Course review: Dyslexia and foreign language teaching

I finished this FutureLearn course a few weeks ago. It was offered by Lancaster University, and was the second course I’ve done through them – the other one was an introduction to corpus linguistics.

The course was 4 weeks long. Here’s an overview of the content:

Week 1

The first activities this week explained what dyslexia is. It addressed some of the common misconceptions/basic facts about this learning difficulty and others, and covered some important terminology (like ‘specific learning differences’, ‘learning disorders’, etc). There were some interesting interviews with students who have dyslexia, and a task to help you experience what it’s like to have a specific learning difficulty.

The course then moved on to discuss the effect of dyslexia on language learning, and the nature of reading difficulties. Input was provided though brief video lectures from leading researchers.

Week 2

The second week focused on two main topics. Firstly, there was input on how to accommodate learners with specific learning differences in a foreign language classroom. Then the course introduced one particular approach to accommodating SpLD learners – multisensory structured teaching. There was some pretty interesting reading during this week, especially the overview of the Orton-Gillingham approach, which is worth a Google. As was the case with week 1, the week ended with a quick quiz to consolidate what we’d learned.

Week 3

The last two weeks were very practical and quite meaty! Week 3 involved applying the multisensory techniques mentioned the previous week to the teaching of vocabulary and grammar. There were some reflections from students with dyslexia on what they found difficult when learning vocab and grammar. There was some input through lectures again, some video demonstrations of teaching techniques, then the week ended with us designing our own task for teaching vocab/grammar, incorporating some of these techniques and including our own. Participants read each other’s task designs (up to 500 words each) and gave feedback.

Week 4

The last week was similar to week 3, but instead focused on techniques for teaching spelling and helping learners with reading comprehension. Input at the start of the week focused on development of phonological and orthographic awareness, teaching letter-sound relationships, and again a set of lesson demonstrations. Again, the week ended with a design task (which I couldn’t get feedback from as I was a bit late!).

The course concluded with a live Q&A with the course leaders.

Was the course any good?

Yep, excellent. It was very informative, practical and has certainly prompted me to think more about how I deal with students with specific learning differences in class.

The course would be ideal for…

EFL teachers, as techniques for dealing with SpLDs in class are not taught during training courses like CELTA or DELTA (course leaders pointed this out during their Q&A). I have a background in this subject area (MSc Reading, Language and Cognition) and I felt this short course gave me some nice ideas for bridging the gap between theory and practice.

Was there enough course content?

For a four week course, absolutely. It was also good that the course had practical components. Given it was so short, the course did tend to breeze over some important issues, but participants were encouraged to do further reading if time allowed. The practical side of things was very good – the video demonstrations were clear and informative. It’s always good to do a FutureLearn course from its proposed start date as you get lots of debate and feedback from tutors.

There were some really good articles provided on the course. I liked this one in particular, which is quite a good overview of dyslexia research.

There were plenty of chapters from Kormos and Smith (2012), which I enjoyed a lot. The book seems worth buying. Factsheets provided from the Dyslexia Association were useful and offered quite good summaries of certain points, especially the multisensory approach.

What were the most useful things covered on the course?

Demonstrations of classroom activities. This one had some good ideas for developing phonological and orthographic awareness.

Considerations for those wishing to take the course

I’d say there are some things worth considering if you decide to take this course. Firstly, the course aims are exaggerated a bit:

…you will gain a thorough understanding of what dyslexia is, and how it affects learning an additional language.

Do bear in mind that this is only a four-week course. There are some really good practical activities introduced during weeks three and four. However, as the tutors point out these are suggestions for good practice, and may not work in all contexts. Furthermore, many of the activities introduced follow a ‘multisensory approach’. These are very much based on the idea of ‘learner styles’. Whilst there is evidence suggesting that the modality through which information is presented can effect cognition (see Mousavi et al 1995 for an example), the literature on the FutureLearn course does concede that we lack solid evidence for the effectiveness of multisensory techniques. Regarding whether the course provides a ‘thorough understanding of what dyslexia is’, I would personally approach this with caution. The idea that we have come to a consensus on what causes dyslexia is slightly misleading. Also, whilst course participants are encouraged to undertake further reading each week, the core reading (such as the chapter from Kormos and Smith on ‘What is dyslexia?’) perhaps could have expanded more on cognitive and neurological explanations of dyslexia. I only say this because such explanations have formed the basis for certain interventions or remedial programmes in the past, some of which have been quite controversial (see the Dore programme).

I’m aware that I’m nitpicking. As I said, the course is extremely useful – so much so that it’s made me critically engage in this subject area again (after 8 years), so it’s clearly worth it.

My overall verdict

This course has given me a better understanding of how to assist students with dyslexia in my class, and demonstrated some useful techniques. I may find it more useful in the long run, outside my current teaching context. I thoroughly recommend it. Rating: 4.5/5

Note: many of the activities / articles on the course are also part of the DysTEFL project, which is worth looking at. Click here to go to the site.

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