Our Dyslexia Specialist/Teacher Trainer, Shantell Berrett, has a favorite saying she always tells teachers when teaching them how to help struggling readers (including those with dyslexia): “It is far more about the process than the content.”
The strong right brain of dyslexic students offers them many unique strengths, however, tasks that require a set process to be accomplished (and hence, a dominant left brain) are much more difficult for dyslexic students – including language tasks. Despite the obstacle that this presents, it provides valuable insights into how to improve the process that information is taught. Dyslexic students require a clear process in order to understand many concepts (especially how to read) – but, clear instruction is beneficial for every student.
Here are eight tips from Berrett that you can implement in your classroom to better accommodate the learning needs of the dyslexic students (while benefitting all of your students).
1. Provide one step directions at a time.
How it helps dyslexic students: Because dyslexia is a processing disorder, students with dyslexia have a difficult time processing, prioritizing, and remembering long lists of directions at one time. By only providing one direction at a time, dyslexic students don’t have to process or prioritize multiple steps at one time – assuring that they do exactly what you need them to do. This decreases frustration both for you and the student.
How it helps all students: Even without dyslexia, we are all prone to distractions and forgetfulness. By only giving one direction at a time, you eliminate the possibility of students forgetting what they need to do, and you won’t have to repeat directions nearly as often.
2. Provide visual representation of all oral instruction whenever possible.
How it helps dyslexic students: Because dyslexic students have a dominant right brain, their brain isn’t naturally wired to engage the left side of the brain – the reason for their difficulty with reading. In order to rewire the brain, dyslexic students’ need multi-sensory instruction that engages multiple areas of the brain. By connecting visual, auditory, and kinesthetic cues to each concept, multiple areas of the brain are activated – allowing dyslexic students to make new brain connections that help them strengthen their left brain and better remember information.
How it helps all students: Again, even without dyslexia, we are all prone to forgetfulness. By connecting multiple stimuli to a concept, students better remember and absorb new information.
3. Preview & Review
How it helps dyslexic students: By previewing each concept before instruction, dyslexic students can better organize, filter, and prioritize new information. Reviewing each concept helps dyslexic students connect, store, and categorize information that was just presented. Both of which, help with the Executive Function Deficits associated with dyslexia.
How it helps all students: One of the most effective ways we learn any concept is through repetition. The more we hear and practice a concept, the more natural and easy to remember it becomes.
4. Pre-warn students when activities are about to change.
How it helps dyslexic students: It can be difficult for some dyslexic students to switch their attention between activities. Many students need some prep time to know that an activity is about to end and they will be doing something different soon. This can also help students be patient when they want to move on to a new activity. Because reading tasks can strain dyslexic students, letting them know that they only have to exert themselves for 5 more minutes can help them keep trying. Give a time warning five minutes before an activity is going to change, then two minutes, then one minute (e.g., 5 more minutes of reading time, now two until we move to centers…one more minute).
How it helps all students: Some students, with or without dyslexia, can get so absorbed in an activity that when the class suddenly changes pace they can easily get upset. By helping all students prepare for what is coming, you can avoid upsetting and frustrating students – reducing conflict and creating a better classroom environment for everyone.
5. Avoid habituation* by keeping instruction between 10-15 minutes and provide a variety of activities for practice.
How it helps dyslexic students: “Due to the problems in inhibition (focus on relevant, suppress the irrelevant), switching attention, and working memory (sustaining effort for coordinating orthography and phonology over time), students with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia are likely to habituate (stop responding to instruction) sooner that children without these disorders. One way to avoid habituation is to vary activities frequently and avoid performing the same activity over and over for a long time.” (Berninger and Wolf. Teaching Students with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. 2009. P. 146.)
How it helps all students: Like the above quote says, habituation occurs sooner for dyslexic students, but with enough exposure to a certain stimulus – all students habituate. By keeping instruction novel you better keep the attention of all of your students so they stay engaged and focused on instruction.
*Habituation refers specifically to a type of non-associative learning in which repeated exposure to a stimulus leads to decreased response.
6. Never expect dyslexic students to take notes without a visual outline or a friend to be a note-taker.
How it helps dyslexic students: Writing tasks are typically very difficult for dyslexic students. This, on top of their difficulties with prioritizing information can make note taking extremely difficult for these students. By providing a outline or assigning them a friend that they can compare notes with, you can help eliminate stress during lectures.
How it helps all students: Deciding what is important to note during instruction is difficult for many students – having a partner for each student to talk over a lecture with and decide what was important or see if they missed an important point is beneficial for every student.
7. Slow down instruction.
How it helps dyslexic students: Dyslexic students need additional time to process information. Take your time and be clear. Assess in small intervals if the students are getting what you are modeling/teaching. (Ask them questions and provide opportunities to have them tell you in their own words what you just told them).
How it helps all students: Taking time to assure student understanding and matching pacing to the needs of your classroom is helpful for every student. Undoubtedly you will have students at varying levels, but as you assess students in small intervals, you can use learning centers that allow students of varying levels to work at their own pace. Also… patience and empathy are arguably more valuable than lesson content.
8.Assume nothing…connect everything.
How it helps dyslexic students: To adjust to the needs of dyslexic students – it is helpful to teach one concept at a time while you draw connections to prior knowledge and previous instruction with ALL new material. This helps these students make new neural connections that will strengthen their brain.
How it helps all students: Some students naturally connect new information to what they already know – but many students need to be taught how to connect everything. Even some of your brightest students won’t always draw connections between new information.
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