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Music and Dyslexia

Learning to play an instrument or to sing presents particular challenges for people with dyslexia. Why should we, as music teachers, parents, candidates or examiners be bothered about dyslexia? Well, some experts believe that between 5 and 10 percent of people have it, whereas others say as many as 17 percent of people show signs of reading challenges.

What is dyslexia? The British Dyslexia Association describes it as ‘a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process’. It can affect reading, spelling, writing and music – both theory and practical. People with dyslexia don’t outgrow it, and it could also overlap with other Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs): dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention deficit (and hyperactivity) disorder and autistic spectrum disorders. How do I recognise dyslexia? Dyslexia impacts people in different ways. So, symptoms might not look the same from one person to another. A key sign of dyslexia is trouble decoding words. This is the ability to match letters to sounds. Kids can also struggle with a more basic skill called phonemic awareness, which is the ability to recognize the sounds in words. Some other times, tasks may take a surprisingly long time and there may be problems with the speed of processing information, short-term memory, organisation, spoken language and motor skills. In some people, dyslexia isn’t picked up until later on, when they have trouble with more complex skills. How does dyslexia affect music learning? Commonly reported difficulties with music include reading notation, especially at sight, and learning new music quickly. Remembering interval names and the number of sharps or flats in a key signature, and recognising cadences can all cause problems. Taking information from written music, especially fingerings, and applying them to the instrument can also be difficult. How can you support a pupil with dyslexia? First of all, you need to remember that every student knows best what helps them, so ask! Every strategy has to be individualised, however these are some of the things you could begin with. 1. Help with visual stress Visual stress can be helped with individually chosen tinted paper, coloured overlays and/or enlargement. It really helps! 2. Teaching Strategies Multi-sensory approaches are helpful here. It may be that written music isn’t always necessary and, as an alternative, improvisation and memorisation can both be fulfilling. Using colour can be useful, with pupils choosing preferences and annotating music themselves. For short-term memory problems, try chunking or breaking down, gradually building up to longer phrases. 3. Be organised! Organisation can be difficult for some dyslexic people. You could help by attaching ‘To do’ lists to music cases, sending texts/emails, and encouraging students to put reminders on their phones. 4. Patience Mental support is as important to a student’s learning journey. Remind then every person is different, and no journey can be compared to another, they only have to be better than how they were the day before, and that’s enough! Also, exam boards offer ‘reasonable adjustments’ for candidates with a large range of disabilities, so let them know that everyone is on their side! Danay Bouzala, Director of Drama References 1. 2.

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