Dyslexia in Freshman Composition Courses

Dyslexia in Freshman Composition Courses (PILOT Reflections)

While Seton Hill does offer an Honors section of "Seminar in Thinking and Writing" (the two-semester freshman comp and "welcome to college life" course), its other students of various abilities are mainstreamed. Students take a test during orientation, and may be placed in a one-credit lab course or a three-credit developmental course, either of which they take along with the regular STW course.

I’ve taught technical writing to students who were very shaky in their knowledge of English, so I do have some experience recognizing ESL issues. That means I am able to help work with students on their higher-level thinking processes, even though the drafts they give me may have small word-level errors.

But a student with dyslexia in a freshman composition course faces a difficult challenge. We can provide the student with a peer note-taker, we can audiotape lectures and discussions, and the writing center can offer one-to-one tutoring. But plenty students whose education is affected by dyslexia don’t identify themselves as dyslexic, and thus don’t seek out help.

A few years ago, I had a pair of exchange students in a literature class. Both participated ardently in classroom discussions, but one crashed and burned with every writing assignment. She was in tears in my office, when I noted that I am not an expert at diagnosing LD, but that I noticed what looked like coping mechanisms — a fluency at talking through her ideas, a reluctance to draft and revise, a reluctance to stick to an outline, a resistance to structure. She wanted to think of herself as a free spirit who thrives on adrenaline and inspiration, rather than someone who has serious difficulty concentrating and planning. Since she didn’t identify herself as LD, I told her that my hands were pretty much tied — I couldn’t excuse her from the work or change the criteria I used to judge her.

A few months after the class ended, I got an e-mail saying that when she was back in her home country, she did in fact get tested, and was diagnosed with dyslexia. A counselor showed her a whole new bag of coping mechanisms that were making school much easier for her.

It was one of those e-mails that you save in your "Why I Became a Teacher" file, to consult whenever you feel your enthusiasm flagging.

On the other hand, one student who relied upon an in-class note-taker started skipping way too many classes. I got a note from his academic tutor, informing me that he was having difficulty following my verbal instructions, and asking me to type them all out. This was during a period in class when we were going over student writing samples that I hadn’t seen before, so there was no script that I could write out in advance. I wrote back, asking the tutor whether the student had discussed his attendance record, and suggested that the reason he was having difficulty following my oral instructions was because more than half the time, he wasn’t in class to hear them. Once the tutor heard my side of it, she backed me up.

Asking the student to come to a one-on-one conference, and then sending a tape of that conference to a developmental tutor would not only help the student, but would also be an opportunity for the developmental tutor to advise me.

In SHU’s "Seminar in Thinking and Writing," in-class discussion, the time- and stress-management lessons that students learn the hard way, and the bonding that occurs in extracurricular activities mean that even a student who is not demonstrating good progress in writing assignments may be gaining something from the class, and may be contributing significantly to the class culture. While students may be surprised by the extent to which college writing differs from the high school writing that earned them As, SHU offers many resources to students who are struggling.

I don’t consider myself a gate-keeper, whose job is to flunk those students who aren’t worthy of a college education. Still, the high-functioning students with learning disabilities that did not seriously affect their success in high school need to be encouraged to take advantage of the full range of resources that the university makes available to them.