Online Learning: How is DAS supporting their students?

Article written by Geetha Shantha Ram, Director, SpLD Assessment Services, English Language and Literacy Division & Staff Professional Development Division


1.     How are students with dyslexia adjusting to online/home-based learning?

Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) firmly believes in tech integration for learning to prepare our learners to be independent, resourceful and life-long learners. In order to achieve this, we have exposed learners with dyslexia to various tech tools during their in-class intervention. Having had this prior exposure and being digital natives, many students took to online learning with enthusiasm.

In spite of their obvious excitement, there were certainly challenges at the start – learners with dyslexia do require close monitoring with individualised support. It’s also advisable that explicit instructions are provided and a road-map for their learning is drawn and shared in advance to prepare them for what is to be expected with online lessons. In our experience, some of the initial difficulties include managing attention and behaviour and in using the most appropriate online tools for all aspects of learning. However, with the combined efforts of specialist educators committed to supporting them and parents determined to continue with intervention, we are able to overcome most of these initial teething issues. Based on the feedback of the DAS educational therapists, students are increasingly gaining confidence in learning through online lessons.


2.     What are some of the pros and cons of online/home-based learning for students with dyslexia?

In many ways, the advantages of online learning mirror the experiences of anyone who has participated in any form of online learning. Particularly, time is a critical resource for learners with dyslexia and by removing travel time, specialist intervention may be expanded in the various subject areas. Walls can be broken, and students who may not physically access lessons can do so now, through online lessons.

Information too can be replayed with components of the lesson recorded and students can revisit information learned, which is an important asset as learners with dyslexia may be fast forgetters. Spelling and grammar checkers, online dictionaries and reference sources have made searching for information, editing and producing work much more efficient for those who have difficulties using traditional means. There are also software programmes that address other needs such as time management, organisational and note-taking skills, thus enabling persons with dyslexia to overcome their difficulties, and often, without feeling their effects.

Increasingly, with the huge developments in technology, learning through e-platforms such as webinars and e-learning courses is increasingly common, so exposing learners with dyslexia to this mode of learning prepares them to be comfortable with this approach of instruction in the future.

However, students may experience visual fatigue with screens and so timely breaks are important. Undeniably, without the purposeful use of apps and software to enhance the learning, online lessons may come across as experimental rather than intentional, therefore specialist educators need to invest more time and in turn, offer more guidance to students. Learners with dyslexia may also require manipulatives as visual representations alone may be insufficient. Therefore, guiding the student to ‘create’ their own manipulatives with what they have around them is important.

As some of the students have other co-morbidities in addition to their dyslexia, attention, and concentration are challenges since teaching is now being delivered remotely. Thus, the use of good educational apps that tap on various modalities and complement the curriculum or lesson objectives may help ease these students’ transition to online learning

We also know that for the younger students, facilitators who are physically present may be necessary to acclimatise to online lessons. While this may initially be an added responsibility for parents, we have learned that children, even the younger ones, become a lot more independent after a few lessons especially when there is a clear routine in place for each lesson. Additionally, some parents have informed us that they enjoy the opportunity to better understand and be more involved in their child’s intervention.

However, technology enables individuals with dyslexia to become independent learners and to have the autonomy to decide the means that they would like to be supported, leading to self-directed learning. Studies on the effects of technology use are consistent in reporting that it is highly successful at stimulating and maintaining interest, motivating and offering a more social learning experience, creating a positive influence on their self-esteem.


3.     How does having dyslexia affect/make it a bit tougher for students to do online/home-based learning?

There are certain teaching principles that make instructions for learners with dyslexia effective. For instance, learners with dyslexia require explicit instructions. They also benefit from a schedule that details what is expected from them during class. Being simultaneously multisensory and managing behaviour to ensure focused learning is equally important to ensure that the intervention is productive.

Being mindful of their learning needs when planning online lessons is key. Specialist intervention educators have the benefit of the collective experiences of educators over many decades and can, therefore, execute these teaching principles in a physical classroom with some effort. Yet online instructions are new to even the most experienced educator. This then calls for patience, a willingness to try and some resourcefulness.

An example is in advising learners how to access text to speech functions because they may struggle with reading the instructions. While achieving a suitable lesson with these principles in mind may appear to be a monumental feat, with the right combination of educational applications, software and teacher instruction, we can certainly achieve a good online lesson that caters to the needs of the learners with dyslexia.


4.     How DAS is supporting the students during this time?

We considered three main groups in order to effectively support our students – parents, teachers, and students themselves. Fortunately, we have always integrated technology into our lessons and as early as Feb, we familiarised our students with the virtual classroom platform we intended to use if required. Since going online, we have circulated short messages, videos, webinars, and hotlines to empower parents because we know that they are fundamental partners in the educational journey of the students. Teachers at the DAS were supported through sharing sessions, daily tech tools tips, modified curriculum resources, and webinars.

DAS students are currently receiving their full intervention online which is a direct replacement of a physical lesson done through a virtual platform. These online classes are often supplemented by worksheets and links to other apps and software to facilitate continued learning. With support from MOE, many students now have access to devices and can continue to receive these online lessons and for those students who are still unable to do so, Take-Home learning packs are sent to maintain learning. In order to provide further support, supplementary classes are being scheduled during the June holidays. While we continue to learn and enhance our online services, we are encouraged to see parents re-enrol their children with the DAS during this period.


5.     What more can or should be done to support students with dyslexia during this time?

DAS is proud to belong to a global community committed to supporting learners with dyslexia and learning difficulties. We recognise that the challenges are often universal and the solutions, therefore, can be shared. The generosity of various educational institutions, organisations and business entities can be seen in the free access provided to support the community during this period.

As an improvement, a one-stop collective portal that parents, students, and teachers can all refer to would greatly improve awareness and usage to benefit learners.

Presently, DAS has implemented this on a smaller scale through the development and maintenance of a Google site that is shared with Educational therapists and parents. Ideally, this platform should contain links and demonstrations of the available technology tools, applications and software and enable the exchange of ideas and reviews of how these have been used in learning environments. As educators and parents, we have gained a lot of knowledge and experience on the provision of online intervention during this period and we should continue to leverage this knowledge, even after returning to physical classroom environments. The availability of this platform may ensure the continued use of technology as we support learners with dyslexia.


6.     Is the DAS support during this period for its own students or extended to all students with dyslexia?

While the DAS is dedicated to providing quality services to our students and parents, we are always eager to participate in the larger conversation within the community. In view of COVID-19 and HBL, we have posted blogs with tips and shared a Google site with updated information on applications and software for parents and educators. We are also working with several groups to influence the tech support for teachers supporting students with dyslexia and to enhance the effectiveness of these tools in remediating the challenges learners with dyslexia deal with.