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“Secondary School Can Make it Difficult for Pupils with Dyslexia to Reach their Full Potential”

Alison Wilcox explains why, when it comes to supporting secondary pupils with dyslexia, a metacognitive approach can pay dividends…

Alison Wilcox
by Alison Wilcox
Shakespeare lesson
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! KS3 English lesson plan – Introducing Shakespeare to lower ability pupils

Dyslexia is a hidden disability thought to affect around 10% of the population, and 4% severely. It is the most common of the specific learning difficulties and, although difficulties in the area of literacy are often the most visible sign, dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved.

The Rose Report definition describes the phonological deficit, highlighting that pupils with dyslexia have difficulty processing sound, retaining information that is heard and processing at an age-appropriate speed. This adversely affects reading and spelling, and prevents pupils achieving automaticity in these areas. This, in turn, causes problems accessing the curriculum and achieving their full potential academically.

In addition, the magnocellular deficit or visual disturbance/stress is often included under the umbrella term of dyslexia. Visual disturbance/stress causes words and letters to move on the page, making fluent and accurate reading difficult. Although a pupil may not have both deficits, a diagnostic assessment is necessary to ensure that the correct support is put in place.

Meeting the specific needs of individual pupils with dyslexia, however, can often be challenging.

Individuals, all of us

Each pupil will have a unique profile with different areas of severity. The instance of co-occurrence with other specific learning difficulties (SpLD) is high, making the complexity of individual needs greater. Many pupils with dyslexia may have one or more of the following specific learning difficulties: attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADD/ADHD), dyscalculia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia and autism spectrum disorder. Recognising the pupil’s specific learning difficulty is vital in providing the correct support.

SENCos and senior leaders need to determine a process for quickly responding to individual difficulties and possible identification of pupils with dyslexia..

Teachers have a vital role to play in recognising behaviours that may be indicators of dyslexia, many of which can initially be identified through the introduction of classroom checklists.

The key principle for providing a dyslexia-friendly learning environment is consistency throughout the school and across the whole staff. Pupils with dyslexia have to put in an enormous effort to cope with the daily challenges of the school day, but an organised setting where appropriate and varied resources are used helps pupils with such difficulties to thrive and succeed.

For pupils with visual stress

The main considerations for meeting the needs of a pupil with visual stress include reducing the contrast between black text and white background, and limiting the amount of visual information to be possessed. For individual needs, consider using some of the following:

  • Coloured overlays
  • Cream paper for handouts and exercise books
  • Pastel or cream backgrounds for computers and PowerPoint presentations

Font size should be a minimum of 12 point for paper and 28 point for PowerPoint; recommended fonts include sans serif examples such as Verdana, Century Gothic, Tahoma, Arial, Comic Sans, Trebuchet and Calibri. For copy that needs emphasis, bolding the text is preferred, whilst avoiding italics, underlining or text in capitals. Line spacing should be set no closer than at 1.5.


Teachers need to be aware of which pupils have dyslexia, what their areas of specific difficulty are, and of the potential emotional consequences of having dyslexia. Providing an inclusive learning environment where pupils’ needs are met without drawing attention to their difficulties will limit feelings of embarrassment and frustration.

Pupils with dyslexia can become fluent readers, although the speed at which they read and their ability to comprehend long, complex texts can remain impaired. They may have to read a text several times to reach the same level of understanding as other students.

Providing subject-specific key words in classroom handouts and encouraging pupils to take risks with their spelling, suggesting that they underline these words when unsure can be very useful. Teaching the spelling of key words in a multi-sensory way has also been found to be effective; encouraging a metacognitive approach, by asking pupils to analyse their spelling mistakes and deciding what they will change to ensure those words are spelt correctly in future, is also a sound strategy.

Key strategies for writing

Writing is a difficult medium for pupils with dyslexia to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and creativity. They can find it hard to interpret questions, and understand how much to write and what to include. Other barriers to writing include spelling, sequencing ideas, grammar and remembering their ideas long enough to record them. The time, effort and lack of awareness make proofreading a challenging conclusion to the process.

It’s useful to check pupils’ understanding of the task and use collaborative learning. Voice recognition and mind mapping software can also help to improve written outcomes, as can teaching ‘questioning the question’ approaches, whereby pupils are asked to identify the topic area, any limiting words and all directives.

Again, encouraging a metacognitive approach at each stage of the process of writing, reflecting, reviewing, monitoring and transferring new learning will give pupils useful strategies that can help them feel more confident and able to manage their learning. Making things manageable by breaking writing tasks into chunks and encouraging pupils to plan are further effective strategies, while feedback and rewards can provide other useful tools.

Appropriate verbal and/or written feedback should be offered regularly, so that pupils know what to repeat or how to improve. Similarly, providing examples of good practice and modelling it helps to clarify what is necessary.

Ultimately, the increased demands of learning in a secondary school can make it difficult for pupils with dyslexia to reach their full potential. It is therefore crucial for teachers to be aware of the type of support and strategies which are most effective – and to also remember that every individual learner is unique. For every learning difficulty each may experience, there will be as many strengths upon which we can seize and build!

Alison Wilcox is head of education at Nasen. Browse more resources for Dyslexia Awareness Week.

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