Meeting Dyslexia Head-On: 3 Strategies for Success
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Learning to read can be hard. For children with dyslexia, it can be especially hard. In a 2017 interview with American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford, neuroscientist Guinevere Eden argued that “reading is not a natural skill,” as our brains were designed to recognize objects—such as an animal loping toward us across the plains—but not necessarily letters. Eden pointed out that to become fluent readers, students must learn to bypass aspects of their brain’s “visual system” in order to understand, for example, that “b” and “d” are not just similar objects but different letters.
People with dyslexia often struggle to move past this learn-to-read stage. For reasons that, according to Eden, are not yet entirely clear, these individuals tend to spend more time on the decoding phase, breaking down words into their separate sounds and putting them back together again into something meaningful. As Hanford pointed out, it didn’t matter much if someone living several thousand years ago struggled with decoding letters or sounding out words. Today, though, reading is an essential skill that can’t be avoided—even with a dyslexia diagnosis.
Recent statistics estimate that anywhere from five to 17 percent of the population has dyslexia, which is often named as the most common “language-based learning disability.” Further research has shown that students with dyslexia are much more likely to drop out of school or be clustered in “ineffective schools,” a topic that was covered in a this radio documentary. Although the title of the documentary—"How American Schools Fail Kids with Dyslexia”—sounds dire, the highlighted strategies offered hope for teachers, students, and families dealing with dyslexia.
Here’s a look at some of the most promising techniques for helping students with dyslexia become confident readers:
1. Early identification
A mother profiled by the documentary discussed above suspected for years that her son, Dayne, had dyslexia. When Dayne still hadn’t caught on to reading by the end of first grade, his mother—Pam—voiced her concerns to his school, but was told not to worry and that Dayne would catch up. It wasn’t until Dayne was almost done with high school (and still not reading well) that Pam learned he had a legal right to be evaluated for dyslexia by his school. When he was finally tested, Pam was told he had dyslexia-like “disabilities,” but Dayne was still not given a dyslexia diagnosis.
Unfortunately, Dayne missed out on years of valuable and established intervention strategies for students with dyslexia. Many researchers—including educational consultant Dr. Susan Hill—advocate for early assessment of young children, using what Hill calls a “phonics diagnostic assessment.” As described by Hill, this tool helps teachers identify “mastered and missing phonics skills in early readers” in order to avoid the “waiting to fail” path. The sooner a student with dyslexia or other learning challenges gets identified, the sooner they can get appropriate and targeted instruction.
2. Explicit instruction
Continued advancement in brain research, such as that done by researchers at Yale University and published in 2009, has shown that dyslexia is not simply a “developmental lag” that students will overcome. Instead, sustained and explicit intervention can help students with dyslexia not only grasp important life skills but develop a lifelong awareness of their own strengths and challenges.
Once a student is identified as having dyslexia, explicit instruction in specific reading skills is often recommended. “When a teacher provides explicit instruction, she or he clearly models or demonstrates skills and strategies and provides clear descriptions of new concepts,” wrote Carolyn Denton, a researcher at the University of Texas. Denton went on to explain that this approach is important because it emphasizes not only “foundational skills” but also a method for avoiding student confusion over how, exactly, to read. Denton also encouraged teachers to scaffold their lessons clearly so that one skill is mastered before another is introduced, as this will help avoid “gaps in student learning.”
3. Embrace differences
The University of Michigan’s Dyslexia Help website offers tips and resources for parents, teachers, and individuals with dyslexia. One comforting piece of advice for teachers is that whatever they do on behalf of students with dyslexia is likely to benefit other students, too—especially other “struggling readers and writers” in the classroom. Moreover, the strategies offered by the site are likely to be affirming and inspiring, such as the nudge to play “sound matching games” by introducing an initial sound (e.g., “mmm” for milk), then providing context and waiting for students to figure out the rest of the word.
The University of Michigan site also provides specific tips for teachers working to help students gain key literacy skills, such as a reminder to include both written and oral instructions for assignments and to offer visual cues for “commonly reversed or flipped letters.” The ultimate aim is to embrace students with dyslexia by using strong, evidence-based strategies, with the goal that they, too, can feel welcome and successful in school. The fact that these strategies often help other struggling (and non-struggling) readers and writers as well makes them even harder to overlook.
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