Assistive technology in context #1 – dyslexia and dyspraxia

Ray Martin explains how assistive technology might help a dyslexic and dyspraxic student.

Jonah is one of your ‘best’ students: wonderfully creative work that is rich in humour and considerable understanding of a variety of texts. He hands in his work on time and exudes confidence. Not a student you need to worry about. Then comes a 5-7 mins. formative presentation – which he blows completely. He has 16 slides (16 slides for a 5-7 min. presentation!) He mangles his way through six of them and is clearly distressed.

First (which you haven’t taken into account – why would you when he appears so thoroughly competent?), there’s his dyslexia and dyspraxia. It’s his dyspraxia that is particularly relevant here: ‘caged in chaos’, he needed a clearer structure for the presentation than he received.

This is the first time you haven’t made clear what is expected, and it has shown up his time management and organisation weaknesses very clearly. (The formative presentations were added late to the timetable because you felt they would help students meet the summative assessment criteria with more confidence. You vow that, if you do anything like this again, you will make sure the task is as clearly explained as it would be for a summative assessment: good intentions are not enough. And you remind yourself: get it right for the dyslexics, and you probably get it right for everyone else.)

Dyslexia and dyspraxia are evident in the anxiety he began to display during his presentation. Students with specific learning differences are likely to demonstrate higher levels of anxiety than their neurotypical peers (Carroll & Ives, 2006; Jones, 2019), and a 2014 survey found that 40% of young people with Dyspraxia/DCD aged 13-19 felt anxious ‘all the time’ (Brennan, 2017). Jonah hasn’t declared any mental health difficulties – only 1.5% students are likely to do so to their HEIs (Abrahams and Chappell, 2017).

In all probability, his visuospatial difficulties (typical in dyspraxics, in his case at the 20th centile, i.e. 80% of his peers could be expected to do better) were exacerbated by his anxiety: as Jonah describes it, he has difficulty moving from his three-dimensional thinking to the two-dimensional thinking of a standard presentation: he was slipping between the two and getting confused. His slow processing skills (25th centile) are also likely to have been taxed during the presentation.

A dyslexia support tutor has suggested he explore Mindview’s mapping potential against the linearity of a standard PowerPoint presentation; he has been given a simple format for timetabling (Stephens, 1997); an assistive technology trainer has suggested he try an Audio Notetaker to break up his presentation and test its duration along with the length of time he is devoting to each slide. There is also Present Pal, created by a dyslexic student with presentation anxiety, a cue card system on the phone that can be synchronised with PowerPoint.


**WAIS-IV (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, 4th edn) is the set of psychometric tests most widely used by educational psychologists in diagnostic assessments. It is designed to test four sets of abilities: verbal reasoning, visual reasoning, working memory and processing speed. The scores across the 10 tests will be more or less the same for the neurotypical, whereas those with SpLDs will show marked differences across the scores. For verbal comprehension, say, they may score at the 85th centile (i.e. only 15% of their peers will do better) while scoring at the 10th centile for speed of handwriting or working memory. The likelihood is that they will score much better on the tests of verbal and visual ability than those on working memory and processing speed.
(For examples of ‘spiky’ neurodiverse WAIS-IV profiles, see Grant: That’s the Way I Think.)

References

Abrahams, H. and Chappell, M. (2017) Mental Health in Higher Education for Students with SpLDs. (Lecture at Patoss Conference, 20 June 2017)

Brennan, L. (2017) Understanding Mental Health in SpLD Learners. (Lecture at Patoss Conference, 20 June 2017)

Briggs, V. (2007) Caged in Chaos: a dyspraxic guide to breaking free. London: Jessica Kingsley

Carroll, J. and Iles, J. (2006) An assessment of anxiety levels in dyslexic students in higher education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 651-662

Grant, D. (2017) That’s the Way I Think: dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and dyscalculia explained. 3rd edn. London: Routledge

Jones, A. (2019) ‘The voices of university students with dyslexia and their experiences of anxiety and coping’. Patoss Bulletin 32:2 pp.10-29

Stevens, M. (1997) How to be Better at Giving Presentations. London: Kogan Page and The Industrial Society

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