Sarah Murphy, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
This article is meant to serve as a practical guide for writing center practitioners and provide strategies to help make writing centers more accessible for all learners. These strategies specifically focus on ways to increase accessibility for dyslexic individuals, regardless of whether the writer has disclosed their disability or not.
One challenge that writing centers should confront more explicitly is how to navigate working with and providing resources for disabled individuals. In my experiences as a tutor, students often do not disclose their disability/disabilities until we have established significant rapport and met for multiple sessions. Even then, once tutees tell me they have a diagnosed learning disability, they do not always share the specifics of their disabilities with me. Kerri Rinaldi (2015), a deaf writing center consultant, argues that disclosing what type of disability a person has is not necessary. She writes “My disability does not impact my knowledge of myself. I will tell you what I need, and you don’t need to know my disability so that you can make that decision for me.” I agree with Rinaldi here that tutors do not need to know a student’s specific diagnosis or disability to still have a successful session. For example, I have been working regularly with one student for about two years who informed me after our first few sessions that she has both physical and learning disabilities. While she never specified which disabilities she has, she did communicate that she needs a quiet place to concentrate; it is helpful when I read documents out loud to her; and that she has difficulty with handwriting so it is best if we type notes. Knowing which strategies work best for her proved to be significantly beneficial to our sessions.
It can be difficult to tell exactly how many students in college, let alone the writing center, have learning disabilities since “it is estimated that only half of college students report their disabilities, and many forego accommodations for fear that they will be treated differently by their instructors and peers” (Hitt, 2012). Disclosing a learning disability is a personal and individual decision. If up to half of disabled students are not comfortable sharing that information with their universities, it is likely that an equal or higher percentage of students are not comfortable disclosing their disabilities to their tutors. Effective writing center practice, however, means being able to balance writers’ preferences while fostering an inclusive environment, regardless of their abilities.
Brief Literature Review: Disability as Identity and Universal Design
When I first began this article, my younger brother was applying to college. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in the seventh grade and was placed on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that seriously helped improve his academic performance. While his IEP gave him the focus and attention he needed to be at grade level, I worried about how he would manage the reading and writing college demands. It made me think critically about how I, as a writing tutor, could help someone with dyslexia like my brother.
Dyslexia is defined as “difficulties in various aspects of writing skills making the individual unable to develop age-appropriate and ability appropriate functional skills.” (Tariq and Latif, 2016, p. 151). Difficulties can occur in everything from handwriting to differentiating letters. However, dyslexia does not affect general intelligence. It is likely that a student with dyslexia may not disclose that information, and it is not appropriate for the tutor to assume or ask. Assuming or asking a student about potential learning disabilities crosses a boundary that may make them uncomfortable and damage rapport.
My brother’s experiences, as well as the lack of accessible, practical resources on approaching dyslexia in a writing center space, contributed to my desire to write this article. I wish I had a guide like this one when I was training to become a tutor that gave an overview of disabilities in the writing center with specific techniques that may be beneficial. While many students know which techniques help them best, I believe it is important for tutors to have as many strategies to pull from in case the session hits a roadblock. It is essential, however, to also provide some background on this topic from scholars working in both writing centers and disability studies.
Tutors can best balance students’ preferences by being adaptive and open–minded. Individuals experience their disabilities differently and so there cannot be just one way to tutor disabled students. It is very important to acknowledge that many people who work in and use the writing center, including faculty, administrators, and tutors, might also be themselves disabled. As one such consultant Rinaldi (2015) offers a critical perspective within this conversation. She discusses the danger of following a specific procedure when working with disabled students. This approach treats the student’s disability “as an obstacle or shortcoming instead of a contributor to her agency.” When tutors view disabilities as something that must be “fixed,” it shifts the power into the hands of the tutor. Rinaldi calls for writing centers to “refuse to treat sessions with disabled students as different, and if we refuse to consider students with disabilities as outside the bounds of normality, then we refuse to uphold the social construction of disability as a problem to be fixed.” Instead of seeing disability as something that needs to be addressed before the session can begin, tutors should focus on disability as an aspect of a person’s identity rather than a difference.
Karen Nakamura (2018) extends this conversation by focusing on the intersectionality between race and disability. She mentions how there is very little study on disability and race, but that race can have a significant impact on a person’s disability. An example Nakamura cites comes from Wanda Blanchett who talks about the “disproportionate representation of African-American students in special education…They’re being labeled with particular labels that don’t get them services while being prevented from being labeled appropriately in ways that might actually get them services that they might actually be able to use.” Institutional racism often prevents non-white students from being correctly diagnosed and receiving the appropriate services for their needs. Race is just one example of the many types of identities individuals embody. However, it is important to consider how a student’s race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. might impact how they view their disability and what role these identities might play within a writing center space.
As individuals working in writing centers, we should be aware that our language choices matter and this absolutely extends to how we choose to refer to disabled people. The specific language with which we use to discuss disability is contingent upon how and the extent to which a person chooses to identify. Many see “person-first language” (PFL) as the preferable way to talk about disability. With PFL, we would refer to tutees as “a tutee with disabilities” as it acknowledges their humanity first. However, disabled scholars have challenged PFL as the only way to talk about disability. Some prefer to use “identity first language” (IFL) because they see their disability as an important aspect of their person. With IFL we would refer to tutees as “a disabled tutee.” For Emily Ladau (2015), her disability is not only a fact of her life, but it is a source of pride. While Ladau prefers IFL, she does note that each person has a different relationship with their disability and some people still prefer PFL. Therefore, in a tutoring session, if a student discloses their disability to their tutor, the tutor should ask how the tutee chooses to identify, PFL or IFL, to ensure the student is comfortable during the session. It has become increasingly more common to ask people how they prefer to identify (e.g., requesting or making visible preferred pronouns) and so writing centers should work to incorporate similar practices when working with an individual who has chosen to disclose their disability.
Using language the student is comfortable with is only one of the ways tutoring appointments can be adapted to fit the needs of disabled students. A tutoring appointment should ultimately be a conversation between equals, although it is the tutor’s responsibility to create a way for the tutor and tutee to effectively interact. Rinaldi (2015) claims that writing centers cling to this idea that we have to accommodate disabled students. While this practice is well–intentioned, it inherently treats disabled students as different. My goal in creating this guide for tutors is to help break away from the “accommodation model” Rinaldi refers to. The simple fact is that every student who visits the writing center is different. Therefore, there is no one right way to tutor because different strategies may or may not be helpful for different students. This guide is meant to provide writing centers with multiple strategies that can be adapted to all tutoring appointments based on the writing center user’s preferences.
My article aims to utilize principles of universal design that Jean Kiedaisch and Sue Dinitz (2007) advocate for. Universal design is not the same as a one-size-fits-all approach because it assumes individuals will come to the writing center with a wide range of abilities and needs. It is an adaptable and flexible approach with “design principles for conducting all sessions that make them accessible to the widest audience possible” (p. 51). Adopting a universal design approach to tutoring can help fit a broad range of students.
A universal design can be especially helpful because there are countless forms of learning disabilities and it would be very difficult to cover strategies for them all. Every student, even those without disabilities, still has highly individualized learning preferences. Tutors need to adapt sessions to how the student works best; different strategies may be more helpful to some students than others. Many of the suggestions I discuss in this article can be useful for assisting students with a variety of disabilities and learning preferences. While I specifically focus on strategies for tutees who may or may not disclose as dyslexic, according to Rebecca Babcock (2015), many of these same strategies, such as the use of visuals, use of computers/computer programs, enhanced tutor training, tape recording sessions, and reading out loud, can be beneficial for students with disabilities including deafness, visual impairment, dyslexia, and those with multiple disabilities. In addition to making the writing center more accessible to all disabled individuals who use the center, the following strategies may also be beneficial to visual and auditory learners. Therefore, I am proposing that tutors work to include these strategies in their sessions because they have the potential to make our centers more accessible to not only dyslexic individuals but also to students with a variety of learning styles and preferences.
Incorporating Listening Strategies
Leslie Anglesey and Maureen McBride (2019) argue that tutors must actively listen to the needs of the tutee. The key to accommodating all students is “focusing on listening practices that are inclusive to all individuals…thus helping us make our centers usable for all” Anglesey and McBride refer to this type of listening as listening to shelter which they define as “the process of providing shelter to another person’s ideas.” In other words, they are challenging tutors to listen to understand, rather than listening to respond. It is unlikely a student will walk into a tutoring appointment and immediately begin explaining what conditions they work best in. Therefore, it is important to ask questions about a student’s preferences and then actively listen to their response. What I am describing here in this piece are ways for tutors to respond as an active listener by drawing on resources that can help make writing centers more accessible because listening to students’ preferences and needs helps keep the session running smoothly. This can be especially helpful for students with both disclosed and undisclosed learning disabilities because tutors can, by listening actively, learn adaptive strategies.
Babcock (2015) contributes to this conversation of asking and listening to students’ preferences. She cites a survey Jennifer Wewers conducted in which Wewers interviewed an unidentified number of writing tutors and five dyslexic students. Her findings showed that many writing tutors are misinformed on the specifics of dyslexia. Misconceptions about disability can negatively impact a tutoring session, especially since Babcock found most tutors’ misconceptions came from “folk knowledge gleaned from the media, most of it stereotypical and unscientific such as dyslexics switch letters around when reading.” It is important to combat these stereotypes in the writing center because dyslexia is much more than simply switching letters around when reading or writing. Dyslexic individuals may have difficulty with decoding words, organization, lateness, and handwriting mechanics. Based on her interviews with dyslexic students, Wewers suggested that tutors be flexible to students’ needs. In order for tutors to ensure they do not accidentally contribute their own interpretations or misconceptions about a student’s disability, tutors should ask the student questions that will help guide the session. The following questions can be incorporated into the beginning of every session regardless of if the student has disclosed a disability or not. Tutors may consider asking any variation of these questions:
- What part of the assignment do you want to focus on?
- Where in our space would you most prefer to work?
- What tools or technologies do you tend to use most frequently when you write?
- Are you comfortable reading your paper out loud or would you prefer if I read it?
- How do you learn best (i.e. Do you learn best by doing, seeing, or hearing)?
- What are your goals for our session?
In addition to this short list, there are many other questions tutors may wish to ask at the start of the session. Taking a few minutes at the start of the appointment to ask a student about their preferences and then actively listen to their responses can ensure that both the tutor and tutee have the same expectations for a productive session.
Technologies and Techniques
Technologies can make it easier for writing centers to be accommodating to all students’ needs, including individuals with dyslexia. Centers should incorporate, and train tutors to use, a variety of technologies to increase accessibility—in other words, to encourage tutors to develop multiliterate practices. Multiliteracy is a broad term that includes developing awareness of more than simple black and white text on a page. Multiliteracies are “an opportunity to move beyond the dominating limitations of print- and word-based literacies, to reach other modes of representation such as visual, aural, gestural, spatial, and multimodal” (Hitt, 2012). Individuals with dyslexia may find print and word–based sources inaccessible, but with increased attention to multiliteracies, writing centers can help more students access academia in ways they might not have previously been exposed to. The following multimodal techniques, drawn from psychology and education to assist dyslexic students, could also be incorporated into and useful for sessions with diverse types of learners.
1. Let the Student Choose the Font
For an appointment to run smoothly, tutees should have their paper formatted how they work best. If it appears that a student may be struggling with their paper based on its format, tutors can suggest that tutees change the font, color, or size of the words. For example, I was recently working with a student who had to respond to a discussion board. The assignment required her to write a response to an article she read and then comment on two classmates’ posts. When she opened another student’s post, the font was tiny, and she was squinting to read it. I suggested she copy and paste the post into a word document and make the font larger. Once she was comfortable with the formatting, we were able to read the post and craft a response. Suggestions like these may help a student who never considered reformatting their work in a less traditional manner, beyond just using default word-processer fonts. Afterwards, the tutee can easily switch the font back to the designated requirements.
While it is appropriate to use any font the student feels comfortable with, studies show that certain font types are easier for dyslexic people to work with. Generally, a sans-serif font group in black ink is best, with a fourteen to sixteen-point font size (Tariq and Latif, 2016). There are also free online programs that will change a text to a more readable font for dyslexic people. One of these programs, OpenDyslexic, created a typeface specifically for dyslexia. On their website, they describe the OpenDyslexic font type: “OpenDyslexic is not supposed to be a cure, a complete solution, or something you should apply uniformly to everyone: it was intended to address: contrast/blindness, letter confusion or rotation, and crowding (open dyslexic website).” OpenDyslexic is modeled after the font Dyslexie, which was designed to negate many of the problems with traditional fonts because “typical effects of dyslexia – the mirroring, swapping, rotating and crowding of letters – are only enhanced and magnified by most fonts” (King, 2018). Unfortunately, neither OpenDyslexic nor Dyslexie are available in Word. The closest font style Word has is Comic Sans, which is generally –though perhaps wrongly—often seen as an “unprofessional” font choice. Writing centers may then consider having OpenDyslexic pre-downloaded on their computers so students can work with this font and then convert their work to their professors’ guidelines. Many professors require the final product be set up in Times New Roman, twelve-point font. This is a small, serif font which may make it more difficult to work with.
In addition to font, the color of the paper impacts its readability. White, light pink and light green colored paper are the easiest to read from (Tariq and Latif, 2016). Writing centers should consider having colored paper to assist students who need it. Any available handouts should also be printed on these colors so that all students can access them equally.
The tutee should work under the best conditions for their own productivity and this will vary for each student. For some students, this may simply include moving into a quieter room and for others, it can be reformatting the entire paper. In either case, tutors can understand tutees’ preferences by asking and listening to the tutee to ensure their comfortability with their current working conditions.
It is equally as necessary for tutors to work in conditions they are comfortable with themselves. This may be especially true for disabled tutors. Tutors are as diverse as the tutees who use our centers. However, as Valles et al. (2017) point out, there are no comprehensive reports on tutor diversity across universities as a whole. I know in my own center, we have a diverse staff in terms of race, sexuality, religion, and disability. In order to address this diversity among tutoring staff, it is important for writing centers to have a variety of resources to not only make their centers more accessible to tutees, but also for tutors. Disabled tutors may choose to use many of these same strategies to help them with their job. For example, a dyslexic tutor may wish to temporarily change the font of a paper if they are having difficulty reading it in the original format (although they should be aware that they may need to explain to the tutee why they are changing the format).
2. Avoid Handwriting
Handwritten words are often challenging for many readers to understand: everything from incongruous letters to sloppy style can make it difficult for readers to decipher handwriting. In Tariq and Latif’s piece, they cite Martínez-Marrero and Estrada-Hernández (2008) who “indicated that dyslexic children often experience difficulties in mechanical aspects (letter formation, capitalization, spelling and punctuation) as well as contextual aspects (organization and consistency) of writing” (151). While this source explores handwriting in children, I have worked with adults who also have difficulty with the mechanics of handwriting. Other disabilities, such as dysgraphia and ADHD, may also result in difficulties processing handwriting (Adi-Japha et al., 2007). The writing center should, therefore, try to make computers consistently available, so students always have the option to type. Notes can be typed on the tutee’s computer, a Google Doc, or other easy to share file. If typing is not an option, the next best format is print handwriting (Tariq and Latif, 2016). Tutors should avoid cursive because the loopy style is difficult to read.
Another effective alternative for note taking is through the use of a tape recorder (Babcock, 2015). Tutees may choose to record their sessions on their phone or another device. This strategy can be beneficial because it allows tutees to go back and hear exactly what was discussed in the session. In the event that a student, or tutor, wishes to record their session, both the App Store and Google Play have multiple free tape recorder apps that tutors should be aware of. Quicktime which is built in to or can be downloaded to many computers allows users to record, edit, and share audio and video files. Writing centers can make sure this program is downloaded on their computers and that tutors are trained to use it. The App Store also has a free Voice Recorder & Audio editor app available for iPhone and iPad. This app allows for an unlimited number of recordings provided that the device has enough storage. The advantages of this app are that the user can organize their recordings into multiple folders, and it has a feature that will transcribe audio recordings using speech recognition software. For Android devices, the Google Play Store has the app Voice Recorder. While this app does not have the ability to transcribe recordings, it has the other benefits of untimed, high–quality recording sessions. It is important for tutors to be aware that recording sessions, with both the consent of tutor and tutee, may provide students with a beneficial alternative to traditional note taking on the computer or by hand.
However, if the student feels comfortable writing, they should handwrite the information themselves in the absence of a computer. This ensures that the tutee takes notes in a readable format while avoiding accidental plagiarism. It’s also important to let the student write suggestions so they avoid confusion when going back to read notes from the session. While these are good practices for any session because it allows the student to think for themselves, it will be especially helpful for a student with dyslexia when they refer to their notes.
3. Reading Out Loud
It is common practice in writing centers for either the tutor or tutee to read a writer’s assignment out loud. Having the tutor read an assignment out loud can help a dyslexic student because they can internalize their work in a new way (Tariq & Latif, 2016). Some writing centers, however, require tutors to encourage every writer to read their own work out loud. While tutors can suggest students read their papers, it is worthwhile considering the ways that requiring that all students read their own paper aloud can be inaccessible. One-size fits all approaches like this can make some students uncomfortable in our centers. Forcing a student with dyslexia to read their paper out loud may be very difficult for the student and they are less likely to benefit from this practice. With the student’s consent, I generally read the writers’ work out loud in my sessions. I believe it is beneficial for all students because, in my experience, tutees are more likely to catch and fix their mistakes when they hear their paper. For example, I will often have students stop me while I am reading and say something along the lines of “that sentence doesn’t make sense. What if I said this instead?” or “that’s not really what I meant to say. What I’m trying to say here is…” Reading out loud is also a great way to be responsive to the students’ needs. I will start off a session by asking the student what they want to work on. If they tell me they want to make sure their paper is organized, I will tell them to focus on the organization and flow while I am reading. This also helps keep the student engaged during the session because they are actively following along.
There are many technologies that can simulate reading out loud as well. These are known as text-to-speech software, which are valuable tools to help anyone with reading difficulties or who prefers to process content aurally. It is beneficial for dyslexic tutees because it allows them to read the text in front of them while simultaneously hearing it spoken. Platforms that read documents aloud increase reading accuracy in people with dyslexia (Woolf, 2013). Some of the best free text-to-speech programs are Balabolka, Natural Reader (has dyslexic font), and WordTalk.
Balabolka is a downloadable program that works with a variety of file types. It has customizable font and background colors so students can set the text to their preferences. Balabolka also has a setting in which students can save their text and audio files as MP3 which will allow them to refer to the text once the session has ended.
Natural Reader is an online program that does not need to be downloaded to the computer. Files can be pasted, typed, and edited within their text box. Natural Reader comes with several different voices so students can choose which voice works best for their understanding. The free version of Natural Reader provides unlimited use of their Free Voices and up to 20 minutes a day of their premium voices. There are payment options that allow for more features, but the free version will still read any text aloud. Natural Reader also has a font option specifically for individuals with dyslexia so students can select to work with a font similar to OpenDyslexic and Dyslexie.
Finally, WordTalk is a free text-to-speech plugin for Microsoft Word. Writing centers can download WordTalk to their computers so students working with Microsoft Word documents can hear their papers out loud. WordTalk will create a spoken version of the document and read it back while highlighting the words. This is useful to help students follow along with the spoken words. Writing centers can have any combination of these programs available for students to use during a session. Hearing documents or webpages out loud can be helpful to dyslexic individuals as well as any person that might benefit from having material read out loud.
If an assignment permits students to utilize multimodal resources (audio, visual, text, images, etc.), students can have the opportunity to process information in ways that traditional “print” sources often do not permit. Like text-to-speech, multimedia stimulates different parts of the brain which can be beneficial for dyslexic individuals. A student with dyslexia may have difficulty absorbing information through reading and then relaying what they know through writing. Multimedia sources have been shown to “get individuals’ attention, improve their understanding and boost their confidence” (Tariq and Latif, 2016, p. 153).
If a student comes to an appointment to brainstorm for a paper, the tutor may suggest referring to multimedia sources such as audiobooks, videos, podcasts, pictures, etc. This way, the student can find more about their topic without having to rely purely on written sources. For someone with dyslexia, consuming information presented through different platforms may make certain aspects of their topic more accessible. It can also make the research stage of a paper more enjoyable and engaging because students have a variety of sources to look at. Many students may even be required to include videos or podcasts into their research in addition to more traditional sources like articles and journals. Additionally, some writing centers might also need to be prepared to assist students with multimodal projects like PowerPoints, presentations, and video projects because they are becoming more common. Writing centers should consequently incorporate multimedia sources in their spaces because it increases accessibility to information and education for disabled students (Hitt, 2012).
Conclusion: Incorporating these Tools into Practice
My goal in writing this article was to create an easily applicable guide for tutors. In my own training, I wished I had something like this to apply to my tutoring practice. Therefore, I specifically sought out techniques that can be incorporated into many sessions, and might even be helpful for tutors in their own writing processes as well. In addition to this guide, I created a video which discusses and showcases many of the programs and strategies I mention. Within the introduction to this video, I mistakenly refer to disabled students as students with learning differences. Throughout the process of writing this article, I have become more aware of disability studies and the language we should use to talk about disabilities: I have been introduced to scholarship that fully explains the implications of differently–abled language. Although it was not my intention, differently–abled language and other euphemisms marginalize disabled people and imply that disability is an offensive word when, in reality, it is something that millions of people navigate on a daily basis. The video, and transcript, are posted on YouTube for accessibility. Most of the techniques in this paper and video can be beneficial for all students while being especially useful for dyslexic individuals.
Dyslexia can go undetected because it primarily impacts a person’s ability to read and write. Along with this, many students are hesitant to disclose any learning disabilities because they fear being treated differently. The writing center can still be accessible to these students with these practices. It’s the responsibility of the writing center to be as inclusive and helpful for all students as possible. Tutors should use these tips because they have the potential to help students with disclosed and undisclosed disabilities. Directors should also ensure their tutors are properly trained to incorporate these strategies and advocate for any programs or technologies that can be vital to ensuring accessibility. I hope this piece can serve as a training tool for writing centers to develop their flexibility and explore these strategies and technologies as they can be helpful for anyone who visits or uses the center. The best way to be accommodating to all students is to listen to their needs and preferences. These strategies can make the writing center accessible to students with disabilities while also staying within the appropriate boundaries between tutor and tutee.
Ultimately, there needs to be more research conducted on disabilities in the writing center. As Babcock (2015) notes, there are few articles on the most common types of disabilities among college students. Fostering more research, especially from disabled tutors and tutees themselves, will help writing centers become more accessible. When we listen to the needs of disabled individuals, we allow ourselves to challenge our preconceived ideas about disabilities which can transform how we respond to all users of our centers.
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Ladau, E. (2015, July 20). Why person-first language doesn’t always put the person first. Think inclusive. https://www.thinkinclusive.us/why-person-first-language-doesnt-always-put-the-person-first/
Nakamura, K. (2018, February 16). Karen Nakamura speaks on disability studies and race [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b7PXCYK79A&feature=emb_logo
Rinaldi, K. (2015). Disability in the writing center: A new approach (that’s not so new). Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13 (1), http://www.praxisuwc.com/rinaldi-131.
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Valles, S. B. Babcock, R. D. & Jackson, K.K. (2017). Writing center administrators and diversity: A survey. The Peer Review, 1 (1) http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-%201/writing-center-administrators-and-diversity-a-%20survey/
Woolf, C. M. (2013). Lit-fit challenge audio books project. National Association of School Psychologists, (8). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.umassd.edu/docview/ 1412863471?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo