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Studying with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Why is writing difficult for students with Specific learning difficulties?

Writing is perhaps one of the most important skills to develop at university.  Writing for assignments (and exams) is a principle means of assessment and of deepening subject-knowledge and understanding.  Writing also helps to foster transferable skills such as research-, critical thinking- and communication- skills.  Developing writing takes time, practice and perseverance, particularly if you are a student with an  SpLD - but it is well worth the effort as it will save you time, and enable you to achieve better grades in the long run. 

According to Price (2007), writing is difficult for students with dyslexia/SpLD because:

It involves planning and working interchangeably between large- and small-scale levels of writing. (Large scale refers to the  overall structure of the text, its form or genre, and the writing process as a whole. Small-scale, on the other hand, refers to the components of text, such as paragraph and sentence structure.) 

  • The writing process is not linear, but the outcome looks linear;
  • It involves multi-tasking,
  • Changes to one aspect require changes to be made elsewhere.

This complexity is especially challenging for students with dyslexic/SpLD's.  For example, a fragile working memory can make it difficult to hold in mind and manipulate large amounts of information at any one time. Processing differences may also make multi-tasking and sequencing difficult. According to Godwin (2012) if you are dyslexic:

  • Getting ideas down on paper may seem impossible,
  • You may avoid writing by reading a lot;
  • Ideas may flash or tumble in and out of your mind, or compete for your attention;
  • You may be unsure how to order or develop ideas;
  • Your work may lack structure and/or analysis.‚Äč· 

Tips for writing

Writing at university can take many different forms, from discursive essays to informative reports, brief summarising paragraphs to dissertations of ten or even twenty thousand words.

Whatever the genre, the topics you are writing about are always likely to be more complex than any previous writing you have done. So it's even more important that your writing is focused, clear and controlled if you want to successfully communicate your understanding to your reader.

Tips for focused, clear and controlled written communication: 
Make a plan: ‚ÄčEven in exams, you will find that spending a little time on planning will make a big difference to your writing. You won't have to stop and think what to write about next and you'll make sure that you don't forget anything important. Plus you'll have a chance to consider how to make your strongest argument.

Note that in university essays, it is best not to use an 'all the arguments for, then all the arguments against' structure. To properly discuss more complex topics, you need to use a thematic structure. Look for themes or headings to group your points under, and choose no more than four to give you enough space to develop your ideas properly.

Write in paragraphs: A paragraph is a unit of information, at least three sentences long. It should develop your discussion of a single point. Start with a sentence that states the point and shows its relevance to the overall topic. Then develop this point with analysis that shows:

  • how it links to the overall topic
  • how it helps us to understand the overall topic
  • any other information and arguments relating to it or criticising it.

Make sure you have references to show where you got your ideas from. Any idea that comes from your reading needs to be referenced, even if you don't use a direct quote.

Write shorter sentences: Use plain language - you don't have to search for a more "academic-sounding" word when a simple one will do. Markers are looking for clear and accurate expression of ideas, not jargon or confusing language. Shorter sentences are usually clearer than long complex ones, but make sure it is a whole sentence and not just a clause or phrase.

Keep a list of referencing examples: Referencing can be confusing and difficult to remember. But it's tedious to have to keep looking up how to reference things. Early in the term, before you have a lot of assignments to do, make a list of examples. Choose one example of each of these most common formats:

  • a book
  • a journal article
  • a chapter in an edited collection
  • a website.

Check the style of referencing you are expected to use for each department you have modules in (it will be in the Course Handbook on Blackboard). If they are different, make more than one list of examples but mark them up clearly so you know which modules they apply to.

Look out for common mistakes: If there's a word you know you often get wrong, or something you frequently get comments on from markers, make a note. Keep a list and use this as a first checklist when you are proof reading.

Proof reading and editing:

  • Identifying your own mistakes and correcting them is an important part of academic writing: this is what you do when you proofread.
  • Ideally leave a day between finishing your essay and proofreading it. You won't be so close to your work, so you will see your errors more easily.
  • Try reading your essay aloud, as this will slow you down, make you focus on each word, and show you when your sentences are too long.
  • If you often get comments on your sentences, try working on one paragraph at a time, and putting each sentence on a new line. This will make it much easier to spot common errors, for instance, sentences which depend on another sentence for their meaning, or are missing parts. Once you've checked it, you can join all the sentences back up in the paragraph again and move on to the next.
  • It can help to have a friend read through your work but developing your own proofreading skills is better. Your friend won't always be available!
  • While you're proof-reading, also check that all your references are complete, accurate and consistently formatted.

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