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How Teachers Can Support Students with Dyslexia in the Elementary Classroom

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 -- McKenna Wierman

There are a lot of myths out there when it comes to understanding just what dyslexia is and what it means for a child to exhibit signs of or be diagnosed with it. Often, dyslexia is described as a condition where a reader sees letters backwards, jumbled up, or jumping around. A quick internet search will bring up millions of results where websites “simulate” reading with dyslexia by mixing up letters in a paragraph, or having words float around the screen.

The reality, however, is that dyslexia is a difference in how the brain processes language. Individuals with dyslexia lack phonemic awareness - that is, the ability to recognize the individual sounds that make up words. Most children with dyslexia can learn to read fluently with the right combination of school and home support.

Still, as a teacher, when you encounter a child in your elementary classroom whom you suspect might be dyslexic or who has already been formally diagnosed, it can be intimidating. You might wonder if you’re equipped to support a student with a learning difference, or what you should do to make sure they don’t fall behind in other subjects as they work to improve their literacy.

When you understand what dyslexia is and how to work around it, you give dyslexic students in your class a better shot at success. Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence or ability; and while there is no magical cure for dyslexia, it can be overcome.

Here are six best practices to better support your dyslexic students:

1. Intervene early

One of the most common myths when it comes to dyslexia is that students can’t be diagnosed until the third grade. Not only is this untrue (dyslexia can be diagnosed as early as five, when the child begins showing signs of having difficulty reading, writing, and spelling) but when students go undiagnosed, it can also be harmful to their development and self-esteem. Granted, there’s no need to start talking to parents about getting a student evaluated at the very first signs of trouble, like writing numbers and letters backwards (which is developmentally normal through first grade), or having some struggles in early literacy. Learning to read can be hard, and everyone moves at their own pace. But, if you see a child in your class exhibiting signs of dyslexia, don’t wait to act! The quicker a student is identified as dyslexic, the better their chances overcoming these challenges to become successful readers.

2. Slow down instruction

Successful programs for teaching people with dyslexia to read start with a strong focus on phonological awareness, then move on to phonics skills. In most cases, developing these skills in a student with dyslexia takes systematic, explicit, and repetitive instruction. This means slowing down lessons, breaking them into smaller chunks, and repeating instruction often is key to teaching a child with dyslexia to read. Chunking instruction this way will also help students with dyslexia better digest other subjects, too, by preventing them from getting bored or over-exhausted trying to maintain focus. If possible, provide an outline of what you will be teaching during a lesson, to help the student with taking notes and staying on track. Spiral learning concepts regularly, and avoid giving too many directions orally at one time. You may feel like a broken record sometimes, but you’ll know your message is getting across. Fortunately, this type of reinforcing instruction is also helpful to the rest of your class, so there will more than likely be opportunities for you to teach everyone at the same time, and keep everyone on track.

3. Be cautious with the spotlight

Many students – not just dyslexic students – get nervous being put on the spot in class. Often the good intentions of a wholesome popcorn reading session are lost when students stress out so badly about being called on and sounding perfect to their classmates, that by the time they get through reading they won’t remember a single word. For students with dyslexia, however, the intimidation factor of the spotlight can extend beyond just having to read to the class; it can mean writing on the board, participating in a spelling bee, or even writing their name on a group worksheet. While spelling and grammar mistakes may not seem like a huge deal, they could ruin the whole day for a struggling child. So, do your best to be sensitive at all times. On the other hand, if a dyslexic student volunteers to read aloud or write on the board, don’t hold them back. Make sure you are fostering a supportive and positive classroom environment where it’s ok to make mistakes.

4. Make smart accommodations

Many students with dyslexia will require special accommodations in the classroom, such as extra time for reading and writing assignments or tests, using audiobooks, having a scribe take notes for them, and having written instructions read aloud to them. These accommodations can make all the difference to a struggling student, and allow them to succeed academically. But, just like with anything else, too many accommodations can be a bad thing. Make sure your student isn’t becoming dependent on a helper or assistant by using accommodations only when necessary. For example, if you will be reading as a class, read at a slower pace, so the student won’t need to listen to an audio book separately or be read to individually. You also don’t want a student to feel isolated or cut off from the rest of the class, so any way you can incorporate their accommodations into regular class activities will be a plus. Not to mention, many of the strategies that work best with dyslexic kids are helpful for the whole class.

5. Remember every student will be different

Dyslexia is a common language-based learning disability, and impacts people in various ways. Some students may just have trouble with writing and spelling, while others may struggle with math and language, too. In some students, dyslexia will become more obvious when they are introduced to more complex skills, like reading comprehension and grammar. Some students may struggle in ways that are consistent with dyslexia without actually having the disorder. The point is, there is no magic mold you can pour students struggling with literacy into and expect success using the same set of interventions. You won’t always be able to apply the same strategy to different kids, and in some cases, you may have to start completely from scratch. If all else fails, involve your student’s parents, or even the student themselves, in devising a strategy to help meet their individual needs.

6. Be Encouraging

Everyone likes to be told they are doing a good job, but when a student is struggling with something they see their classmates and friends mastering easily, a pat on the back can be huge. Students with dyslexia may not view themselves as having a learning difference, and instead just become frustrated and stressed when they struggle. Many times, students won’t like to hear they are “different,” especially if they are already feeling self-conscious about their reading and writing troubles. So, when you point out little victories, like when they find a creative solution to a problem, or when they successfully proofread a page, it can make their whole day. Pointing out successes can also help students perceive reading and writing as a positive experience, instead of a consistently frustrating and complicated task. After all, just because a student has trouble reading doesn’t mean they should lose out on the opportunity get lost in a good book.

Looking for a new resource to support literacy instruction for all the students in your classroom? Check out Reading Eggs and Reading Eggspress, Edmentum’s online program for pre-K through 6th grade students designed to help students follow their own path to literacy through activities and games that build and reinforce foundational skills in a fun and interactive environment!