The last decade in education has seen an impressive shift in how students with disabilities are supported. Rather than removing struggling students from general education classrooms for instruction, teachers are now being guided in how best to adapt instruction to meet all students’ learning styles.
With this shift, the role of a teacher grows—in scope and importance—every year. As the ones standing on the front lines of student learning, teachers are often the first to spot potential, often subtle, language difficulties and determine the need for formal assessment. With studies showing that dyslexia can affect 5 percent to 20 percent of the student population, and growing evidence to support the critical nature of early diagnosis and intervention, educators are spending increasing amounts of time educating themselves on how to spot, assess, and instruct these students.
The Confusing Nature of Dyslexia
Accommodating students with dyslexia revolves around understanding what the disability is (and is not), how it presents, and how to work with students to develop alternate means of accessing information. For many teachers, identifying students in need of formal assessment is more challenging than they’d expect.
Presenting as a multitude of symptoms that range from poor spelling to comprehension difficulties, dyslexia can be easily overlooked in the classroom.
The seemingly apathetic student may simply have grown tired of always feeling frustrated by an inability to remember short lists, while the student demonstrating an incredible degree of math fluency may be unable to understand the mechanics of rhyming. Determining the underlying issues requires patience, open communication with students and families, continued assessments, and diligent tracking of progress and problem areas.
Generally speaking, persistent difficulties in the following areas speak to a possible dyslexia diagnosis:
- Spelling (e.g., letter reversal)
- Decoding written words
- Reading comprehension
- Solving word problems in math
- Recognizing sight words
- Reading smoothly
Working with the above set of symptoms, the next step toward proper diagnosis and accommodation is developing a comprehensive understanding of what dyslexia is and what it is not.
4 Surprisingly Common Myths about Dyslexia
- A student’s overall ability to learn is significantly limited: One of the hallmarks of dyslexia is the incongruence between a student’s reading and writing abilities versus their overall cognitive ability. Often, these students are especially strong in general intelligence, reasoning and knowledge, oral language, mathematics, and academic knowledge yet struggle with what seem like basic foundational reading skills.
- Poor spelling and letter reversal define dyslexia: Due to the fact that letter reversal has become the hallmark of dyslexia, many teachers (and administrators) are under the mistaken belief that the disability is a visual issue revolving around spelling and letter sequencing. In reality, it’s a learning disability that stymies the acquisition and processing of language and can affect everything from oral language to memory and comprehension.
- Scaffolding lessons for students with dyslexia hinders growth in the general student population: Overwhelmed by the task of creating lesson plans that accommodate all learners, many teachers believe scaffolds or supports for students with dyslexia will inevitably take away from or hinder instruction of students without the disability. In reality, supports like incorporating lively, creative, and repetitive activities into daily lessons can be incredibly beneficial to all learners—especially in younger grades.
- Dyslexia is outgrown: Dyslexia is (oftentimes) a genetic and lifelong neurobiological language disability. Even though students cannot simply outgrow dyslexia, they can acquire a set of skills to manage their disability and achieve the same levels of success as those with the disability.
The Truth About Dyslexia: 3 Important Realities
- Students with dyslexia are strong learners: The biggest mistake a teacher can make is to misinterpret lack of reading competency for lack of interest or ability. Often students with dyslexia have above average intelligence levels and excel in math, science, arts, and technology. Once given the right tools for managing their dyslexia, these students often display above average abilities to learn.
- Technology integration can be a game changer: While the introduction of technology into classrooms has been beneficial for all learners, it has been game changing for students with dyslexia. By utilizing technology to allow for transcription of lessons, composition, and audio instructions on assessments, the gap in achievement between these students and their peers is being systematically lessened.
- Dyslexia looks different in every student: There is no “one size fits all” showing of the disability. Some may read slowly, some may be poor spellers, some might have trouble decoding, and some might have trouble with comprehension.
3 Best Practices for Diagnosing Dyslexia
Although a formal assessment is not performed by the teacher, there are a few informal assessment techniques teachers can use to flag struggling students and ensure they’re given the needed support.
- Utilize regular one-to-ones with students: Spend time with each of your students. Find out how they’re feeling about school, learning, and reading. Are they frustrated? Are they experiencing anxiety? Do they hate reading? These are all indications that language acquisition difficulties might be at play. Rather than risking embarrassing a struggling reader, use this time to have them read aloud to you. Many students with dyslexia are incredibly skilled in hiding the disorder in a group, and this one-on-one time will be your chance to assess their reading capabilities firsthand.
- Seek input from families: Meet with parents of struggling students to get a picture of what their reading and language attitudes and competencies look like in the home. Do they enjoy reading for fun? Do they express frustration or dislike of school? Are they anxious during the school week? Are there any family members with dyslexia? All of this will give you a more comprehensive view of the student and help determine whether formal assessment should be requested.
- Employ diagnostic tests: After meeting with the student, consulting with their family, and reviewing their progress over the course of the year, teachers can make an educated decision about the need for formal assessment.
Every teacher has the opportunity to positively change the outcomes for these learners by working in collaboration with both the students and their families to understand and plan how best to support their learning journey. Use your best judgment, seek guidance from your mentors, and—when in doubt—request an assessment to ensure your students are getting the assistance they need to become confident, capable readers.
This blog post was updated in April 2019.
Learn more about how HMH supports special education educators and teaching students with disabilities.