For parents at home and teachers at school, helping children with dyslexia is critically important.
For millions of students, spelling tests, silent reading periods, and book reports are a common occurrence, and approximately 80% of students are able to complete these activities with a minimum of difficulty. For the 20% of students with characteristics of dyslexia, however, such tasks can be the equivalent of their worst nightmares.
These children frequently experience failing grades on such tasks and over time develop strategies to hide their embarrassment and shame. Many children with print-based disabilities avoid doing assigned work by finding ways to leave class or being absent from school.This accumulation of prolonged failure can result in a cascade of negative effects that impact academic achievement as well as social and emotional development.
'One size fits all' is no longer effective in America's inclusive classrooms.❞
Traditional teaching practices, such as sustained silent reading periods and assessing knowledge through chapter tests, do not demonstrate an understanding of what works to support children with dyslexia. “One size fits all” is no longer effective in America’s inclusive classrooms. Instruction must be differentiated and assessments redesigned to accurately measure the understanding of material by all students. Helping children with dyslexia requires that educators provide instruction and assessments that reduce reading and writing demands and allow the necessary time for all children to complete them.
Obtain family and early language development history
When children enter preschool programs or kindergarten, they may be required to complete an assessment to determine acquired skills such as identifying letters, shapes, colors, and memory recall for name, address, and phone number. Parents may complete documents to give the school emergency contact and medical history. Unfortunately, there has been little awareness among educators of the need for obtaining more complete information about the language development of the child and exploration of the family history as it relates to reading difficulties. Because these questions are not asked, some of the fundamental indicators of dyslexia in children go unnoticed.
Because dyslexia is typically inherited, it is important to find out if there is a family history of language and reading delays or difficulties. Specific questions should include the age that the child began speaking, unusual language patterns such as cluttering or continuation of persistent baby talk beyond typical developmental stages, difficulties with rhyming, pronunciation, memory, and word retrieval. Milestones for language development vary widely between children and are often dependent on environmental factors such as consistent exposure to complex language and vocabulary and the opportunity to imitate speech sounds. Characteristics of dyslexia in children, therefore, are often overlooked with the belief that the child is a “late bloomer” and just needs more time to catch up.
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Become knowledgeable about dyslexia and what to look for
Educators often receive little or no training about dyslexia and are often just as confused as parents about the differences between normal stages of development and dyslexia. Instructional practices frequently lag behind research and teachers may be unaware that what they are doing (graded spelling tests) or not doing (phonological awareness activities) is detrimental for students with language and reading difficulties.
One example is the confusion about letter and word reversals. Some people are extremely concerned when they see children reversing the letters b, d, and p, or incorrectly writing s, z, or the number 2, and mistakenly believe that the child has dyslexia. Conversely, many others consider letter, number, and word reversals a normal part of reading and writing development and fail to provide assistance when there may be a need for it. Having information about language and print-based disabilities is essential for educators, particularly those in the early grades, in order to 1) adequately support children as they are learning, and 2) intervene appropriately when children are struggling.
In the case of reversals, it is important to understand that letter reversals are common in young children as they begin writing letters and numbers and is typically due to lack of awareness of left-right orientation and awkwardness at practicing a new skill that has not yet been mastered. In some cases, children are not even aware that the orientation of the letter is important. Teachers and parents can encourage the use of alphabet charts and practice pages so that children begin to develop the correct formations and reduce bad habits that are harder to remediate after they’ve become automatic. As children gain knowledge about directionality and more experience with print, and as the brain matures and begins wiring for reading and writing, reversals do not usually continue. For the majority of children, reversals will be corrected by age 7. For students who continue to experience reversals beyond 2nd grade, even after instruction and practice, it is important to determine if there are other characteristics of dyslexia that could indicate this possibility. Knowing these characteristics and how they comprise a profile of dyslexia in children and young adults is necessary for all educators.
Develop processes to share relevant information between teachers
Another factor that makes dyslexia identification difficult is the lack of information about individual students that is available to teachers. In the course of a school year, teachers gather an amazing amount of valuable data, both formal and informal. In most cases, however, all of this information is condensed to grades on a report card or numbers on a rubric that may or may not also contain a short narrative. How will a 1st grade teacher know that Sam still does not know all of his letter sounds and is unable to recognize sight words at the kindergarten level? How will Keisha’s 3rd grade teacher know that she continues to have letter and word reversals and can’t segment words phonetically? In a 5th grade class of 24 students, how does the ELA teacher identify which of his students have been unable to produce written work that incorporates appropriate syntax and spelling? The answer is often that the teacher won’t know these important pieces of information until well into the school year.
Lack of shared communication about student strengths and weaknesses not only delays appropriate support for the student, but puts teachers at a huge disadvantage as they try to unravel the puzzle that could explain a child’s difficulties. When there is no process for tracking a student’s learning challenges over time, as well as the strategies and accommodations that have proven to be successful, teachers start each year with a classroom of blank slates. This can result in frustration for parents who have often spent a great deal of time providing information to previous teachers. Students, too, often feel frustrated when their new teacher doesn’t know anything about their learning needs and they must start again from square one.
Some schools now create student portfolios, often digitally, that allow teachers to input and obtain important information about a student beginning with kindergarten. These “data dashboards” may include everything from annual standardized testing results, to attendance history, to examples of student work, to information from parents. The most important feature for helping children with dyslexia, however, is the ability for former teachers to share information that provides the current teacher with a more complete understanding of each child’s strengths and weaknesses. By identifying the strategies and accommodations that were successful in the classroom, there is a reduced need for intervention out of the classroom.
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The Silent Reading Dilemma and What Can Be Done About It
Research indicates that students with reading deficits need to dramatically increase their exposure to print. Unfortunately, students with poor reading skills are significantly less likely to read than their peers and therefore spend very little time with print. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time spent reading each day and reading achievement.
To increase reading time, many schools adopted sustained silent reading programs during which students read independently for a specific period of time, usually 15 to 20 minutes. Although educators know that struggling readers need to spend more time reading in order to increase exposure to words, there is a dilemma. When students have deficits in basic reading skills that require remediation, they are typically unable to obtain information from text that they must read themselves. For students with dyslexia, reading silently is often a frustrating experience that yields limited results and puts them even further behind. This time is much better spent by allowing students to receive targeted interventions or to use assistive technology to access information from print.
Instructional Practices and Accomodations for Helping Children with Dyslexia
Teachers are skilled at incorporating new instructional strategies to meet the needs of the students in their classrooms, but may not always be familiar with specific supports for students with dyslexia. This list of options for use in whole-class instruction (Tier 1) may be helpful in the process of improving reading outcomes for these students.
Matching reading tasks to reading level instead of grade level
Use of audiobooks so that students can listen and follow along
Explicitly taught instruction in decoding and spelling sequenced to allow students a greater understanding of the patterns of English orthography
Spelling instruction and review without graded spelling tests
Using multisensory instruction—auditory, visual, and kinesthetic—to increase retention of new information
Repetition and reinforcement through reviews, games, reference materials (word walls, math words sheets, graphic organizers)
Reducing the amount of text demands and considering assignments based on multiple ways for students to demonstrate mastery (one page of reading instead of three pages, projects instead of written tests, writing assignments that begin with producing quality sentences and paragraphs rather than five paragraph essays).
Modifying text to make it easier to focus by using a free browser extension like Mercury Reader that removes ads and website distractions and the use of reading strips to highlight one line of text at a time.
Providing support at the beginning of each assignment to ensure understanding, identify how to get started, and troubleshoot what challenges may occur and the support that is available
Allowing the use of text-to-speech and speech-to-text technologies for reading and writing assignments
Using teacher/class websites or calendars that post announcements, assignments, and due dates
Breaking down assignments into steps and introducing them one step at a time prevents students from becoming overwhelmed by major assignments or projects. For added support, checking with students prior to deadlines increases communication about potential barriers to completing the work.
Using cooperative learning and student collaboration such as homework/study buddies to help students with dyslexia. Often students are able to assist each other in ways that are more effective than reliance on the teacher.