Teachers in South Brunswick School District in New Jersey aren’t afraid to say the d word—dyslexia, that is.
In past years in their state, dyslexia wasn’t classified as a disability in and of itself; rather, it was listed on a student’s IEP as a “specific learning disability.” As a result, staff members barely used the word and children were less likely to receive interventions tailored to treating dyslexia.
“It wasn’t an identification unless you had a neurologist diagnose a child as being dyslexic, and rarely did we get to that point,” says Patrice O’Rourke, a special education teacher in the district and a member of its newly formed Team Dyslexia.
But state mandates have changed in New Jersey in the past two years. Not only is dyslexia now a named disability, but laws also dictate two hours of training for some school personnel, as well as dyslexia screenings in second grade for students who are considered at-risk.
Increased awareness is spreading throughout the country. In October, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted, “It’s okay to say dyslexia! Schools must identify and meet the unique/individual needs of any child with a disability.” The Department of Education later released information to help schools recognize dyslexia and its related disabilities, dysgraphia (impaired writing) and dyscalculia (impaired math and number sense).
Advocates hope these state and national changes will signal greater access to intervention for the 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population estimated to have dyslexia.
With dyslexia being spoken about now more than ever, we’ve set out to bust some myths and provide actionable teaching tips to help students with this reading disability.
MYTH: Dyslexia is caused by vision problems.
FACT: Dyslexia is not tied to visual deficiencies. It is actually a neurological condition that affects how the brain receives, processes, and responds to language.
“What we’re up against is an invisible disability related to what’s called the language-learning mechanism [in the brain],” says Virginia Berninger, a professor at the University of Washington’s Center on Human Development and Disability and coauthor of Teaching Students With Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Owl LD, and Dyscalculia. Students often struggle with sound-symbol relationships, rapid letter naming, decoding, phonological processing, word recognition, fluency, and poor spelling and writing.
TEACHING TIPS: Big-picture strategies can make our print-focused world a little more accessible for students with dyslexia. First up, audiobooks. “Classroom teachers can provide access to audiobooks in academic subjects to help students develop skills that typically require decoding as a prerequisite,” says Paul Tryon, a K–8 at-risk learning specialist at Classical Charter Schools in the Bronx, New York. “Audiobooks remove the reading barrier.”
In South Brunswick, teachers use Learning Ally’s audiobooks for qualifying students, including textbooks and trade books, according to Denise Callaway, an elementary literacy coach in the school district. She explains that having ready access to grade-level independent reading books (normally out of reach for students with dyslexia) helps to build kids’ social capital. “This one boy wanted to talk with his friends about Rick Riordan books, but he couldn’t read them,” she says. After listening to the books, “now he has social language to talk about it.”
Among Team Dyslexia’s other suggestions for making print more accessible to students with dyslexia:
- Download a font called Dyslexie for your computers. The letters are designed specifically for people with dyslexia, including extra distance between words and unique letter forms.
- Provide sheets of colored overlays to put on pages of text, as some students struggle to read black text on white paper. (Alternatively, try photocopying on colored paper.)
- Use a reading tracker or window to help students focus on small sections of text at a time.
MYTH: A child has dyslexia if he or she reverses letters in reading and writing.
FACT: “Reversals or inversions of letters are common until second grade,” Callaway says. “Beyond that, it doesn’t mean the child is dyslexic, per se.”
South Brunswick’s Team Dyslexia coleader and principal Jodi Mahoney recommends coupling a symptom like reversals with other data to gauge whether it’s just developmental or something more serious. “We want to get it early, so we don’t want to be dismissive,” she says. “You have to look at it with multiple lenses.”
TEACHING TIPS: Focus your attention on the bigger picture of symptoms that could signal dyslexia. In preschool-age children, students with dyslexia tend to begin talking later than their peers and have difficulty rhyming and writing their names.
In the primary grades, dyslexia may be at play for “children who don’t know the alphabet, and it doesn’t stick for them,” says Callaway. These students may also mispronounce words and show deficits in phonics, spelling, and handwriting. “Slow reading rate is something you see consistently in all elementary grades [among students with dyslexia],” she adds. “They’re spending so much time processing,” due to decoding issues and lack of word recognition. Low self-esteem and behavioral problems can begin to surface as a result of these issues.
By middle school, students may be unable to keep up with timed tasks and organize their writing. They may avoid reading at all costs while struggling with laborious reading rates and poor spelling.
In short: Consider the student’s complete past and present (genetics may play a role), not just one symptom in isolation, and then consult with your student-services staff, who can facilitate an evaluation if necessary.
MYTH: Students with dyslexia have low intelligence.
FACT: On the contrary, these students typically have average or above-average intelligence. Like other kids with learning disabilities, students with dyslexia have a gap between their potential learning (for instance, measured by a higher IQ score) and their actual achievement (lower than expected).
Because dyslexia affects specific parts of the brain, students may do very well in other areas. And that’s one reason so many go undiagnosed. “They might present as orally articulate [or] have other strength areas,” says Eileen Busbice, a K–5 bilingual reading specialist in Birdville Independent School District in Texas. “Sometimes they shine in spatial-visual, reasoning, or math [skills].”
“Children with dyslexia are often intuitive and out-of-the-box thinkers,” adds Tryon. “They are typically great problem solvers.” It’s no wonder that the long list of successful individuals with dyslexia includes people like director Steven Spielberg, actress Whoopi Goldberg, author Dav Pilkey, and Apple founder Steve Jobs.
TEACHING TIPS: Capitalize on their strengths, and allow students to express their learning in ways that don’t require reading and writing. This avoids “double punishing” students who have already struggled to read about a topic, and now will struggle to write an essay about it, too. “Ask them to demonstrate their understanding through project-based assignments,” suggests Busbice. You’ll build confidence, open doors to new interests, and strengthen valuable skill sets.
MYTH: Students with dyslexia are lazy.
FACT: “What I hear over and over [from students] is that others don’t realize it takes them so much longer to do assignments,” Berninger says. “In many cases, they’re actually more motivated because they have to work so much harder.”
“When you have a child who is truly capable, you can mistake their low performance as a lack of effort. But with dyslexia, it’s so far from it,” O’Rourke says.
TEACHING TIPS: The South Brunswick team offers guidelines aimed at making “the best use of students’ brainpower.” Consider these suggestions:
- Reduce copying tasks from the board.
- Allow students to dictate work to you when possible.
- Use matching, fill-in-the-blank, and short-answer formats on tests.
- Allow students to just listen to a lesson without taking notes, or to fill in sections on a prepared outline.
“Fair is not equal,” Mahoney says. “It’s not an easy shift, but you have to ask, ‘What does every kid need?’ Some of these things are just little tweaks that may take the stress and anxiety off of one kid—or maybe multiple kids.”
MYTH: Students can’t overcome dyslexia and won’t learn as much as their peers.
FACT: While children with dyslexia won’t outgrow the condition, they can make great strides. Busbice says the best instructional programs are “sequential, explicit, research-based, and multisensory.” Tryon advocates for the Orton-Gillingham approach, which meets all of the above criteria.
TEACHING TIPS: Multisensory is a key word. “Dyslexia is neurological, so you should activate different parts of the brain to help integrate information,” O’Rourke says.
Busbice uses everyday objects for multisensory learning: “Put hair gel in a ziplock bag and have students write their letters [on it].” Laura Mills, a South Brunswick primary instructional support teacher, says her students “tap out” words. They use a finger to tap letters on a mat as they say the corresponding sound, then blend them together. One kindergartner who came to school with no knowledge of the alphabet or sounds left reading on a B/C level, says Mills.
For students like him and others with dyslexia, Team Dyslexia’s catchphrase says it best: Dyslexia isn’t something to cure; it’s a different way of thinking and learning. “Kids feel enabled when they get it,” Mills says. “They can still learn like their peers, just in a different way.”
Photo: Adam Chinitz