Updated: Feb 7
Exam time is always stressful for students, but it is especially so for dyslexic students because they so often get poorer results despite putting in a lot of effort. There are some reasons why this is the case. By understanding the reasons behind this frustrating situation, you can help your dyslexic child improve their exam marks significantly.
1. Poor short term/working memory.
This is the key baddie which will scupper your child's chances of success if you don't know how to handle it. Have you noticed over the years how your child seems to know something one day, but the next day they have forgotten it? This is because the learning didn't reach their long term memory as a result of their weak working memory.
Working memory is the part of the brain which our learning passes through to reach long term memory. When it gets overloaded, it tips away all of your learning in that session. A dyslexic's working memory overloads faster than others.
In terms of revision, this means they will need to do 3 things: lots of repetition, use multi-sensory methods and spaced learning. Your child will need to repeat what they are learning many more times than the average student ( think at least 15-20 times, but they may need more).
This will clearly mean that your child will need to start their revision much sooner than their classmates, possibly before they have finished the syllabus. The only way to make sure your child has enough time to fit in all of their revision is to make a revision plan.
When your child is repeating their learning lots of times, make sure they are using a variety of methods so that they are learning through their eyes ( re-reading, making diagrams), through their ears ( saying out loud, recording and listening back) and through movement ( writing up notes, literally moving around their room) - preferably doing all 3 things at the same time i.e. drawing a diagram while saying out loud what they are doing. This is the essence of multi-sensory learning and it enables the brain to store the learning in different areas, making it easier to recall.
You then need to add spaced learning into the mix to ensure that whatever they are learning makes it's way into their long term memory. This means that your child needs to check that they can remember what they revised the next day, and the following day. Then leave testing it for a day but check they can still remember the following day. Gradually leave more time between testing - check your child can still remember the facts a week later, then leave another week and check again. If they can remember then the learning has gone into their long term memory.
In the exam, these children will often have readers and scribes. This is to try and mitigate the effects of a poor working memory which is also responsible for how many different brain processes we can juggle at once. When you have a poor working memory, you are unable to juggle too many at once.
In exams which have longer, essay style answers, then planning their answer using a quick mind map is essential as this will help them overcome the difficulties of juggling too much information at one time. Having spare paper for them to jot down ideas/methods and points before they lose them can be a good idea - use the exam answer paper if rough paper isn't available and then cross it through.
2. Visual and Auditory Memory.
Dyslexic children tend to have a strength with one of these and a weakness in the other. Visual memory is how well we take in information through our eyes and auditory memory how well we take it in through our ears. A lot of people say that dyslexics are visual learners i.e. meaning they prefer to learn through pictures and diagrams and their eyes, but this is quite a generalisation as I have found students can also have a weak visual memory but a stronger auditory memory and others have had a weakness in both.
If your child has had a formal assessment for dyslexia or undergone certain dyslexia screenings then you may know which ones are stronger or weaker for your child. It is best that your child uses multi-sensory methods as stated above but if they do have a particular strength in visual or auditory memory then they may be able to learn quicker playing to their strength.
For example, if they are a strong visual learner then making mind maps and diagrams may be a good and quick way for them to learn.
If they are a strong auditory learner, then repeating information over and over verbally may suit them best.
3. Slow Processing Speed.
Many students with dyslexia have a slow processing speed. This means that they take longer than the average student to understand what they are being asked to do. This affects both revision and the exam with the time it will take them to revise past papers and also how long the exam will take them to do.
These students receive 25% extra time in recognition that they need a bit more time to process what they have to do, but when they have processed it, they can answer the questions well.
I've worked with many students who don't use their extra time or who don't think they need it, but they should be taught to use all of it. They can use the time to go back and check answers, make sure they have interpreted the question correctly or try and complete the questions they were struggling with.
This article has looked at the 3 key areas which affect a dyslexic student's revision and exam performance - working memory, visual & auditory memory and finally processing speed.
If you and your child would like to know more about effective revision techniques then take a look at our programme ' How to Learn with Dyslexia' which explores research backed revision techniques which really work. I use these with my students to take them from a failing student to one passing exams.
You will learn more about the issues affecting learning and then be taught ways to make it easier to retrieve information for exams and how to make the learning stick.
If you would like to read more about how to ensure exam success, you can read my article '5 Steps to Exam Success for your Dyslexic Child' here.