Most of us, at some point in our teaching careers, will find ourselves in classrooms facing challenges we feel ill-equipped to deal with. We might, for example, be asked to teach someone with a neurodiversity like dyslexia or a physical disability, like visual impairment, that makes learning much harder.

It’s then up to us as education professionals ensure each one of our students is given the attention and support they need to thrive. But do we have the right training and resources at our disposal to do this effectively?

A recent online survey of teachers in schools in England and Wales uncovered that 71 percent of respondents felt that dyslexia was not well covered during their teacher training.

The same report goes on to say:

…it is vital that teachers have a good understanding of both the causes of dyslexia and the evidence-based interventions that have been proven to benefit those with dyslexia. With this knowledge, teachers will be able to help their students effectively.

Many ELT professionals would say the same about their initial TEFL or CELTA qualifications. As a result, their lesson plans are not as inclusive as they could be, the course books they are using are not accessible enough for dyslexic students to follow, and their autistic students are uncomfortable during presentations and group work.

To make matters worse, neurotypical students are racing ahead and getting frustrated, bored and acting out. It can be a stressful, complex situation and teachers often find themselves, in effect, teaching two, or even three classes in one, because they have to help students with difficulties on an individual basis.

The problem is education-wide. Whether you work in publishing, educational product design, primary or secondary education, ELT or in another related field, the chances are, you haven’t had much in the way of SEN training – unless you’ve sought it out for yourself.  

A lack of knowledge around dyslexia

In follow up to our article Talking about dyslexia: making ELT more inclusive, we spoke with York Associates trainer Martin Bloomfield  about dyslexia, SEN and challenges for publishers and teachers.

York Associates began life as a business English school, but branched out pretty quickly into wider communications training – working with a range of education professionals, from primary school teachers, ELT teachers to university lecturers. When it comes to SEN training, the organization offers courses in dyslexia and a range of other learning difficulties.

“When you look at the statistics – something like only 4% of teachers only understand even the basics of dyslexia,” says Martin.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s a reading difficulty – and that words dance about on the page. While this is a real issue called Irlen syndrome, not everyone with dyslexia has it – far from it!”

This ISN’T dyslexia

“But the good news is that teachers have a really positive attitude to SEN issues. When they come to realise that actually they don’t have a lot of information about it…and what they’ve got is a rather inadequate or superficial understanding – what you end up with is a group of teachers that really lap up the training.”

Martin begins his training sessions by asking teachers what they know about dyslexia. “I use that as a starting point, but the two biggest questions I get in return are ‘How can I understand what dyslexia is? and ‘How can I teach students with dyslexia?’”

Though teachers might well be enthusiastic about professional development and providing the very best environment for their students to learn in, it seems we have a long way to go before we have fully inclusive classrooms.

So how should educational training managers approach SEN?

Martin in action delivering one of York Associates SEN teacher training courses

“School directors, product managers, publishers and so on first need to understand what SEN means to them, because really there’s no such thing as ‘special educational needs’,” he says. “Instead, there is an understanding of what SEN means to you.”

He explains this means that organisations and teachers must first understand how they interact with neurodiverse people and what their overall aims are when it comes to education and support.

A publisher, for example, will have to approach SEN training very differently to a director of studies in an ELT academy because their interaction with people who have different needs will be very different, even when their educational aims are the same.

This, in turn, will affect the kind of training needed within each type of organisation.

In the classroom

Teachers want to know how to help their students, whether they are neurodiverse or neurotypical.

Training can give them a base of knowledge to develop their own pedagogical strategies, and also offer research-backed advice on the best ways to design accessible activities for neurodiverse learners and manage their classrooms better, Martin explains.

Publishers and product teams

It’s important to offer training to publishing teams, graphic designers, typesetters and course book authors. If they can be shown where the needs of students with a range of SEN converge, they can make their products as accessible as possible.

“We have to focus on the clarity of the content, the clarity of the sentences and ask ourselves whether the is grammar clear, how crowded the page looks, about the size of the font, the colours and graphics…” says Martin.

“And there’s all sorts of research out there about how people with dyslexia read a page, compared to neurotypical people.”

Martin also stresses that it’s important for publishers to understand the difference between making something accessible and making something look childish:

“Once you’ve nailed what makes something accessible, you don’t need to worry about making something inaccessible to others. If it’s good for neurodiverse students, it will be good for everyone.”

What are the wider implications of being more inclusive?

Dyslexia and other SEN aren’t about intelligence, Martin explains. “In fact, research shows that about 40% of millionaires have been diagnosed with dyslexia – but at the same time, around 45% of adults with dyslexia are unemployed.”

These are stark differences and, while correlation and causation are different things, there’s certainly a big opportunity for educators and publishers to offer more support to these learners so that – as Martin puts it – we can “unlock their potential”.

Perhaps it’s time to look at the classrooms in an entirely different way. Instead of making things work for the majority, we should start with an accessibility-first mentality – then we’ll be inclusive of everybody.

Some questions for you:

Does this mean looking at CELTA and TESOL Cert qualifications again, and including modules on SEN? Should Primary and Secondary education teachers be furnished with more knowledge during their degrees? How should publishers incorporate research into their training and products?

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