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AUB research looks at how new teaching strategies can help dyslexic students

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Dr. Petronilla Whitfield, an Associate Professor and Lecturer in BA Acting in AUB’s Faculty of Media and Performance, has been studying the ways in which traditional teaching methods can disadvantage acting students with dyslexia.

Previously a professional actor working across stage and screen for more than 18 years, Dr. Whitfield’s research study specifically looks at Shakespeare, how it is conventionally taught and how a range of practices and changes can be employed by educators to cater for those who struggle with the texts in the traditional form.

She said: “Teachers have tried to help dyslexic students, using improvised ideas or re-asserting traditional techniques pulled from their teaching toolkit. However, such techniques remain transitory, and are usually not evaluated by peers or students, nor disseminated.

“While the dyslexic students and professionals we encounter have brought abundant talent, insight and persistence to their process, we have observed that they have often experienced high levels of stress and anxiety when working on dramatic text.”

Contrary to dominant public perceptions that often mistake learning difficulties as impeding ability and intelligence, the study notes that dyslexic individuals have ‘unique strengths and approaches’ to work that are ‘striking and idiosyncratic’; countering their difficulties and enabling students to stand out against their cohort.

During classes, Dr. Whitfield has used memory support systems to aid students struggling to remember and recall their words in performances; encouraging the use of flash cards placed strategically around performance spaces and the development of imagined ‘rooms’ whereby students walk through scenes in their mind, using memories and cues to aid in the progression of their pieces.

Dr. Whitfield’s book offers new teaching strategies to enable those with dyslexia, involving drawing, artwork and physicalisation to represent and replace the need to read the written text.

She explains: “The nature of dyslexia is challenging within the demands of actor training. It has an impact on the voice, spoken communication, fluency of reading skills, self-confidence, working memory and the emotions of individuals.”

Dr. Whitfield’s research poses a number of questions:

  • How might the teacher break away from teaching methods that reinforce the dominant perspectives privileging some ableist groups over others?
  • How can the teacher ensure their teaching practice does not disable those who process differently?
  • How might we scrutinize our own teaching practice, ensuring that our values and pedagogical choices are ethical and socially just, while fostering the abilities of every individual?

David Carey and Rebecca Clark Carey, Director and Head of Voice and Text at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the USA have written the forward to the book. They said: “As trainers and coaches of actors, we have, for several years, eagerly followed the progress of Dr. Petronilla Whitfield’s research with acting students at Arts University Bournemouth.

“Dr. Whitfield has brought together a detailed consideration of current thinking on dyslexia from a multiplicity of perspectives with rigorous and systematic action research involving both theory and practice. It is an implicit call to action to all of us who wish to make our teaching and coaching more effective, inclusive and empowering”.

Dr. Whitfield’s book Teaching Strategies for Neurodiversity and Dyslexia in Actor Training is available through Routledge Publishing.

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