Dyslexia from a Distance: An Educator’s Checklist for Supporting At-Home Learning
This year, many schools made the switch to virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the sudden shift to remote platforms has been a steep learning curve for many students, those with special education needs have been especially impacted.
According to an NPR estimate, more than 7 million U.S. students receive special education services. For many of these individuals, accommodations and interventions simply aren't as accessible through a computer screen. In particular, students with dyslexia—a learning disability that makes it difficult to match written letters with their sounds—have experienced notable remote learning challenges. Without the benefit of face-to-face teacher interaction, these students may struggle to decode and process written lesson instructions, log-in instructions, passwords, and on-screen text, which can quickly lead to overwhelm and frustration.
Although virtual platforms are very different from traditional, in-person classroom environments, educators can and should still work to accommodate their students' special learning needs. More specifically, students with dyslexia will benefit from help managing their home learning environments, evaluating and preventing distractions, simplifying their work, and setting limits on work time. By addressing these needs directly, educators can empower dyslexic students to do their best work, even from a distance.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
As detailed by Edutopia, simplifying the amount of text that dyslexic students are required to read and process can significantly improve these learners' experiences. For educators, it is important to keep in mind that completing homework can take three to five times as long for students with dyslexia compared to their peers, which can turn a quick review activity into an exercise in frustration. When virtually presenting lessons and interventions, educators can help dyslexic students by reducing the amount of text and focusing on a student's most critical learning needs.
Look to a student's IEP for specific literacy learning goals and accommodations.
Start with small, measurable interventions to make the best use of targeted literacy instruction.
Reduce assignments by requiring dyslexic students to complete only every other question or asking them to set a timer and answer what they can in 30 minutes.
Choose short reading tasks that can be completed from start to finish during virtual intervention time.
The open-ended nature of completing work online is a double-edged sword. While students may feel relieved by the knowledge that they can pause for breaks and take their time on tough assignments, some may experience stress associated with the feeling that any time could—or should—be work time. Because students with dyslexia and other learning challenges often struggle with executive functioning (the ability to plan out the steps needed for a task and see it through to completion), educators should guide them to set limits that help them manage their virtual learning.
Ask students to do as much work as they can on an assignment for 15 minutes and then send a message stating what they completed and what was most difficult.
Work with students to identify times of day and areas of the home that best help them focus.
For longer-term assignments, show students how to break down work by day (for example, read pages 1 to 5 on Monday, pages 6 to 10 on Tuesday, and so on).
Create off-screen activities
For many students, remote learning comes with a bevy of challenges, including internet connectivity issues and the need to share devices with working parents and school-aged siblings. For dyslexic students, these challenges add logistical constraints to the already difficult undertaking of deciphering and completing work online.
Educators looking to circumvent connectivity issues can take advantage of the many natural opportunities for students to practice their reading skills offscreen. Dr. Joanne Pierson of the University of Michigan's DyslexiaHelp program encouraged adaptation and parent-teacher collaboration to maximize these opportunities—for instance, adjusting assignments to allow for offline work, compiling and disseminating a list of level-appropriate books from which to choose, and involving students in everyday writing activities such as making grocery lists and putting together daily schedules.
Create printable assignments that students can fill out on their own time.
Allow students to mail or submit photos of their completed assignments.
Broaden the scope of literature assignments by asking students to analyze newspapers, magazines, or books they have at home to fulfill lesson objectives.
Partner with families
Communicating and collaborating with students' families is always important, but it becomes critical when educators cannot physically supervise a student's work. Setting up a successful work routine for students with dyslexia takes a little creative thinking and a lot of teamwork!
Writing for eSchool News, dyslexia coordinator Tammy McEntire emphasized that families need flexibility—and while different families will have different needs, meeting them with a spirit of collaboration will go a long way toward building effective interventions.
Ask students to name their three biggest virtual learning obstacles and supports. Ask family members to do the same, then compare lists with the goal of discussing and problem-solving as a team.
Because work schedules and health concerns can prevent adults from being able to sit and work with their students during virtual school hours, reach out to establish a preferred method of communication with each family.
The bottom line
This year's sudden shift to virtual learning has revealed how learning disabilities can impact a student's ability to complete independent work and manage self-paced schedules—and students with dyslexia require specific, structured assistance to navigate the text-heavy reality of virtual learning. By addressing these needs directly, educators can help students realize their full potential no matter the circumstances.