“Disrupting” Dyslexia: How to Use Brain Science to Promote a Love of Reading for All Kids

“Disrupting” Dyslexia: How to Use Brain Science to Promote a Love of Reading for All Kids

One in five students has a language-based learning disability—and, according to the Dyslexia Center of Utah website, the majority of these have dyslexia. Moreover, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the nonprofit advocacy group went on to contend that close to 80 percent of all people who struggle with reading are “likely dyslexic.”

Similarly, the University of Michigan’s Dyslexia Help Center pointed to statistics that indicate the estimated number of people with dyslexia may be as high as 17 percent of the total population. Importantly, both the Utah and Michigan centers noted that many people with dyslexia have never received a diagnosis nor intervention for this common condition. However, this state of affairs could be changing. Here’s why:


Advancements in brain science have pushed the topic of best practices in reading instruction to the forefront, including techniques for teachers to better identify and assist students with dyslexia. For instance, a 2015 study conducted by Stanford University's Bruce McCandliss found that phonics-based instruction for beginning readers helps activate the part of the brain “best wired for reading.” 

As a professor in Stanford’s education department, McCandliss specializes in neuroscience—including educational cognitive neuroscience—and psychology. Indeed, the 2015 study conducted by McCandliss and his fellow researchers centered on brain science's potential to improve reading instruction, particularly for struggling readers. A Stanford news release based on an interview with McCandliss explained: 

“As the field of educational neuroscience grows … both brain researchers and educational researchers can improve their understanding of how instructional strategies can best be harnessed to support the brain changes that underlie the development of learning.”

The study offers intriguing takeaways that could lead to improved neuroscientific awareness for classroom teachers. For instance, when reading, skilled readers typically engage the left hemisphere of the brain (where our visual and language regions reside) while struggling readers do not. According to McCandliss’s research, the best way to address this deficit is to employ phonics-based, letter-sound instruction.

Equipped with this knowledge and a grasp of the brain-related science to back it up, teachers can develop focused strategies aimed at ensuring that all students—especially those who have or may have dyslexia—become confident readers.

Equitable Literacy Education: The Transformative Impact of Building Teacher Capacity and Confidence
“Disrupting” reading instruction

Teachers and school districts across the country are already implementing instructional strategies based on the science behind reading, as detailed in a recent article from the online education news source Education Dive. Written by Lauren Barack, the piece zeroed in on three districts from around the United States to highlight how educators are addressing dyslexia through improved literacy instruction strategies.

In Virginia, Loudon County Public Schools are seeing positive results with the Orton-Gillingham method, described by Barack as “an approach that is steeped in phonics but incorporates multiple inputs, from visual to tactile, in teaching students to read.” Loudon County teachers even reported that beyond meeting the needs of students diagnosed with dyslexia, Orton-Gillingham strategies have been helpful for English learners and students without special education needs as well. That said, other sources have cautioned that Orton-Gillingham is more of an umbrella term encompassing various reading programs that incorporate the underlying components of the approach (multi-sensory; structured and systematic; diagnostic and prescriptive; direct instruction), which can make it difficult to pinpoint exactly what elements are working. More information about the complexities associated with Orton-Gillingham is detailed in blog posts by a group called Neuro-Development of Words.


Barack also profiled a district in Arkansas and another in Maryland, both of which are experimenting with reading programs designed to better address the needs of students with dyslexia or other language-based learning disabilities. As further evidence of the increased weight being placed on more scientific approaches rooted in explicit, phonics-based reading instruction, Arkansas legislators passed a law in 2018 requiring teachers to “demonstrate their ability to use science-based reading instruction by the 2021-22 school year.” 


Promoting a love of reading for all kids

With such an emphasis on making sure students with dyslexia receive a proper diagnosis and intervention, it can be easy to overlook another important element: fostering a love of reading for all kids. Indeed, a post written by teacher and educational therapist Ezra Werb on the online ADHD-focused magazine ADDitude observed that, “By some counts, more than half of children with ADHD also have a learning disability—and dyslexia is the most common.”

Werb went on to offer a handful of tactics that provide kids with dyslexia and other disorders such as ADD or ADHD with a chance to nurture a love of reading. According to Werb, the first step is to make sure such students are receiving or have received “phonics and fluency intervention,” but this is often not enough. After all, the educator pointed out, students who struggle with reading often have related anxiety that may cause them to feel wary about plunging in on their own.

With this in mind, here are a few of Werb's suggestions:

  • Allow and encourage students to read books, magazines, and other texts about things that interest them. Even if their choices center on topics that seem silly or frivolous, this tactic is a simple but valuable way to boost reading confidence.

  • Recognize that all reading counts. For instance, although graphic novels contain less text than standard books, Werb noted that they still “allow readers to practice comprehension skills that involve analyzing images and synthesizing those with the dialogue and narration.” Moreover, they can do wonders in terms of grabbing and sustaining a young reader’s interest, which may also help build reading skills.

  • Utilize the library, keeping in mind that audiobooks and films based on books tend to work well with struggling or anxious readers. As Werb explained, watching a film is an incentive to read the book upon which it was based, while listening to an audiobook can provide a reading experience with “training wheels” that helps students gain confidence.

The end goal of these approaches is to help struggling readers become more capable and confident. With so many students impacted by learning disabilities like dyslexia, it is encouraging to see a growing commitment to using the power of science as a key intervention strategy. After all, teachers and administrators should not be left in the dark when it comes to deploying tactics that may help all kids learn to read.
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