Case Study – Social Work and Language / Comprehension Difficulties

Case Study 1 – Source: Campbell, J.W.S. and Cowe, T. (1998) Working with DipSW Students with Dyslexia: A Guide for Practice Teachers. University of Strathclyde.


A is a mature student who, prior to undertaking his social work training, had a degree in philosophy and arts. He had a variety of experiences in social care settings and was a gifted student who had been assessed as having dyslexia by the British Dyslexia Association during his teenage years. Like many other students who have dyslexia he had struggled with written work as a child but had high powers of recall and excellent verbal skills which he had used very ably from childhood, for example by "talking his way out of having to write".

He harboured considerable negative feeling about education, and developed an involvement in local communities using photography as his profession. A had few difficulties within the placement because of his verbal, reflective and analytical skills. His assessments were sound but he required a vast amount of time to write any assignment, report or social work duty/intake referral notes. His spelling was poor, and he lacked confidence in his abilities. Organisation proved difficult and therefore the prioritisation of his work suffered, only to cause further anxiety and word muddle.

So what did the practice teacher need to bear in mind and what was learned in working with this student? In many ways it was relatively straightforward for the practice teacher to begin work with this student, as he had been assessed as dyslexic many years prior to his entry to higher education. However it was not clear how the student learned or what resources could be identified to help him with his writing skills.

As this was the first time the practice teacher had worked with a student who had been formally assessed as having dyslexia, there appeared to be a clear open agenda for supervision, as an approach to learning could be identified and planned to fit the student’s difficulties.

However the practice teacher began by focusing on correcting the student’s written English, albeit in a sensitive way, but this only served to undermine the student’s confidence as each attempt to write formal assessments or case notes bore no resemblance to what was appropriate for the task. The practice teacher quickly recognised that to empower the student there had to be an agreed agenda in supervision about time scales and perhaps reducing the emphasis on written assessment by allowing the student to tape record reports, process recordings and the reflective diary, so that the practice teacher could listen to the content and reference the salient issues for supervision. The practice teacher required to be responsive to the student’s needs by changing her normal way of working. She also ensured, in collaboration with the tutor, that the student received additional support from the Special Needs Adviser at the academic institution. This adviser offered equipment and short-cutting methods to help the student with his written work e.g. an efficient word processor which was compatible with that of the placement agency. The practice teacher also obtained further funding from CCETSW to allow the student non-medical help, namely a scribe, to complete the resources offered to support him with his written work.

Case Study 2 – Source: Campbell, J.W.S. and Cowe, T. (1998) Working with DipSW Students with Dyslexia: A Guide for Practice Teachers. University of Strathclyde.


B had a variety of social work experiences prior to being accepted for the Diploma in Social Work Course. She undertook her first placement in a large psychiatric hospital and worked with a practice teacher who had not previously supervised a student on placement, but who had other experience in teaching social work students. Since her early childhood B had experienced difficulties with spelling and sentence construction but had received little help in her secondary education as she was regarded as a slow learner. She was aware from others within her family that she might have dyslexia, as one of her siblings presented with similar difficulties.The student, tutor and university were very open with the practice teacher in acknowledging the possible difficulties and a psychological assessment was undertaken through the Special Needs Adviser at the university. Although this confirmed that the student could possibly have dyslexia, she also received information on her reading and writing age of ability. The student found it impossible to share this information with the practice teacher and, whether as a result of this or not, the supervision process was less useful than it might otherwise have been. B already had a scribe, a family member who would transcribe all her written work. The practice teacher was unhappy about this arrangement as he felt unable to ascertain how much of the final written product was the student’s own work and therefore felt unable properly to assess her writing skills.

The working relationship between the student and practice teacher deteriorated with the result that each time the practice teacher requested written work the student was unable to produce it, and as a result her anxieties increased. Eventually the skills which she had previously developed in her pre-course work began to diminish. As a result doubt came to be cast on her overall level of achievement in the placement.

So what might the practice teacher have done differently, and what were the areas of learning for the practice teacher and others?

  1. Practice teachers need to be responsive in their approach to students, and it is unrealistic to work from the premise that each student will learn in the same way. This student seemed to require some support in coming to terms with her dyslexia, and perhaps some focus on this area along with greater external support from the Special Needs Adviser and the tutor would have been helpful.
  2. The practice teacher might have been more open to alternative assessment and teaching methods and perhaps some of the issues mentioned under the heading Assessment would have been worth exploring e.g. less concentration on written work and more on verbal skills, reflecting on practice and then using information technology to enable the written work to be produced.
  3. The practice teacher felt that he had failed in practice teaching for the first time. The practice assessor required to support him and to help him consider alternative strategies that might be developed in a situation such as this.
  4. Wider issues arise for placement coordinators within agencies, for example whether students who have dyslexia should perhaps be placed with more experienced practice teachers.
  5. It has been suggested that Practice Teaching Programmes might place more emphasis on an anti-discriminatory perspective, training candidates to be creative and innovative in their approach to the task.
  6. This instance highlights the importance of the practice teacher’s attitude to the task, as it may be that focusing on the "dyslexia" label from the outset served to narrow rather than broaden the perspective of both the student and the practice teacher.
  7. Perhaps the practice teacher would have benefited from more advice and support from others within the agency to help him explore alternative methods of working.
  8. Perhaps the biggest issue and area of learning for the practice teacher was the need to acquire knowledge and share ideas with others who have experience in working with students who have dyslexia.
  9. Some recognition is required concerning the power imbalance that exists between students and practice teachers.

However it is often difficult to undertake these issues as a practice teacher if resources are few and information scarce.

Case Study 3 – Source: Campbell, J.W.S. and Cowe, T. (1998) Working with DipSW Students with Dyslexia: A Guide for Practice Teachers. University of Strathclyde.


C had been assessed as dyslexic on entry into higher education. He had successfully undertaken his academic work, which resulted in his admission to the DipSW course. He was a gifted student in respect of his engagement with young people, and very personable. His vitality in early childhood had equipped him for entry into the Armed Forces – he spent most of his primary schooling perfecting his skills in sport as he was unable to understand the written word in books or on the board within the classroom setting.

He was also regarded as rather slow, and discovered on entering the services that he was unable to progress further because although he was intelligent and physically able, his writing skills were poor, making him unsuitable for promotion. Undertaking exams filled him with fear. However, having had a variety of good experiences with social work agencies, he decided to consider social work as a career.

He began his first placement with great apprehension about his ability to cope with the demands of working in an area team. He felt unable to think about anything other than how he would cope with the volume of written work required of him. Part of the discussion at the pre-placement meeting between the student, practice teacher and tutor concentrated on the positives within the placement and the skills and methods of learning which the student had previously found useful.

The practice teacher was experienced in working with students who have dyslexia and had a knowledge base that helped reduce the concerns of the student. Setting the scene and being clear about roles and responsibilities, and acknowledging difficulties initially, is very important as it can reduce the student’s concerns.

If word muddle exists, whether the student is under stress or not, it is crucial that other areas are clarified. In this instance the practice teacher was creative and somewhat adventurous, taking risks in testing out different methods in helping the student with the written word. These proved to be significant factors in making the placement workable for the student.

Symbols, maps and software compatible with the student’s and agency’s information technology systems seemed to empower the student in his learning. For example, rather than recording the occurrence of a home visit, the student used software to transcribe the diagram of a house into the written phrase, signifying a home visit. Shorter more concentrated discussion helped the student focus on learning and gave time to transfer some ideas into the written word with the practice teacher. The learning for the practice teacher in this instance was vast, not only in looking at different ways of supervising the student, but also learning about the styles of supervision which can also be used with all students. Although many of the skills used provided shortcuts to learning, the student did not lose out on being offered qualitative supervision nor being fully assessed by the practice teacher.



Case Study 4 – Source  This is an extract from a longer interview with a student with dyslexia.


What is the specialist software on the computer?

With Inspirations if you want to plan an assignment you can make spider graphs with your main topic and this in and that. So you can have a visual prompt if you like. Instead of just words you can put a cat in there that prompts you that that is a certain thing. Or another object that prompts you that this is something else. It’s supposed to be easier to associate objects more than words. To tell you the truth I’m still not out of the old fashioned way of writing it down on paper and then going to the computer and actually doing it that way. So I’m still surrounded by piles of paper on the floor. If I had the time I do think that if you know what you are doing on them it would be beneficial. So maybe when I’ve got a bit of time over the holidays … But I’ve got no time over the holidays because I’ve got a 5,000 word assignment to write over the holidays. It’s getting the time to play about on the computer. When I go to the computer I’m either going on the Internet to look up websites that I need for my assignment or I am actually writing the assignment. I very rarely use it for anything else because I haven’t got the time to go and explore and find out how things work. But I think if you do know what you are doing with the programs on there they will benefit you.

In lectures, you touched on the tape-recorder, how do you get on in those? Do you take notes, do you tape it or…?

In the first year I think the tape-recorder would have been really, really beneficial. We had structured lectures in the morning and then seminar groups in the afternoon on the subject that you had just covered in the morning. It was quite straightforward really. It was known to us that the lecturers didn’t mind if we took tape-recorders in to the lectures and put on the front table. I didn’t have one then because I was still going through the process.

This year we are all in rooms and we all sit round. There’s no lecture theatre where the lecturer is at the front giving the lecture. Now they are all in groups and we discuss the issue and say what our perspective is on it. So that means you can have a few people talking at the same time. So I don’t think it would be beneficial to take the tape cassette in. It would take me so long to decipher.

When I found out I was dyslexic I wasn’t confident with it. To tell you the truth it has, and still is, taking me a long time to get my head round that I have got a learning disability. I still don’t really understand it or believe it myself. Have I got a learning disability? Everybody is saying I have, so I am in that sort of phase of it at the moment. So for me to go down in front and say to him, ‘I have a learning disability,’ would have been really difficult to do. I don’t know what the answers are to it.

It’s difficult for lecturers to get it right?

Yes, I know. There were 150 people in the lectures. Obviously that was another reason why I didn’t want to go down.

…and they don’t want 150 tape-recorders!

Exactly, I can see it from that point of view as well. Even if you didn’t had a learning disability, the thought would have occurred to me that it was a pretty good way of keeping all the information from the lecture. You don’t have to sit and write it all down. So, like you say, you could end up with 150 tape-recorders down there. Maybe they should tape them and give them out to the students. Wouldn’t that save a lot of money?

It wouldn’t save money for the department because they would have to pay for the cassettes.

Yes, that’s true – unless they could get the LEA to fund them. They could use one tape-recorder that the lecturer uses and then multiple copies of the tape. Obviously they would have to be aware of who had a learning disability that way plus, it would save the embarrassment of the person with the learning disability, if they do feel going down there is like pointing them out to everybody else; putting a cassette on the table. They could go to the reception or the lecturer’s room and say, ‘Have you got a tape from that lecture because I have got a learning disability?’

Even now, this year, I’ve had to talk to a lecturer because she wouldn’t give the handouts out at the start of the lecture. I could understand her point of view, but on a social work course that promotes anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory ethos. I thought, ‘Hang on a minute.’ She said, ‘I’m not giving these handouts out because you just won’t listen to me and what I want to do is to make you think.’ I could understand her reasoning.

If it’s the structure of the lecture to give you a guideline of what it’s going through, and maybe aims and objectives, then I can’t see the point in not handing that out. If it’s a paper or a research article that she’s photocopied and wants to give it to you at the end to go away with for further reading, I can understand that. But if it is something to help you to structure your notes, then…

I think this was the handout from the overheads. In the end I ended up going up to her and I said, ‘I’ve got a specific learning disability, can I have the handouts?’ She was really apologetic, but I’m in second year now and why does nobody on that course realise that there are people with learning disabilities in there? I would have thought that went without somebody having to point it out. But there again, like you say, she could just wave them about and say, ‘Anybody with learning disabilities want to come and get one of these, you can now.’ You just can’t win, can you?

So how do people record information in those seminars? Is it just a case of listening and then going away and reading?

Basically, yes, that’s it. They do use the overhead projector and they have handouts. I find the handouts beneficial if they give them to us first because then I can write the notes. If they stick to the handouts, or around the handouts, and the overheads and they are going through it as it is in the handouts, you can actually write notes against what is in the handouts. So that is quite clear and it is easy. You need to come back to it in a couple of weeks because you need to do something with it that you have covered in your assignment. It is quite straightforward and I always put the date of the session and the lecturers name so I can remember it. It’s a sort of recall for me as I can visually remember the lecture. So I find it helps when I am trying to remember what was said and done. So they are quite helpful.

Basically, because it is social work, we get a lot of exercises to do where we are given a lot of case studies and we split into smaller groups. In my specialism at the moment there are forty four people. We are all split into specialisms at the moment. I am doing Children & Families and we are split into groups of five or six and we get a case study and that’s what we have to discuss. So, really, obviously now I am in my second year I have made quite a few friends and people know about my disability – I’m not embarrassed to say anything about it. If I’ve missed any information they will actually let me see their notes and any main point I can pick out. Most of the time I’ve got quite adept at picking the main points up anyway. You’ve got to do it yourself; you can’t expect everybody else to do it. So I make the effort to read the books so at least I’ve got some forward knowledge. So when I go in there I’ve got the main idea of what I’m looking for. If we’re doing about legislation, the main legislation for children and families is the Children Acts, so I know what I am supposed to be making notes on. I only need to be looking at section 17, and what does section this do and that … As I said, I write down what it is. But a lot of it is self-directed learning. You are given the outline of it and then you go away and find out the rest for yourself. This was nothing I didn’t expect; I expected that from university anyway. I didn’t expect them to fill you in on everything you need to know. What I’m finding now is there’s never any books at the library. So you might get the books just a week before the assignment is due in which means unless you can read really fast you’re defeating the object.

Do you find that you need the book for longer to get the information out of it?

Yeah, but they do give you books for longer as long as you take proof of your disability and a letter from the Disability Office. You’re allowed an extra week, overnight books are allowed out for 2 days say instead of overnight. You end up having to reserve them. It’s always at the most inconvenient time when you get the books, for example it’s my daughter’s birthday this weekend and I’ll get that book I’ve been after for 4 weeks. If I don’t find the time to read I have got to give it back by next week. There’s obviously photocopying.

Do you have study support now with a dyslexia tutor?

Yes. I’ve only had my new tutor for four weeks. It’s working out quite well. What she can do for me is that I tend to have a long winded way of saying things and what she can do is break it down for me. She can say the same thing, but in half a page where it will take me a page to say it. I spend most of my time trying to think how I’m going to say something that sounds understandable to somebody else on paper. She’ll come along and say, ‘Yes, I can see what you are trying to say, but if you are somebody that has never read it before it sounds a bit confusing.’ But this goes back to time limits and everything else as well; and the reading. At the moment I am extracting information out of books and finding it difficult to digest it and understand it thoroughly so I can write it in a concise way. So I extract it and think, ‘Oh, I think it means that,’ so it’s being reflected in my work how much I am getting my head round what I’m reading.

Now in the second year I find there is not a lot of support, apart from if you have got a disability. I feel quite lucky in a way that I have got a disability because I know I will get a hell of a lot more support than people on my course who haven’t got a disability. So I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones because I’ve got people there supporting me; tutors encouraging me and stuff like that, that gives me the confidence that I need to go on.


Can you explain how they assesssed you in the first year and what the second year entails? What’s the split between exams and assignments and when do you do them?

In the first year we had the exams in January. But to be fair it was indicated what you would need for each exam. It was an open book exam anyway and they were giving us handouts and you could take the handouts and books in. I couldn’t really see what people’s problems were with it. I couldn’t understand why people failed the exam, myself. They gave us all the information you needed.You’ve got a handout in front of you, so how can you go wrong? That’s my own personal opinion. Obviously there is performance in exams; some people just go to pieces, don’t they?

Did you get any extra time? I suppose you wouldn’t have last year.

I didn’t, no. The Disability Office did say that they would notify the faculty or the school and say that I had been initially assessed as having dyslexia and it looked like I might have some sort of learning disability, so could I have this extra time. I don’t know if it was agreed or not, because it was so close to the exams when they were asking, anyway, it is quite an intimidating atmosphere – there were about 200 people, because it was people from the year before who had failed it and were re-taking it as well. You are in a big sports hall and you are allocated a desk and it’s very formal. I just felt very small and didn’t want to put my hand up now in front of all these people and say, ‘Can I have extra time?’ They’d want to throttle you wouldn’t they? ‘Why is she getting extra time and I’m not?’ So I just kept quiet and didn’t even ask. I did the exam in the allocated time. I got a really good mark because, as far as I was concerned, it was all outlined for you. With an extra 45 minutes I don’t know what I would have got – probably 100%. I got 76% so I was really, really pleased with that. Like I said, it was all there, the information if you knew where to find it. This year might be different.

If it is an open book exam, I guess there is quite a bit of reading to do. So if you are struggling with your reading maybe you should be given that extra time. It’s up to you, at the end of the day, whether you want to take it or not.

If they hadn’t have been so good to us in the way that if you listened in the lectures you heard the indications to tell you what was needed in the exam, and I just highlighted right on the front in green on the handout what was necessary for the exam. Obviously, in the handout you know what you need to find in the books then. So I found it quite straightforward. But this year it is more of a prepared exam. You get the question, don’t you, and you have to read around the question and then you go into the exam and have to write about what you’ve found out. So that might be a bit more difficult because it demands a bit more of you this time. They are not pointing you in the right direction.

You said your memory is pretty good for regurgitating material, but it’s that researching and reading around the topic that is the trouble.

Yes, this is where I have the trouble. I’m having trouble with these assignments now and this is what is worrying me about not being able to get these books. If I get them too late I’m not going to get the full benefit of what’s in them. I’ll be trying to extract information at such a rate that I’m bound to miss something. Plus you are at a level now where you have got to think about it. But if you can’t read it properly, how can you analyse it properly – it’s just a vicious circle.

Do you get extra time for assignments?

No. It’s got to be in at the same time as everybody else. I think last year, because none of this support network was in place and I was doing it on my own, I got through it but I think with the expense that by the end of the year I was really, really mentally tired. At the end of the year I had to write 11,000 words. It was a lot for your first year. Some of it was my fault because I got an assignment in January/February time, but I had my exams then so I was concentrating on them. I had a placement in March and I had to do a portfolio and an assignment for this placement. So that was 8,000 words, the portfolio and the assignment, and it was all legislation and ‘haths’ and ‘thus’ and it takes a million years to decipher what some legislation is saying. Then I still had this other 3,000 word assignment to do. So I ended up with 11,000 words to write and I ended up in the space of two months on three different things and I was just totally wiped out at the end of it. I was really, really tired mentally. I never wanted to see another book in my life. That was it. I had a couple of months off over the summer when I had finished my placement, and I thought that was a rest. I couldn’t even read a magazine. I couldn’t even do any light reading.

I came back to university and for the first month it was not working, nothing was happening. I was just reading and they were asking us to ‘analyse this.’ I was saying, ‘OK well, can I have about a week to read it then?’ The time is really like extensions. A lot of people might think it’s unfair. A lot of my friends say to me, ‘How can you have a disability? You are dead good at what you do.’ Yes, but I’m up till 2.00 in the morning reading a book I started reading at 11.00. You might read it and it might take you an hour to digest what you have read and extract the information that you need out of it. It’s taking me three hours to do the same amount. If I don’t put in that amount of commitment, I know that, basically, I’m going to fail. So that’s why I do it but it really tires you out. After last year it seems like I don’t want to be dealing with it. It’s coming round now. But it’s like you just get so mentally tired with the reading and everything that you have got to do. Obviously you are panicking all the time too because you are getting more work piled on and there are deadlines to meet, and you don’t get any extra time. I’m not 18; I don’t go home and I’ve got no responsibilities. I’ve got a house to run and two children to sort out and stuff like that. I can’t do work when I go home. I pick my children up and I have to concentrate on them until 9 or 10 o’clock at night and then I’m getting books out then. It all sort of builds up and by the end of the year you are just completely and utterly worn out with it all. Next year I’ve got a dissertation as well. Then again it might be good practice. I’m not doing bad, I mean my marks are OK. I want to do as well as I can possibly do.


Just tell me about the placement; how did you get on in that? I suppose you didn’t know anything about your dyslexia at the time.

Yes, because this was by March and I had my Educational Psychologist report in the January, so, basically, I had had my assessment of need done by then as well. So I was just waiting then, really, for the LEA to either agree to fund it or not.

Was there a lot of paperwork and so on in the placement?

I had a 5,000 word portfolio, two case studies and two people that were at the placement and I had this other 3,000 word assignment to do as well. A 5,000 word portfolio, a 3,000 word assignment on legislation to go with it, and then another 3,000 word assignment that just got pushed to the back burner because of the exams and everything else that was going on. That had to be finished by June as well.

Do you think it will affect you in any way in the work situation? Will you have to come up with strategies for the reading problems – if there’s tons and tons of paperwork, will that cause difficulties?

Yes. If they dropped a load of paperwork in front of me and said, ‘Read all that,’ well, the first thing I’d say is, ‘How long have I got?’ That has a bearing on if I am going to be able to read it all or not. If you say to me, ‘Read it by the end of the month,’ and if there is a big pile, I’d be thinking that there is no way I’m going to get that read by the end of the month. I’ll be lucky if I get half of it read. Not because I don’t want to read it; it’s just that’s the rate I go. I’ve learnt a lot of skills since I’ve been at university, and I’ve read lots of study skills books and things like that. I’ve got quite adept now at realising that a lot of stuff that you find there you can disregard and just highlight what you need in it. Usually I have quite good study skills. The beginning of a paragraph usually tells you what the thing is about, so highlight that and the end of the paragraph leads on. So I’ve picked up some good strategies as I go on.

Three tips for lecturers

Three tips that you would give to a lecturer to help students with specific learning difficulties – if you can think of three. 

1.  Give students handouts so they can make notes on the handouts. 

If they are already disadvantaged anyway, I’ve got to go home and write four pages of notes when with a handout at the beginning of a lecture I could just put the relevant notes next to the points on the handout. When I come to re-read that and think about it and think about the assignment it is just a hell of a lot easier than trying to find four pages of notes that went with it. By then I’ve had fifteen other lectures as well and there are, like, a hundred million pages everywhere and I’m thinking, ‘God, where’s that one!’ I don’t know whether it’s asking too much. Other people say that I’m at university now and I should be able to sort all this out myself. I don’t know if you should or you shouldn’t. 

2.  Structure your lectures.

The way you structure a lecture can either have a positive impact or a negative impact on people with learning disabilities.

So there needs to be a clear structure to whatever you are doing; whether it is a seminar a group workshop, and a clear learning outcome so you know where you are headings, because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out what workshops are about. That sound’s bit stupid, but I don’t need to be spending time trying to work out what you are going to teach me. I need you to say, ‘You need to know that,’ and, ‘You need to know this.’ I’m not telling you to hand me all the information on it. Just give it to me clear and precise and tell me what I need to go and find out about and I’ll do the rest. I’ll go and find out about it. I’m not asking to be spoon-fed or anything.

I might spend a week. The majority of people, in fact nearly all of them on our course are mature students. We have other lives outside university and we are trying to fit this in as well. We’re not 18 and we can’t ring mum up and say I’ve got a few financial problems. We’re sorting all that out as well. So, it would just make things a lot easier if it was clear and concise what the aims and outcomes were supposed to be and what we were supposed to be learning. Then we would all traipse off to the libraries or wherever we’ve to go and we’d find out the information. To me, that’s a better way of learning. I can’t see how I’m learning if I’m confused about something. If I’m confused about something and picking up the wrong information up in the library, then how am I learning? I’m wasting my time. 

3.  Be aware of who is dyslexic in your group. At least have some idea.

Little things like the acceptability of the lecturers that there are people with learning disabilities on their course. I found it really encouraging last year when I said that some of the lecturers said, ‘I know we have people with learning disabilities and if you need to come down here and stick a tape-recorder in front of me while I am teaching this lecture, I have no problem with that.’ It’s really intimidating and embarrassing to have to go up to a … You are forever having to explain yourself … ‘I’ve got this learning disability.’ You just get sick of this because people should know this anyway. To tell you the truth if I hadn’t got a learning disability I would have taken a tape-recorder in anyway.

That would be the ideal thing for them to say that they know some people like to tape lectures so they can bring them down, rather than, ‘I know you have a learning disability so you can come and put them down on the desk.’

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