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Brief description of Dyslexia
Dyslexia affects the area of the brain that deals with language, leading to differences in the way information is processed and affecting the underlying skills needed for learning to read, write and spell.
Social Work and Students with Dyslexia
Although there are some variations, general approaches to teaching and learning in qualifying training for social work have tended to reflect some fairly strong patterns which have become more or less well established over the years. Thus campus based teaching on DipSW programmes has shown a fairly heavy reliance principally on lectures, seminars, workshop activities, small group discussions, and private study as some of the main vehicles for the educational process. All of these approaches have traditionally relied to a considerable extent on the written word through the use of e.g. handouts, overhead projector slides, black/white boards, flip-charts, note-taking, written task briefings, library work (mostly books and papers) etc.
Similarly the assessment of campus based learning has remained firmly rooted in pen and paper methods, as most summative assessment takes the form of a written assignment of some description. This obviously disadvantages those students who have difficulty with the written word, and educational institutions have been slow to develop alternative forms of teaching and assessment which are less reliant on this form of communication. In the very recent past there has been an increasing effort to make learning technology available to students with special needs, and this has been of considerable assistance to many such students in that it can help to improve significantly the quality of their written work. Nevertheless the requirement to produce this written work in itself places on students with dyslexia a burden that is additional to those placed on other students.
Typically, workplacements have centred (whatever the setting or placement context) on a workload comprising a problem situation(s) or task(s) which the student requires to address under the supervision of the practice teacher. Practice teachers vary in the methods they use, but most build their supervision round periodic discussion sessions during which the student is encouraged and facilitated to explore and make decisions about a wide range of issues and questions pertinent to her/his workload and development. The extent to which this is dependent on use of written materials ranges from some settings (many of which are in the voluntary sector) where written records are kept to a minimum, to others (typically in the local authority sector) where written records are a fundamental communication medium throughout the organisation and are often, indeed, a statutory requirement.
Over and above agency recordings, many practice teachers require students to use other forms of writing to assist the learning process. Process recordings are perhaps not used as widely as they once were, but some practice teachers still see them, or a variation of them, as an effective basis for exploration of some aspects of the student’s work that can otherwise be difficult to reach. Reflective diaries or learning logs (or, again, some variation of these) have increasingly been used in recent years as a means of locating particular levels of the student’s thinking and feeling.
Whatever the general approach adopted by the practice teacher or the agency, however, assessment of practice invariably depends heavily on written material. This occurs mainly in two ways. First of all, students will be assessed on, among other things, their ability to produce written materials of a particular quality and within a given range of forms. Difficulty in doing so tends to be seen as a competence deficit. Secondly, they will require to produce a written report at the end of their placement, and this report is increasingly viewed as direct evidence on which are based judgements about a range of other competences. It is in some respects ironic that at a time when understanding of the needs and problems of students who have dyslexia is beginning to develop, the effects of CCETSW’s Rules and Requirements for the DipSW (1995) in respect of the assessment of practice is to place greater, rather than less, emphasis on written material produced by the student as a basis for assessment decisions.
Having said that, there is one very important point that requires to be emphasised. In order to gain a professional qualification in social work, any student must demonstrate that s/he has met the requirements of the DipSW programme in terms of values, knowledge and competence. There is no suggestion in this Guide that students with dyslexia should in some way be exempt from any of these requirements, nor that the standards demanded of them at the point of qualification should be any different from those that apply generally. This principle applies to written communication as much as to any other area of competence.
The difference between students who have dyslexia and others is the means by which they develop towards demonstration of that competence. This Guide is primarily about how such students can be helped, encouraged and supported to develop the skills they will need, and the task comes under two broad headings:
- The development, by the student, of strategies that s/he can employ in working towards and demonstrating the necessary competences, including those in written communication.
- The development, by those with responsibility for supporting the student’s learning, of strategies for engaging with her/his learning styles and patterns in order that the individual student’s learning is maximised.
If success is achieved in these two areas, then the student should complete the professional training programme with the skills required for qualified practice.
Specific styles and patterns of learning
What then are the particular problems that face social work students who have dyslexia? If such students find it difficult to use the principal media on which formal social work education has historically been based, through what other means can they learn? These are fundamentally important questions, and to address them we need to consider the particular patterns and styles of learning that people with dyslexia tend to use more readily, more comfortably and (therefore) more effectively.
It is important to recognise that we all use a mixture of learning styles which varies from one person to another to suit the specific needs, history and orientations of the individual. They also vary for any individual according to the particular kind of task we may be tackling and perhaps also to some degree according to the circumstances we are in at any given time. Despite these variations however, we will each tend to be more comfortable with and proficient in some strategies as opposed to others, and in part our preferences will reflect our psychological make-up. Work in this field by e.g. Kolb (1984) and Honey & Mumford (1986) is widely known, and suggests a range of learning styles in the general population, varying in pattern from one individual to another.
If as we have seen there are identifiable psychological features that tend to characterise dyslexia, then clearly these will have implications for the natural learning patterns of those who are affected. People with dyslexia will draw on the same range of learning patterns and styles that are available to us all but, as with us all, they will rely more heavily on some that on others. Some of the patterns which tend to be most useful to and most effectively used by students who have dyslexia include the following:
- Multisensory learning: that is, learning through a variety of senses simultaneously. Most of us would find it easier and more effective to learn to swim or to drive a car by being instructed while actually in the pool or the vehicle, as we could then use a range of senses – hearing, seeing (including watching others), touch, our kinaesthetic sense, etc. – to reinforce each other. For most of us, such an approach would be more effective than simply being instructed verbally by another person in a classroom or office, or trying to follow written instructions. For students who have dyslexia, the contrast between these two types of approach is especially marked, because a multisensory approach helps them by being less reliant on words alone; by bypassing the difficulties they can have in organising new material conceptually; and by using their naturally more holistic approach to learning.
- Over-learning: "practice makes perfect". To use the same examples, proficiency in swimming or driving is greatly enhanced by constant repetition of the same procedures until they become well established in one’s repertoire of skills. Students who have dyslexia are no different from others in this respect, except that (especially in verbal or sequencing tasks) they need to use this particular pattern of learning much more extensively than many of the rest of us because of their short-term memory difficulties. This is one of the reasons that learning requires much more hard work, concentration and effort from a student with dyslexia than from most others.
- Structured learning: that is, learning where the student can locate the detail of what s/he is trying to understand within a wider picture. Because the right-brain strengths of a student with dyslexia tend to produce a more holistic approach to learning, s/he will understand new information more readily if it can be set within a clear context that highlights how different elements relate together.
- Progression in learning: an approach to learning that builds up skills and knowledge gradually and in a progressive sequence will exploit such student’s holistic approach, whereas one which does not build in this way is more likely to confuse the student because s/he will find it difficult to understand the learning as part of a sequential process.
- Using shortcuts and aids to learning: we all try to simplify difficult tasks, e.g. by using a calculator rather than carrying out complex numerical calculations by mental arithmetic. However, students who have dyslexia may need to use different aids to learning from most of the rest of us, because of their particular learning patterns. Spelling aids are an obvious example, but others like mnemonics, diagrams, mind maps, visual patterns, colour codes, etc. may be especially valuable and more readily understandable to a dyslexic student.
- Self-aware learning: all adults learn more effectively if they are in charge of how they learn, and this is especially true for people with dyslexia. Part of the reason for this is that their patterns of learning may be seen as unusual and therefore others may not consider these patterns to be as legitimate as the more conventional ones. Thus many people with dyslexia are pushed to learn in ways that feel alien to them, and this is not only much less effective in itself but its effectiveness also tends to be further reduced because such an approach can present a serious threat to their confidence. Given that many with dyslexia are already far from being confident learners (as a result of their earlier educational and social experience) the negative impact from this further threat on their self-esteem and educational achievement can be considerable. If however they are encouraged to learn by the means which s/he sees as potentially the most effective, s/he will benefit partly because the means thus selected is more likely to be the most appropriate, since they are much more likely to understand their own learning patterns than will someone who does not have dyslexia. Additionally however, the increased confidence that can result from such an approach will itself enhance the effectiveness of the learning.
This issue of confidence and self-esteem is of critical significance for people with dyslexia, and its relevance for their educational development cannot be emphasised enough. Despite the fact that some of the particular strengths and capabilities that come with dyslexia are now beginning to be acknowledged, it is extremely rare to find an adult with dyslexia whose self-esteem has not been adversely affected (in some cases severely) by negative experiences stretching back to childhood. One result of this is that their confidence as learners is very much more fragile than in the general population, and so they are particularly vulnerable to setbacks or to unsympathetic or ill-judged approaches in their educational environment. For them, more than for most, explicit recognition, encouragement and support of their educational achievement relate directly to the degree of success in their efforts.
Information taken from Campbell, J.W.S. and Cowe, T. (1998) Working with DipSW Students with Dyslexia: A Guide for Practice Teachers. University of Strathclyde. To access the full report click the following link http://www.wofscon.com/publications/word_docs/Dyslexia_Guide.doc.