4 Ways for Teachers to Support Dyslexic Students

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As an education student in college, I attended a lecture that mentioned dyslexia. That’s all the information I remember receiving. When my son was diagnosed with dyslexia, I did a lot more research. Through that journey I completed an Advanced Continuum Orton-Gillingham Training through the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. The course armed me with invaluable strategies to support my son, as well as, the struggling readers in my classroom.

As a secondary teacher, I continue to be shocked by the number of students who are struggling to read in my classroom and the corresponding statistics that suggest how many of those students are dyslexic.

While we humans appear to be hard-wired for speech, reading is another matter. In order to read, our brains must connect letters to sounds, put those sounds in the right order, and then fluently pull it together to make sentences and paragraphs we can read and comprehend. However, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity (YCD&C),

“Scientific research shows differences in brain connectivity between dyslexic and typical reading children, providing a neurological basis for why reading fluently is a struggle for those with dyslexia.”

People with dyslexia have trouble connecting letters and letter combinations to the sounds letters make. Clearly, when that first step is challenging, the more advanced brain processes associated with reading: including reading fluently, spelling words correctly and learning a second language may be nearly impossible. Additionally, those same struggling readers are likely to experience deficits in central executive functioning which is critical for performing well in real-life situations.

What may be most frustrating is that these challenges have nothing to with overall intelligence. Dyslexia typically makes reading challenging for individuals who have the intelligence to be much better readers. In fact, people who have dyslexia are often very fast and creative thinkers with strong reasoning abilities. It’s often because of these strengths that teachers, parents, and students themselves can easily misunderstand what is actually happening. Unfortunately, with little integration between dyslexia research and literacy education, it is common for teachers and parents to brand kids with dyslexia as “lazy” claiming that if they “just worked harder” they would be able to keep or catch up.

Despite the lack of formal preparation for educators, dyslexia is not uncommon. It’s thought to affect 20% of the population and as high as 80-90% of all those with learning disabilities according to the YCD&C. Statistically, the percentage of males and females who have dyslexia is the same as is the percentage of people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Also, while schools may identify a student as having a reading delay, only doctors and other clinicians can diagnose a person with dyslexia.

It is likely that there are unidentified dyslexic students in just about every classroom. While dyslexia can’t be cured, with the right supports, dyslexic individuals can not only read but become highly successful lifelong learners. Thankfully, the same strategies that support kids with dyslexia to be successful are beneficial for many other students in the classroom as well.

1.     Commit to Systems

Kids with dyslexia are notorious for relying on ineffective coping skills aimed at masking challenges rather than addressing them. For that reason, it’s important to engage students in goal setting so that they understand what they need to work on and why. For many students, systems that keep things simple work the best. For example, keeping a task list within an iPad app or a bullet journal helps to keep them focused on what they need to work on each day. It’s also a great way to track habits and notes. With a little support, students can set up these systems. The challenge comes in maintaining them so that they can be trusted to serve their purpose. Consistent, embedded routines for reflecting, updating, and setting new goals easily increases the chances that students will stick with them.

2.     Break it Down

Project and inquiry are great ways to spark interest and create passionate learners. While they are ideal models for dyslexic students the enormity of a project can be overwhelming. Zoning out or trouble getting started with a task are traits used to identify dyslexia. In order to support students, it is important to honor “thinking” time, but also help break down tasks so that the first, or next thing to do can be identified. One useful strategy is, to begin with, the end in mind. First help students visualize what the end result will be and then have them work backward to create an order for what needs to be done.

3.     Get Multi-Sensory

In order to activate different parts of the brain it is useful to integrate visual, auditory, tactile (touch) and kinesthetic (movement) learning elements. Today’s technology makes this increasingly easy to do. For example, audio books can be a great tool for Dyslexic students. Programs like Bookshare provide digital books on a computer or iPad in both visual and auditory formats so that students can be reading and hearing a book at the same time. For students who struggle with decoding, this can help them with accuracy while allowing their brain to focus on creating the movie in their minds and thus understanding what they are reading.

Note taking is another huge challenge for dyslexic students who are typically strong auditory learners. The process of listening while transcribing onto paper in a readable text can be especially frustrating.  I found that it takes a little work to figure out the best strategy for individual students. For those who would rather draw than write, I’ve integrated sketch notes, into my classroom. Allowing a student to record directions or information on an iPad has also been a useful way to keep them focused and listening knowing that, like their note writing peers, they have captured the information for reference later. Finally, if there is a lot of information I just provide a copy of the notes to the student through a Google doc or by having them take a photo of notes on the board before they leave.

4.     Focus on Passion

For all our students learning should be exciting and fun. For people with dyslexia, this is especially important. Research has shown that the brains of people with dyslexia are working a lot harder and using more energy than typical learners. Additionally, they are more prone to anxiety brought on by their environment. Therefore an intense, compliance-based culture may not support their best work. Instead, I’ve found that by integrating a lot of voice and choice into my classroom the students can let their interests and passions drive the learning. Additionally, by encouraging students to negotiate work plans and deadlines I’ve found that they take responsibility for their learning and have greater engagement.

A Safe Place to Learn

While I try to be diligent about creating positive spaces for all my learners there are times when things just go wrong. Misunderstandings, incomplete work, and stress find their way in occasionally. When that happens, I’ve found that it helps to take a deep breath, talk about it, and then work to solve the problem. The most important thing to remember is that when students, especially those with dyslexia, know they are in a safe place to learn, the potential for them to excel can be truly amazing.

Theresa Dixon

Theresa Dixon is a full-time high school English teacher who blogs about life as an educator at SchoolYardJunkies.com. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and four children.

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