Neurodiverse Students in Your Classroom

Alexandra Burke

Note: The font used in the pdf and print article, OpenDyslexic(open-dyslexic) by Abelardo Gonzalez, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Approximately 10% of the Japanese population, or about 12.6 million people, has a learning neurodiversity that they may not be aware of. Many are acutely aware that they are different, suffering very difficult school experiences, and many underachieve. This leaves a lifelong sense of shame and social isolation. Some leave education early. The costs to the individual can be high, with increased rates of depression, anxiety, often later self-treated with tobacco and alcohol (Miyazaki & Tabuchi, 2018; Tabuchi & Kondo, 2017). However, many people with neurodiversity are highly creative. There is a net loss to these individuals and society (Kinsella, Waduud, & Biddlestone, 2017). Some of these students are in your classrooms now. So, what can be done?

Many of Japan’s teachers are ill-informed about learning differences and what they primarily affect: dyslexia (spelling), dysgraphia (handwriting), dyspraxia (motor skills, also known as developmental coordination disorder DCD), and dyscalculia (mathematical ability). Intelligence testing is frequently available but testing for the dys conditions is limited to a few practitioners in major cities. The usual assumption is, “The child is of normal to high IQ, therefore they are not trying.” Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ([ADHD] both the inability to focus and to remain stationary for long periods) and attention deficit disorder ([ADD] tendency to lose focus and daydream) are also part of these neurodiversities. Children with ADHD are estimated to experience up to 20,000 more negative teacher comments than their non-ADHD peers by age 10 (Jellinek, 2010).

These learning differences often coexist in individuals. They are also inheritable traits. Teachers may not be aware of familial patterns. The precise brain mechanisms governing these conditions are still unknown. Some students may also have autism spectrum disorder and/or color vision deficiency. These can overlap in complex ways. For a summary, please refer to the chart presented in the downloadable appendix.

Learning differences affect many aspects of a student’s life, both in their Language 1 and Language 2. They can be unintentionally bullied by well-meaning people who want them to try harder. What I am finding in my teaching context and elsewhere is that learners want recognition that they are trying hard already.

Neurodiverse students have more school absences and unfinished work than others. Studies from America show that students with dyslexia avoid tasks by Grade 2 (Syal & Torppa, 2019). It’s important to reduce the shame and anxiety that they feel about their handwriting and spelling as early as possible. Shifting the focus to the content of their work rather than neatness will protect self-esteem.

In many countries, students with a neurodiversity diagnosis can request reasonable accommodations to improve their performance from elementary school upwards, such as extra writing time, using tools such as a pen that reads text aloud, a keyboard, larger fonts, and paper that is not pure white. Given that many parents are hesitant to pursue diagnosis, we can use some general accommodations with the whole class that won’t affect others but will reduce barriers for neurodiverse students. Where possible, it can help students to work on a keyboard; all students’ work will look the same. The following are a few techniques I have used.


Mastering the Alphabet

All students in Japan study the romanized alphabet in Year 3 for keyboarding using a student workbook over the course of four classes. Integrating all the skills needed is difficult for students with learning differences. Many feel that they’ve failed and that English will be too hard, so we need to find ways of helping these students succeed. The first step I use is an abc tower system that I learned from Marco A. Brazil at a JALT Chapter event in 2014. Learners build the abc tower using paper cups with letters written on the base. The cups sit on 10 round carboard discs on which are written the sequences of “abc”, “def”, “ghi”, with “y” and “z” as singletons as the top two levels.

From five years of classroom practice, the ABC/abc tower is preferred by all levels of elementary students over alphabet cards. They are easy to read because the surface is not shiny, and learners can pick them up more easily than two-dimensional cards, which increases the speed of the game. The construction element is interesting for children as they enjoy the thrill of making the tower. All these aspects make this activity attractive to diverse learners. I adapted the activity in three ways. I used the OpenDyslexicAlta font on the cups. I also made matching magnetized blackboard cards numbered 1-10 to show the letters on each tier during assembly. Students work independently of teachers to match the letter on the cup to the chart on the board. This teaches them that instructions give them clues about how to do a task, and that they can solve the challenge themselves. After building the tower, the group knocks it down. If multiple towers are used, you should color code the rims of the paper cups by set to make it easy to identify the sets when the towers are pushed over.

The goal is to remove the child’s fear and confusion with the alphabet. If a child has ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, they may have difficulty in turn taking and waiting to push the tower over. Put these children in a smaller group to reduce waiting time and increase the speed of the activity. Children with ADHD get a lot of negative feedback about interrupting others. Good grouping helps all children to demonstrate their potential.

A smaller scale version which is also very motivating is making sets of upper- and lower-case letters that fit inside a 2.4-centimeter circle. These fit neatly onto the top of a pet bottle cap, which is a good way of recycling these items. They can be used for learning the alphabet and other activities. Making their own or their classmates’ names using these caps creates a very personal connection to using English and exploring the differences between Romaji and English spelling and syllabification. Children under eight years old or those with dyspraxia/DCD may have difficulty in cutting out printed letter circles to fit caps. Children who are perfectionists may need reassurance or a few replacement circles. Stick-type glue works better than liquid glues.

Tactile letters using a glitter pen are also useful for creating a physical memory of letter shape and stroke order.



When making 3D resources, I use OpenDyslexicAlta font so students can spontaneously remember the correct orientation of letters. This font’s letters are thinner at the top and thicker at the bottom. This is very useful for the most challenging letters such as upper-case C, M, W, N, Z, Y and lower case b, d, h, n, p, q, and u. I have watched students with a range of profound learning challenges accurately use letters in this font. In Japan, the recently released universal design font UD Digitalkyokashojitai (UDデジタル教科書体) is compliant with national disability discrimination prevention goals and is now used in many national textbooks. I have also tested this font in both Japanese and English on student worksheets, and it works very well.

Another important factor is how you use the font. Ideally, choose wider spacing between letters, words, and rows of text (Perea, Panedero, Moret-Tatay & Gomez, 2012). Block or align text to the left-hand side rather than justifying it, so that the spaces will be uniform and less distracting. The British Dyslexia Association recommends the following guidelines for optimal use of fonts: size (12-14), inter-letter spacing (35% of the average letter width), inter-word spacing (3.5 times the size of the character spacing) and inter-line spacing of 1.5. Layout is important for readability. An excellent set of digital posters was created under the auspices of The United Kingdom Home Office: Do’s and Don’ts on Designing for Accessibility (The United Kingdom Home Office, 2016). The web link to the posters is included in the reference section.



Helpful spelling strategies include practicing phonics, phonemic awareness, morpheme and syllabification training, or sight reading, depending on which support suits the individual student. Another method of memorization is The Proofreaders’ Trick (Berminger, 2018). It is a variant of look, cover, write, and check, with the “look” step lasting about 20 seconds the first time. Students need a pencil and paper. Tell them to just look at a word without speaking or ‘air writing’. Cover the word and ask students to close their eyes and let the word float up in their minds. Ask them if they can see it. If some can’t, give them another five seconds of exposure. Ask them to spell the word from the last letter to the first, then first letter to last, and then they write the word. Last, the teacher reveals the word and students check their spelling. Ninety-five percent of students can do this activity the first time, including dyslexics. Typically, I do this process twice, and the second time all students can usually do it. During the spelling aloud phase, students’ eyes usually drift towards the top left or right corner of the room. This tool increases students’ self-confidence. It can be used with upper elementary to adults. I’ve received feedback from other teachers that this has helped students who are stuck to move on and learn much faster.


Dealing with Longer Texts

Some students are overwhelmed by large amounts of text. A useful solution is to place a visually boring object, such as a blank card or pencil, on top of the text above or below the current sentence. This increases focus on the current sentence, and for some students may help with tracking and visual stress (Daloiso, Deleney, Ianes, Kormos, & Smith, 2018).

A few students are very sensitive to the background color of text on worksheets, books, and slideshow presentations. Pure white is the most problematic for some students. Some academics say it makes no difference, while others say it does (Uccula, Enna, & Mulatti, 2014.) I have seen task avoidant students suddenly become active participants, writing more extensively and neatly, when the right color was offered to them. I offer standard printing options of pink, blue, green, blue-green, and yellow for a few important documents. To identify which color is easiest to read, get the students to individually compare and try to read aloud from a sample of each color with simple text. Try it out on yourself on paper or on your computer screen by changing the background color.


Choral Reading of Text and Instructions

Reading aloud is one of the most frightening experiences for neurodiverse students. A non-threatening method is group continuous reading, where students keep rereading at their own pace until you say stop. Monitor them and stop the activity when the slowest student has started rereading. Then give feedback on pronunciation at the board to the group as a whole.

Many students with neurodiversity have working memory challenges and are not good at taking notes. They may also not be ready for instructions. Before activities, have the students choral read instructions as a group, then use information questions to confirm what they are doing and how. This works because some students have gaps in the lexicon because they were unable to focus at the time when particular words or characters were originally studied. Offering this pre-activity scaffolding increases successful participation in written and group work.


Physical Activity in the Classroom

Plan for some standing time at least every 20 minutes. For example, standing up and talking in pairs about what they just learned will help all students to focus, particularly those students with ADHD/ADD (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008). Some students have left-right confusion. If you are planning a performance including dance, place students with left-right confusion directly behind students who have good directional skills. They can copy the movements and feel more successful.

If these techniques are used at the whole class level, more students can participate effectively without feeling like they are being targeted. Everyone will benefit, and learners will also see that the idiom of 10 people, 10 colors works in educational preferences, as well as in life.



Berminger, V. W. (2018). Why children with dyslexia struggle with writing and how to help them. In M. Hebert, D. M. Kearns, J. B. Hayes, P. Bazis, & S. Cooper (Eds.), Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 49(4), 843–863.

Daloiso, M., Delaney M., Ianes, D., Kormos, J., & Smith, M. A. (2018). Our experts advise on inclusive practices in English language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Jellinek, M. S. (2010). Don’t let ADHD crush children’s self-esteem. Clinical Psychiatry News, 38(5).

Kinsella, M., Waduud, M., & Biddlestone, J. (2017). Dyslexic doctors, an observation on current United Kingdom practice. MedEdPublish, 6(1), 60.

Miyazaki, Y. & Tabuchi, T. (2018). Educational gradients in the use of electronic cigarettes and heat-not-burn tobacco products in Japan. PLoS ONE 13(1), e0191008.

Perea, M., Panadero, V., Moret-Tatay, C., & Gómez, P. (2012). The effects of inter-letter spacing in visual-word recognition: Evidence with young normal readers and developmental dyslexics. Learning and instruction, 22(6), 420–430.

Ratey, J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown.

Syal, S. & Torppa, M. (2019). Task-avoidant behavior and dyslexia: A follow-up from Grade 2 to age 20. Dyslexia, 25(4), 374–389.

Tabuchi, T., & Kondo, N. (2017). Educational inequalities in smoking among Japanese adults aged 25-94 years: Nationally representative sex-and-age-specific statistics. Journal of Epidemiology, 27(4), 186–192.

The United Kingdom Home Office Digital Data and Technology. Designing for accessibility. Retrieved from

Uccula, A., Enna, M., & Mulatti, C. (2014). Colors, colored overlays, and reading skills. Frontiers in Psychology5, 833.


Alexandra Burke has taught all levels of the Japanese public school system from university to kindergarten and adult English for specific purposes. A former systems examiner and public health policy officer from Australia, she’s been researching how students with neurodiversity experience education in Japan. She has been presenting on practical classroom strategies to improve outcomes for students and won Poster Session A at JALT2019. She is also a contributor to the MindBrainEd SIG Think Tank.