Do games have a place for post-l6 learners with dyslexia?

Dyslexia Tutor and Author of CodeBreakers Dyslexia programme at CodeBreakers Dyslexia Services

Moving to learn

As a member of PATOSS, I receive the bi-annual, Bulletin Journal.  I read with interest an article entitled, “Does Movement Influence Our Brains Processes? Karisa Krcmar (2018) PATOSS Bulletin.  It made me reflect on games and how they helped my students learn to read and spell during a 1:1 tuition session.

As an advocate and practitioner of multi-sensory learning techniques, I always endeavour to ‘get bums off seats’ and learn in different ways.  I use a lot of games to enable learning. Not only does it stop students getting ‘bored’, I also consider it engages the brain, to process information in different ways, other than sitting at a desk completing workbooks. In a post-16 and HE setting, equally our students need to be stimulated.

Krcmar (2018) identifies Groth (2017) who suggest that when sitting at a  table our brains think we are in relaxation mode or resting and ‘turn off’.  Krcmar (2018) makes a valid point that we expect students to sit at desks and work in exams (and the classroom).

My main and initial purpose of playing games was to provide a visual stimulus for the spelling/reading pattern being taught. For example, I have a golf putting game, football goals, skittles, I find anything which I know will engage a student and a game they often enjoy themselves.  I make a label of the spelling patterns and place it within the view of the student.  For example, if we are learning how to make a /shon/ sound at the end of a word, I will make 3 cards with a label ‘tion, sion, cian’.

I then have my list of words, which have followed a compound and cumulative system.  I ask the student to spell or sound out a word. The aim of the ‘spell aloud game’, is for students to learn to segment words into sounds and select the correct spelling choice, for example ‘technician’.  They may say ‘t-e-/k/-n-i-/shon/’.  At which point they will be asked, “Which pattern would they choose to make the /shon/”.  We can then talk about the choices which make the /shon/ and the rules they have learned.

In addition to sounding out, it helps build experience of using the working memory, whilst being supported by visual prompts.

Games build memories for learning

I also strongly believe that students assimilate learning and have ‘memories’ from our sessions together, which they can then link to new learning, linking into existing schemata.  My younger students will often say ‘Remember when we played…I can recall now the spelling patterns for…”.  These memories aren’t exclusive to younger students.

Learning can become the same and repetitive, if we have provided some semantic links, this can differentiate and help segment learning experiences.  I often tend to find a key word for the specific sound/pattern I am working on, which holds a specific memory for a student.  We may take a few moments discussing that memory in general conversation. I use this as the ‘way in’ to their memory and then try to add into this with the new existing information.  Making sessions different, through games, helps students separate and segment their memories and recall specific experiences. I particularly recall my own university experiences. I am not a natural academic and learning from books does not come easy for me.  Some of the best points where I assimilated learning, came from a non-learning environment, sitting having a coffee and chatting with fellow students and making the connections to my own experiences.

I recall some time ago watching Kara Tointon’s programme on Dyslexia “Don’t Call Me Stupid” Watch it here

In this series of programmes, she learns how movement can help her retain information.

Krcmar (2018) discusses how academics are now exploring movement and learning.  In the Creative Academic Magazine (2017) Beard argued, “Movement is an essential principle in the design of effective learning”.  In this same article Groth (2017) discusses the ‘fight or flight’ reflex.  Our brains switch off when we are learning, if we are in relaxation mode, such as sat at a desk or lying on our bed reading. He argues that we don’t process information in the same way, if our brains aren’t stimulated.

Krcmar (2018) identifies 5 methods to help students learn through movement, these are; gesture, seek and appreciate patterns of movement, engage the senses, play and tapping into emotions. It’s thought that even small or non-sedentary movements can aid focus and thinking.

It is reported that engaging in movement helps with the intake of oxygen and therefore brain arousal.  Often the students in my sessions become breathless, as they have taken some exercise during the game, therefore stimulating the intake of oxygen.

Davis et al, (2011) are cited in the article, which is a study of children exercising whilst taking part in an academic task.  It revealed ‘an increase in bilateral prefrontal cortex activity’.  This is the place where executive functioning takes place and significant improvement was seen.  Executive functioning is the part of the brain which functions without conscious awareness. This part of the brain sifts through information, prioritises and actions tasks.

Krcmar (2018) reports on a further study, where moderate exercise was undertaken and reading and spelling were improved. However, an individual with dyspraxia may find ‘sport’ more challenging as they may need to concentrate on balance and engaging core skills.

Sensory learning needs

The article continues, to identify that remaining seated may inhibit some learners from learning, processing and storing information.

Many of my students have anxiety, some have sensory processing difficulties and basically struggle to sit still.  Some choose to stand up and complete their worksheets.  I have never stopped this, as I advocate students taking charge of their learning and as long as they are ‘working’, I am happy.

Krcmar (2018) gives the example of Aristotle, the ancient Greek who ‘walked and talked’.  In addition, Beethoven is said to have walked through countryside whilst composing. Playing games also aids bite-sized learning, it provides an opportunity for recapping and over-learning, all of which are important to retain learning.

Students can be encouraged to experiment with how they learn best and when they feel most stimulated to learn.  For some it can be standing or pacing.  Some need to ‘fidget’ to focus and concentrate.  Some require sensory feedback and for this reason, I recently used an exercise band, tied to the chair legs and watched as many students started to use it, bouncing their feet on it, receiving sensory feedback.  All was going well, until it became worn out and snapped!!

Krcmar (2018) extends the discussion to applying the ideas to study support.  The concept of using a flip chart to encourage students to stand and plan their ideas.

A ‘safe’ place to learn

Although playing games may be perceived as immature to some, some students may still be motivated by playing games, it can build light-hearted relief into sessions, which can be otherwise academic and stressful for struggling learners and build a rapport with your student.  Personally, I find rapport and building mutual respect with learners is key to developing a trusting working relationship. One of my mature students recently told me, ‘It’s safe here, I’m safe to make mistakes’. This student had worked his way up from through volunteering with St John’s Ambulance, to working as an ambulance technician and was about to start his foundation degree to qualify as a paramedic. We need to provide our students with a ‘safe’ learning environment, if we expect them to ‘take risks’ and there is a chance of making mistakes.

I recently watch the inspirational Jay Shetty talk, he spoke about failure being an opportunity to learn.  We can apply this in the same way to errors/mistakes being an opportunity to learn about our misconceptions of previous learning and as tutors this can be an opportunity to observe a student’s misunderstanding.  Without ‘trust’ our students may not move from their comfort zone and explore new ways and methods of learning.

Working with students’ interests and building rapport and mutual respect

I have had the pleasure of working on a project with a senior EP.  He chatted about the work he has been doing with sports professionals and their coaches.  He told me how these individuals were elite in their field and providing them with an opportunity to express their expertise and share their knowledge, was valuable to build their confidence, in a setting which was essentially addressing an area which they did not excel at.  FE and HE students may well have selected core subjects which they excel in, yet their literacy skills may not be comparable, essentially this is the same as the EP working with elite sportsman. Often my sessions with the ambulance technician would start with a chat about health matters and he would provide me with a very detailed account of the biology and science and I truly learned many things from him.  It built a mutual respect of two adults sharing knowledge and experience.

Choose games which are key to your student’s interests, I have used indoor goal posts and putting greens in the past.  The aim of the game, for my students, is to use the knowledge/rules from the systematic synthetic phonics programme to practice sounding out or spelling words from the sound or pattern they are working on.  Basically, you can adapt this to any piece of learning required.  The great thing about games, is students can also make choices and take charge of the game by making up their own rules.  It is really important for students to feel in control and take charge of their learning.

Anxiety, learning and working memory

It has long been considered that intellect is a key indication of academic success. However, Packiam Alloway suggests that working memory is also a key factor and indicator of success.  Without good working memory, we cannot efficiently process information provided at an auditory or visual level.  We need to be able to process the information, as it is received and assimilate it to existing knowledge/schemata, in order for it to pass from the short term to the long-term memory.  If information is to be retained and retrieved, it needs to pass into the long-term memory. There are of course many ways, including multi-sensory learning, which we can ensure that this information transfers.  There are many reasons why it may also not transfer, such as language processing.  However, Packiam Alloway reports that anxiety can impact upon the working memory, anxiety created by any external factor reduces our ability to processing information in the working memory.  Therefore, by introducing games, building a rapport, providing sensory feedback, offering opportunities to move to increase kinaesthetic learning, we can then help decrease anxiety, resulting in optimising the working memory.

I total agree with Krcmar, that as specialist teachers we are able to adapt and offer different student experiences and go further to personalise learning. It is our role to provide opportunities for learning through multi-sensory, metacognition, memory opportunities, ensuring our students are relaxed, decreasing their anxiety about an area of work they feel is not their strength.


Jay Shetty

Kara Tointon

Krcmar (2018) PATOSS Bulletin Winter

Packiam Alloway working memory resources

Game resources and ideas