Set books and the pupil with dyslexia

Reading in the classroom can prove problematic when the reading material is beyond the pupils’ ability level. Children with dyslexia will be among those who experience the most difficulty with reading accuracy and fluency. 

A pupil’s ‘reading age’ defines their reading ability in terms of the performance expected from an individual of a certain age. A thirteen-year-old might be a good reader and have the reading age of a sixteen-year-old; or be a weaker reader and have a reading age equivalent to that expected from an eight-year-old.

Texts for GCSE English Literature are set at a reading age of approximately fifteen years and seven months, and yet the average reading age of students sitting their GCSEs is ten years and seven months.  

Jane Eyre is a popular English text for 11 to 16-year-olds, but has a readability level suitable for pupils who read at a 17 to 20-year-old’s level. The first page of Jane Eyre contains potentially unfamiliar words: shrubbery, sombre, penetrating, chidings, humbled, consciousness, inferiority, reclined, dispensed, endeavouring, earnest, disposition and sprightly. In addition to unfamiliar words and vocabulary that is difficult to decode, (sound out phonetically), the text contains complex and long sentences, with several on the first page extending to over fifty words. 

Pupils with dyslexia often have a good vocabulary, but poor decoding skills. They will spend so long trying to sound out an unfamiliar word, that they lose the overview of the passage. Their problems will be compounded by other typical dyslexic weaknesses, such as a poor working memory or the slow processing of information.

One of the aims when introducing pupils to classics such as Jane Eyre, is to expose children to great works of literature with contemporary themes. One of the main themes of Jane Eyre is Jane’s on-going resilience in the face of adversity – a very modern issue often discussed in schools.

‘The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.’

(Jane Eyre.)

However, English teachers will need to differentiate such important texts carefully to ensure that the pupils’ reading experience is positive, rather than demotivating and tedious.

English set books: –

Ten ways to help the weaker reader at home.

  1. Borrow films, DVDs and videos of the book from the school library, public library or download them from the internet. Films and DVDs give an overview of the story and show how the different sections fit together.
  2. Similarly, visit the theatre to see a play based on the book. A dramatic performance can bring the book to life. Visual images are invaluable for many weaker readers: it really is a case of a picture painting a thousand words.
  3. The public library, local bookshops or Amazon will have comic books or manga versions of the original, and their attractive illustrations and minimal text will help the child to follow the action of the story.
  4. Download a copy of the book onto a Kindle or computer. Use the text to speech facility to read the text aloud.
  5. Borrow copies of the book that have been simplified for non-English speakers. Penguin, Macmillan, Collins and Oxford University Press all published abridged versions of set English texts for pupils who don’t have English as their first language. These books are perfect for the dyslexic or weaker reader. The book will follow the original story, but the language used is simplified and the sentences are shorter. Many of the books have accompanying CDs.
  6. Easy Classics, Oxford Reading Tree and Goodreads all publish versions of classic novels simplified for younger readers, and therefore also useful for the slower reader. 
  7. Share the reading with your child: you read a paragraph, then they read a paragraph. This will help the child to progress steadily through the book; in addition to giving the opportunity to hear how unfamiliar vocabulary is pronounced. (If you’re uncertain of how to pronounce a word, type the word into your phone!) 

It may be useful to read any dialogue as if in a play: you take one part and the child takes the other, then the text is heard as a conversation.

8. Look up unfamiliar vocabulary as you read. If it is a word that is unlikely to be repeated, simply explain its meaning. If it is a word that occurs regularly in the book, make a note of it, so the child can refer back as required.

9. Take a sheet of A4 paper and create an annotated picture of each character as a reminder of the part they play in the story, and how the character links with others. Or make a comic strip summary of each chapter using three or four simple sketches to represent the sequence of events of the chapter.

10. If the pupil is experiencing a real problem with reading texts quickly and accurately, ask the school about the possibility of having a reader in those situations where the child is working under time restraints, such as in exams.

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