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Posted 1st October, 2017 by Sue Partridge

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OmpansA quick survey of a number of universities shows what I suspected, that there is little explicit guidance on how best to support students with dyslexia once they have progressed to a postgraduate or research degree.  For that reason, I worked with a current student to develop something that would help university staff understand what is involved, particularly when it comes to giving feedback on written work at this level.  The document contains two generic sections and two which the student can personalise.  You can find a version to download at the end of this discussion piece. Try it and let me know what you think.

Some guidelines on how best to support a postgraduate student with dyslexia

Possible characteristics of a student with dyslexia at postgraduate level

  • Dyslexia is considered to be a lifelong condition and counts as a “protected characteristic” under the terms of the Equality Act 2010. Education institutes are required to make reasonable adjustments to enable students with dyslexia to achieve their full potential.
  •  Dyslexia manifests itself in individuals as a unique combination of strengths and difficulties, but with some common features.
  •  Dyslexia can have different effects at different stages in a student’s academic career. High achieving students with dyslexia can appear to have very few difficulties, because they have developed compensatory strategies which mask some of the problems.
  • Those strategies can sometimes take a lot of extra effort to achieve; it is important to value and respect the way that student goes about their work.
  • Some problems associated with dyslexia only come out at the highest level of study or when different sorts of pressure apply, which take a student out of their comfort zone.
  • Postgraduate students would not have gained their place on a PhD programme if they did not already have a high level of reading, writing and research skills.
  • Dyslexia can have a subtle effect on writing skills. For some students with dyslexia, it is the beginning stage of writing an article/thesis that is the biggest barrier; they may experience inertia in getting beyond an initial plan. This feels a lot like writers’ block.
  • Other students with dyslexia find deciding on an appropriate structure for their writing hard. Often students with dyslexia are good at thinking through “the big picture” but need support in translating this into a suitable framework and then working that framework into a plan.
  • Postgraduate students with dyslexia may be quite fluent in getting words down, but need support most when it comes to proof-reading and editing. They may not have had much experience of extended writing and the need to draft and redraft several times. However the support needs to be sensitive to the potential effort that has been put into the first draft.
  • A few postgraduate students with dyslexia will need most detailed intervention with the final draft; this is the time for technical input on spelling, grammar and style.
  • When it comes to presenting research findings in an oral setting (supervision meetings and vivas) some students with dyslexia may need more extensive practice in putting forward a case coherently and robustly. They may hold “the big picture “ in their own head, but find it harder to express this to other people. They need to be encouraged to use appropriate aids.
  • To read more about the skill profiles of high achieving people with dyslexia, try Eide and Eide (2012) the Dyslexic Advantage

A mini profile of me, how I learn best and how dyslexia affects me
[Give some brief details of how and when you came to find out you were dyslexic. Explain what helped you in your previous studies. Then say which of the above points about postgraduate study support apply to you.]

Some strategies for support by supervisors, focussing on feedback when editing written work

  • It is worth noting that strategies for supporting a student with dyslexia are often also well suited to most students.
  • With undergraduate study, the onus in responding to written work is to assign a mark and give feedback for future improvement, while also making a reasonable accommodation for the needs of a student with dyslexia (most universities have guidelines for staff on how to do this).
  • When giving feedback on postgraduate written work the duty is twofold; partly to check that sufficient progress is being demonstrated, but also to act as an editor for material that may be published.
  • The feedback should, therefore, still be developmental and allow the student to improve their skills and find their own academic voice when writing. For a postgraduate student with dyslexia, that voice may still be emerging. It is potently damaging to undermine confidence by over-zealous editing.
  • Some students with dyslexia may experience visual overload (there is one form of dyslexia that involves visual disturbance affecting perception of print). Too many corrections can be impossible to take in at once.
  • Educational good practice advises separating feedback on writing into different categories:
    • Start with what is good about the draft text, as an over emphasis on corrections can give a false first impression. Then look at:
    • Overall strategy and direction
    • Overall structure and coherence
    • Sentence and paragraph level structure to enable clarity
    • Vocabulary and wording
    • Technical editing for spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • For a postgraduate student writing an article or thesis, especially one with dyslexia, the best approach may be to give the feedback in different stages in the gestation of the work; planning, structure and coherence first (in one document) and more detailed editing later, or as a separate document.
  • For a student with dyslexia an overall summary of comments can be invaluable. A follow up meeting may involve helping the student draw up a plan of action to respond to the feedback.

An action plan for what would help me
[See if you can jot down some practical points here for your supervisors]

guidance on supporting postgraduate students with dyslexia

To see how a current postgraduate student has used this approach see:

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