

Further information on techniques for teaching the dyslexic pupil can be found in Augur (1996); Cooke (2002); Crombie (2018); Hornsby (1995); Pollock, Waller and Politt (2004); Reid (2016); Thomson and Watkins (2007).

Poor visual memory

It is widely acknowledged that the predominant problems found in dyslexic students are phonological rather than visual (Pumfrey and Reason, 1991; Snowling, 2000; Snowling and Thomson, 1991). Indeed, dyslexic individuals often have excellent visual skills (West, 2009). Nevertheless, teachers and educational psychologists are not infrequently confronted by cases of young students who appear to have inordinate difficulties in remembering various types of information presented visually.

Structured phonics work, with ample practice (over-learning) will compensate for visual memory weaknesses. A multisensory approach is strongly recommended, building on any auditory and kinaesthetic strengths. Suitable phonics programmes and associated activities are given later.

The following are suggested training activities for students with poor visual memory:

  • Find the missing part – create pictures of everyday things with parts of the pictures missing (e.g. doll with one arm, table with only three legs) and ask the student to identify what is missing. To do this the student has to recall visual images of the relevant objects.
  • What’s wrong here – use pictures of everyday things with parts of the pictures wrong (e.g. house with the door halfway up the wall; person with feet pointing backwards instead of forwards) and ask the student to identify what is wrong. To do this the student has to recall visual images of the relevant objects.
  • Kim’s game – put an array of familiar objects on a tray (or a picture of an array of objects). The student scans this for two minutes (or whatever period of time is appropriate) and then has to remember as many as possible.
  • Symbols – show the student a sequence of symbols, letters or shapes of increasing length, and then jumble them up and the student has to rearrange them in the correct order. Remember that this can become more of a verbal task than a visual task . If you want to practice visual skills then it is best to have stimuli which are not easily verbally coded.
  • Who lives here? — make a set of pictures of people (these may be cut from magazines) and a set of houses of different colours, or different appearance in some way. The people are matched with the houses, and then jumbled up. The student has to rearrange them in the correct relationship. If the people are given names, then the task becomes more verbal.
  • Pelmanism – remembering matching pairs of cards from a set, when cards are individually turned over and then turned back. The student has to remember where the other one of the pair is, and if both are located these are removed from the set, and so on.
  • Card games – e.g. Snap, Happy Families.
  • A recommended computer program for developing visual memory skills is Mastering Memory.

Maths difficulties

Maths can cause problems and below are examples of the three main ways it impacts students:

  1. The student who can understand and do the maths but makes careless errors from mis- reading the problem, or reversing digits or sequences of digits, which makes nonsense of the calculations.
  2. The student who may be able to do the maths, but if they cannot read the maths problem, or read it sufficiently accurately, they will be unable to work to their mathematical ability level. Audio versions of the maths book can often solve this problem, especially when headphones are used for privacy. A talking word processor can help with wordy problem worksheets, but not when formulae are involved (see above).
  3. The student who has dyscalculia (specific mathematical difficulties) and so will have much more serious problems. Recommended programs include NumberShark5, Maths Circus, Dynamo Maths and 123Maths.

All students with numeracy problems can help improve their understanding of maths by exploring maths adventure programs. This can be especially effective if there is an element of maths phobia and it is undertaken at home or in a computer club, where they learn the maths incidentally. For further suggestions regarding strategies for supporting students with maths difficulties, see Chinn and Ashcroft (2016) and Henderson (2012).