The new teaching paradigm - Notice and Adjust

  Neil MacKay Workshop Video Links

Put simply, the new teaching paradigm that underlies the 4D Edge involves recognising that dyslexia can be characterised as a learning preference – and teaching to this. At its most basic, this means understanding that just as dyslexics think differently, so they naturally prefer to receive, process and present information in the way that makes sense to them. As Dr Harry Chasty, UK psychologist and international consultant on learning abilities, says: “If a child doesn’t learn the way you teach, teach him/her the way s/he learns.”

The solution is multi-sensory, and multi-sensory everything – personalisation, differentiation and assessment for learning. The most effective classroom strategy is ‘notice and adjust’ – notice those children who are getting stuck and make reasonable adjustments in the way they are taught and assessed, including personalised learning and alternative evidence of achievement. In a nutshell, this is about finding out what children are good at; giving them a chance to do more of it; and celebrating them doing it right.

Personalised learning includes strategies based on developing comprehension through use of context, syntax and grammar, and looking at areas such as organisation of ideas, planning skills, learning to remember, raising self-esteem and valuing emotional intelligence. It’s also about letting students express their learnings in a preferred – and often highly creative manner – such as mind-maps, diagrams, graphics, video clips and so forth. And of course being prepared to mark it in that form, without always requiring it to be written up. Students themselves often have strong views on what will work when a linear teaching style does not. And this may be as simple as using dyslexia-friendly fonts – usually Arial, Sassoon or Comic Sans at 14 point with 1.5 line spacing! You can find out more about what students have to say in our 4D Virtual Classroom.

This ‘notice and adjust’ approach is reflected in the Dyslexia Foundation’s revolutionary programme for schools, which provides access to a national and international framework of learnings, insights and advice which can both make life easier in the classroom for teachers and improve learning outcomes for students. You can find out more at

Bottom-line, ‘notice and adjust’ is all about differentiation, as opposed to conventional learning approaches where ‘one size fits all’. These conventional ‘teaching at the middle’ approaches do not work, and in fact often end up alienating students at both ends of the ability spectrum, from those who cannot do it, to those who know it already and are bored with being held back. Teaching at the middle in fact usually means that one third of the class already knew it, one third gets it, and one third never will. So two thirds of a class are not learning and are consequently having their time wasted.


In defining dyslexia, it is important to note that this is best thought of as a continuum of abilities and difficulties, rather than a distinct category, as there are no clear cut-off points. This means that students with dyslexic-like learning issues may manifest these in many different ways, from the traditional issues with reading, writing and spelling through to issues with a much wider range of skills such as auditory and information processing, planning and organising, motor skills, short-term memory and concentration. Some of these can make it especially challenging for individuals to follow instructions, turn thoughts into words and finish work on time.

Some students - estimated at around 4% (compared to the conservatively estimated 10% of the population who are dyslexic) - may need additional specialist help, screening tests and group or one-on-one interventions, while others will make marked improvements through simple accommodations like extra time. For more information about the importance and scientific basis of accommodations click here. Additional guidance on identifying dyslexia can be found on the 4D website at and in the 4D Guide for Schools at here. The guide also includes useful information on screening tests.

Overall, what we do know is that ‘notice and adjust’ delivers results across the board, producing constructive results for all students and lifting overall school performance. This means Maori and Pacific Island students, who historically have oral cultures, can also gain significant benefits. In the UK, experience shows that dyslexia-appropriate strategies and accommodations deliver a raft of benefits, including better exam results and improvements in attendance, punctuality and parental confidence. Click here to view Neil Mackay talking about the impact of dyslexia-appropriate strategies and accommodations in UK schools, click here.

Making a difference
‘Notice and adjust’, through identification, interventions and classroom adjustments for dyslexic students makes a difference by:

  • Demonstrating empathy, respect towards, and understanding, of the student

  • Proactively building relationships with the student

  • Identifying the various social and learning needs of those coming into school who don’t easily access learning

  • Keeping these children/students at school: happy and achieving

  • Personalising the learning

  • Promoting and supporting self-efficacy

  • Building home and school partnerships

  • Ensuring the transition from preschool to school and from primary school to intermediate and high school is as successful as possible

  • Changing benchmarks and expectations to take the stress out of learning for these students and their families


There are many signs that a child may have a dyslexic learning preference. In essence, we want to look for trouble – not to confer a label, but to action a response.

  Watch out for the following characteristics: Click here to reveal
  • Challenges with visual and/or auditory sequential working memory

  • Struggling to make links with phonological awareness

  • Difficulties with making letter/sound links, spelling common words and segmenting and blending sounds

  • Issues with learning sequences eg. days of week

  • Fine motor coordination may be problematic, eg. tying laces, doing up buttons

  • Good oral capability but difficulties, including behavioural ones, when requested to complete written exercises

  • Letters or numbers reversed or confused b/d/p/q, n/u, 13/31

  • Problems with labels, rhymes, sequences

  • Spells/reads on one line but not on the next

  • Quick thinker/doer, but not when given instructions

  • Enhanced creativity

  • Aptitude for constructional/technical toys

  • Being slower to process and needing repeated exposures to retain learning

  • Retrieval issues – learns something one moment, gone the next

  • Large gap between oral and written work

  • Failure to complete school work

  • Tiredness

  • Poor sense of direction – difficulty telling left from right

  • Poor execution of work and avoidance of tasks – may be the class clown!

  • Negative attitude and lack of motivation

  • Lack of concentration

  • Difficulties with peers and group work

  • Low self esteem and unrealistic goals

  • Poor attitude to school

  • ‘Homework havoc’

  • May show satisfactory work in some areas

  • Can appear on the ball, but is a bit of an enigma in terms of how their thought processes work

Do remember that all lists should be viewed against a benchmark of ability-appropriate achievement in other areas.This embodies the principle of “unexpected difficulties” due to dyslexic learning differences, rather than across-the-board learning difficulties due to “global delay”. Students with global delay tend to learn most things at a slower rate and require more repetition whereas students with dyslexia usually have difficulties in specific areas. Also beware of any attempts to turn lists like this into some form of “identification checklist”. These are fraught with danger because they invariably fail to acknowledge that some behaviours are more significant indicators than others. So some non-dyslexic student could score highly on a range of trivial items while severe dyslexics may have fewer but more significant behaviours.

Additional guidance on identifying dyslexia can also be found on the 4D website at and in the 4D Guide for Schools here. The guide also includes useful information on screening tests.


Simple classroom changes in each of the following areas can make a world of difference. Click below to reveal.


Students with dyslexia can become overloaded when receiving instructions, finding long or complicated lists difficult to process and recall. The following adjustments can make instructions easier for them to understand and retain:

  • Set clear lesson objectives. Write them on the board and refer to them frequently during the lesson, and especially at the end. Students need to have a purpose for their learning and will respond better when they know why they are doing something

  • Break instructions into small, logical ‘chunks’ and say things in the order they should be done, ie “Fold the paper then put it in the box”, not “Put the paper in the box after you have folded it”

  • Slow down talking pace and reduce the amount of words used. Repeat, slowly and clearly, if necessary

  • Smile before you give instructions or repeat them

  • Classroom studies show some teachers talk for 90% of the time – talk less!

  • Simplify sentences, don’t use 30 words when ten will do

  • Avoid passive phrases, sarcasm or double meanings, ie “You need to lift your game”

  • Differentiate to provide opportunities for success, and differentiate by outcome as well as task. By outcome means setting different activities based on levels of achievement. By task means setting the same activity for all students but letting them choose how to demonstrate their learning

  • Praise dyslexic students when they ask questions

  • Use simple worksheets, with large print and clear spacing

  • Check in with students soon after they commence work to ensure they’ve ‘got it right’ – if they haven’t, this will ensure you put them on the right track sooner


The additional time it takes for a dyslexic student to access basic skills like reading and writing can leave insufficient time to demonstrate ability in other areas (eg. story telling, problem solving, comprehension). This is because the dyslexic brain is wired differently, meaning there is a neurobiological reason why extra time is an important accommodation. The following adjustments can therefore help dyslexic students to succeed:

  • Provide an overview of the topic at the start and define what needs to be achieved by when

  • Allow extra thinking time and more time to finish tasks

  • Find ways to provide increased processing time for students, eg. deliberately pausing after you ask a question

  • Allow more time for dyslexic students in tests

  • Visual timetables can be beneficial for dyslexic thinkers

  • Use digital clocks as well as analogue

  • During tests, a short break in the middle, or breaking the test into two parts to be sat on different days, can be highly beneficial

  • Remember that a dyslexic child often has to work exceptionally hard to try and catch up or stay with the rest of the class. Give them some down time to recharge, or structure activities so they are not required to work at their maximum capacity all the time. Structure the day with easy tasks interspersed with more difficult ones


Dyslexic students can find blackboard and whiteboards difficult to read from, and can easily become exhausted or fall behind if asked to copy a lot of text as part of a lesson. The following adjustments can ease or remove difficulties around notetaking:

  • Minimise board copying and dictation

  • If board work is needed, use black or dark markers. Avoid red or green as many students find these difficult to read

  • Provide photocopied handouts/transcripts, but avoid A5 size as the text can be hard to read – slowing down information processing and comprehension

  • Use handouts with gaps for students to fill in key ideas and draw their explanations and utilise ‘Thin Notes’ – handouts containing text down the centre of the page with large margins. This provides plenty of room for ‘picture thinkers’ to draw diagrams and for ‘word thinkers’ to note or summarise main points

  • Where possible, include pictures in handouts

  • Avoid black text on white background – buff or coloured paper is easier to read

  • Use at least 14pt font Arial, Sasson or Comic Sans, 1.5 line spacing for handouts

  • Encourage the use of colour to help organise notes

  Creative and multi-sensory approaches

Dyslexic students are often ‘picture thinkers’, so may find information more interesting and easier to understand when it is supported by visual and creative material:

  • Multi-sensory approaches work best – including visuals and colours

  • Use video, internet, mind-maps and graphics

  • Do quick drawings to illustrate concepts

  • Use pictures, diagrams and charts and use coloured highlighters for emphasis

  • Use real objects as props

  • Show don’t tell, for example by using role-plays

  • Use wall displays and images to reinforce learnings – e.g. months of year, mathematical signs, geographic locations

  • Have keywords around the classroom that relate to the topics being taught – this makes it easier for students to access common words and maintain their train of thought

  • Technology can be a dyslexic student’s best friend, enabling them to use visual strategies or overcome handwriting or spelling difficulties. A laptop to word process work and reinforce numeracy skills, a dictaphone to record work, and phonetic spell checkers can enable learning

  Classwork and the classroom environment

There are a number of adjustments that will improve the learning environment, such as:

  • Relocate dyslexic students to well lit areas near visual aids, but not directly under fluoro lights as these cause visual disturbance

  • Ensure noise is not a distraction

  • A well organised structured learning environment will also, among other benefits, help reduce distractions

  • Accept work in different formats, for example mind maps, videos, photos, diagrams, powerpoint. Use oral assessments and phonetic spelling

  • As a rule, ‘don’t give them more of what they can’t do’

  • Allow students to choose which piece of writing they want assessed

  • Link learning tasks to previous knowledge. This is about creating ‘building’ blocks which show how new things relate to previous lessons. Dyslexic processors often require additional exposure to new learning to make these links and retain understanding so that they can retrieve information and apply to other settings and tasks

  • Reinforce and check understanding. This also relates to ‘building blocks’ and showing the relationship between learning. Students need to be clear that it is ok to ask if they haven’t understood something – it is likely others will be in the same position

  • Establish the purpose and build a vision of the big picture for the lesson

  • Summarise key points at the end of the lesson. Revisit previous learning at the start of the lesson

  • Teach a range of planning techniques to support students personalising their learning style

  • Use post it notes to turn non sequential thinking into kinaesthetic flow charts/mind maps. 

  • Use PMI planning tables and word wheels. PMI tables take the common format of plus/minus or for/against tables and add a third column marked ‘interesting’. This opens up the thinking and allows for more flexibility. Word wheels are a simple planning technique for organising ideas, with the main idea going in the middle and other ideas go on the spokes as they come up in conversation, planning or brainstorming

  • Use WALT and WILF techniques to support target setting.
    WALT (What are we learning today) allows teachers to make explicit the learning of the lesson, while WILF (What am I looking for) tells students what to focus on

  • Try many ideas: not all will work. Clever tools include highlighted lines to aid navigation, blue tack spots for punctuation, Mnemonics, and encouraging use of the 'finger' for spacing

  • Allow greater access to internet

  • Encourage students to read their writing backwards to spot spelling errors

  • Use peer tutoring, scribed work and paired reading to help dyslexic students keep up

  • Group children based on learning ability, not based on reading/spelling ability

  • Catch them doing it right - praise and encourage strengths, being specific about what a student has done right

  • Display students’ work (sensitively) and update regularly

  • Nurture a comfort zone through preferential learning which enables a dyslexic student to build up to handling discomfort, like traditional assessments, with adjustments, time accommodations and a reader/writer for exams (ideally a reader/writer the student has met before and feels comfortable with)

  Reading, writing and spelling

Difficulties and frustrations around reading, writing and spelling are often the biggest challenge for dyslexic students, and can unnecessarily affect their work in other areas where they should be excelling. The following suggestions can relieve the intense pressure around reading and writing skills, freeing dyslexic learners up to show what they can achieve:

  • Always explain the ‘three parts of a word’ – what it looks like, what is sounds like and what it means

  • Relax – interesting words spelt wrongly are of more value than boring words spelt right

  • Don’t overly focus on handwriting – neat handwriting can be difficult for dyslexic students and an obsession with neatness can detract from strengths in equally or more important areas. The priority is effective communication in whatever medium is being used

  • When marking, adopt the “less is more” approach and feed-forward – tell them how to do it next time rather than what they’ve done wrong

  • Don’t equate assessment with writing – there are alternative ways for a student to “show what they know”

  • When it comes to gathering evidence, remember that there are alternative ways to get it down on paper

  • Promote reading for a range of purposes – and let the student choose their own reading material when the activity is about reading for pleasure

  • Provide alternative strategies and media.

  • Access audio book resources

  • Use Paired Reading to help students experiencing difficulties to keep up with the class


Marking is another area where simple adjustments can significantly assist dyslexic students. Consider the following:

  • Mark ‘target’ spellings only – avoid death by deep marking! Apply an 80% accuracy standard, allowing students to ‘pass’ where they have made a good attempt
  • Focus on big picture success, rather than word or spelling accuracy ie encourage ‘thinking’, not just ‘reading’ accuracy – in the right context ‘butifull’ is much better than ‘nice’
  • Identify two successes – the “wow” factors: “We need more of this please!”
  • Give a maximum of two tips – in positive, affirmative, doable language in order to: “define those functions which are almost within reach”
  • Finally, ask the student to “tell me something you did well/would change next time to make it even better”

Even more debilitating than having difficulty with basic skills can be an accompanying feeling of failure or low-self worth. The following can help:

  • Remember dyslexia’s greatest difficulty is self-esteem – be aware of potential issues around emotional and behavioural needs as well as self-esteem

  • Emphasise strengths of student’s work, with specific praise

  • Develop students’ knowledge of their own language abilities and needs, and of what to do when things go wrong

  • Support target setting and celebrate success

  • Encourage students to take a role of responsibility that showcases a strength that they have. If the expectation is for the child to read or give feedback to the whole class, give them warning a few days prior so they have a chance for adequate practice. Don’t put them on the spot. If they are resistant do not insist

  • Try to provide feedback, not failure – “criticism kills”

  • Empathy is the key. When a student feels understood and supported they can be encouraged to take learning risks. From comfort to discomfort. From non-traditional / alternative educational outputs to the ability to sit traditional exams!


Dyslexic students often find homework intimidating – forgetting or not comprehending what is expected of them. Make the following adjustments around homework to improve outcomes for dyslexic students:

  • Issue clear instructions for homework and give a realistic time allocation

  • Set homework that reinforces basic skills and provide supporting material – ideally, give homework as a handout

  • Include the family in the communication loop. If the student and their parents are comfortable, discuss openly with the student that you are aware they are dyslexic or think differently – and ask how best you can support them

  • Set homework at start of lesson and remind again at the end

  • Provide an extra text book – one for home and one for school


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