Some students have difficulty learning to read even though they exhibit strengths in other areas. Students with dyslexia are neurodiverse learners, meaning that their brain learns and processes information differently. Neurodiversity exemplifies the differences in how our brains work. Students with dyslexia experience reading difficulties with various levels of severity, yet many times, they exhibit above-average intelligence and are creative thinkers. There are teaching strategies for students with dyslexia to help address their learning needs.
Students can have dyslexia regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, their level of language ability, and whether they are native speakers of English or multilingual learners. Researchers at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity estimate that approximately 20% of students have dyslexia. However, they found that many of the students are undiagnosed, and less than one-third of students with dyslexia were receiving school services. Decades of scientific research show that early identification of dyslexia, intensive instruction using evidence-based reading strategies, and continued practice and scaffolded supports help improve the reading skills of students with dyslexia so they can achieve school and life success.
What Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties in accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (International Dyslexia Association, 2002).
Early identification, remediation, and providing accommodations such as assistive technology where necessary are critical for minimizing these secondary consequences and others such as the detrimental effects of experiencing repeated failure. Developing a dislike for reading can make problems worse if students avoid reading and thereby fall further behind.
Although many students with dyslexia will qualify for special education services under the designation of a specific learning disability, not all will. Students with dyslexia who are average or above-average in language skills may have a deficit in reading that needs to be addressed, but because of their above-average language skills, their relative deficit in reading may not be sufficiently low for them to be eligible for special education services.
Early Identification: Why It Matters
The first step in being able to provide effective instruction for students with dyslexia is to identify these students as early as possible. It is recommended that schools administer a valid and reliable screener for dyslexia before grade 3 (Petscher et al., 2019). Dyslexia screeners should consider a student’s developmental history as well as the student’s current skills when screening for dyslexia. For example, infants and toddlers may exhibit a delay in speaking. Children in the preschool years may have difficulty in pronunciation, omit sounds, invert sounds, be insensitive to rhyme, have poor word retrieval or word finding ability, and have difficulty naming the letters and their sounds. When students begin kindergarten and the early elementary grades, they may experience difficulty with phoneme segmentation, phoneme deletion, specific word retrieval, rapid word retrieval, the alphabetic principle, and word parts (Shaywitz, 2003).
Once reading difficulties are noticed and a student is identified as having dyslexia, the next step is to put an effective intervention in place. In identifying students with dyslexia, it is important to keep in mind that language difficulties occur along a continuum of abilities, and even students with a formal diagnosis of dyslexia will vary in the type and severity of reading and language processing problems that they experience. Based on the diagnosis, teachers can then tailor reading intervention to the student’s particular instructional needs. With early identification followed by proper instructional intervention, some cases of potential dyslexia can be eliminated and the severity of others can be lessened.
Instructional interventions for students with dyslexia should be diagnostic, explicit, systematic, sequential, cumulative, and multisensory. Many individuals with dyslexia benefit from targeted small-group instruction or one-on-one help so that they can move forward at their own pace. In addition, students with dyslexia often need a great deal of structured practice and immediate, corrective feedback to develop automatic word recognition skills (IDA, 2017a; Moats & Dakin, 2008). It is important to note, “research demonstrates that additional direct instruction provided appropriately beginning in kindergarten through third grade [...] can help all but the most severely impaired students catch up to grade-level literacy skills and close the gap for most poor readers” (IDA, 2017b). While the majority of early grade struggling readers will demonstrate improvement as a result of participating in a well-designed reading intervention, 2% to 5% of students will continue to experience difficulties (Moats & Dakin, 2008).
Instructional Strategies for Students with Dyslexia
Building off of Shaywitz’s (2003) elements of effective intervention programs for dyslexic students, the International Dyslexia Association (2015) identified the following six foundational evidence-based components of literacy that should be taught in intervention programs for dyslexic students.
- Sound-symbol association
IDA (2015) also identified the types of instructional strategies and teaching methods that should be used to successfully teach these literacy skills through a structured literacy approach, specifically:
- Systematic and cumulative instruction that builds upon concepts previously learned.
- Explicit and multisensory instruction that clearly and deliberately teaches the concepts in an engaging manner.
- Diagnostic teaching that ensures instruction is individualized to each student’s unique needs. This instructional model is especially important for students with dyslexia who struggle with the foundational skills that are necessary in order to learn to read.
Students with dyslexia that have received targeted instruction through a structured literacy approach may still need additional support to develop fluency.
Instructional Strategies to Support Reading Fluency
One of the hallmarks of dyslexia is slow, labored reading and a lack of fluency when students read aloud. Reading fluency is the ability for students to read connected text accurately, at an appropriate rate, and with expression that incorporates the ability to change one’s pitch and stress, as well as attending to meaningful phrasing and intonation.
Research supports several evidence-based reading teaching strategies that educators can use to incorporate fluency instruction and practice into their reading lessons for students with dyslexia:
- Modeled fluent oral reading: The teacher reads the text aloud with emphasis on expression and intentional pausing.
- Guided oral reading: Students read a text aloud with feedback and explicit guidance from the teacher.
- Repeated oral reading: Students read and reread a text multiple (for example, three) times. This is most effective with a model. Guided and repeated oral reading have been shown to demonstrate improved oral reading fluency in both younger learners and older striving readers.
- Continuous oral reading: Students read different passages at a similar reading level.
- Prosody development through teaching phrase boundaries: Students learn the appropriate placement of pauses around phrase boundaries, which contributes to understanding meaning.
Systematic means that the organization of the materials begins with the easiest and most basic concepts and elements and progresses methodically to more difficult concepts and elements through a logical scope and sequence. Cumulative refers to instruction where each new step is based on concepts previously learned.
Explicit instruction intentionally covers all concepts and its rules with continuous student-teacher interaction. It is not assumed that students will naturally deduce these concepts on their own or simply learn through implicit learning or exposure to materials.
Diagnostic teaching entails assessing students’ learning strengths and gaps to personalize instruction and continuously measuring students’ progress to adjust instruction to meet their needs. These assessments can be administered informally through observations of students working or through conferencing and formally using valid and reliable standardized measures.
Instructional Strategies to Build Comprehension
When students encounter reading difficulties, they often don’t like to read. They read fewer books, which in turn, negatively influences their vocabulary and background knowledge. Students with dyslexia benefit from explicit instruction that systematically builds their vocabulary knowledge through the three tiers of vocabulary: Tier 1 consisting of common words in oral language, Tier 2 consisting of academic words used in written text, and Tier 3 consisting of words that are domain-specific. Multiple exposures using varied text allow students to gain meaning of new vocabulary words while reinforcing automatic reading. Students particularly benefit from instruction on word parts, specifically pulling apart words with prefixes, suffixes, Latin roots, and Greek roots to reinforce meaning.
Once students become more automatic and fluent readers, they are better able to attend to the meaning of the text to build comprehension. Encourage students to be active readers through all phases of reading—before, during, and after reading the text. Before reading, ground the student in the necessary vocabulary and background knowledge. Identify the purpose and have students make predictions. During reading, engage students with creating and answering questions about the story, making connections with themselves or with other topics, and checking that they understand the gist of what they are reading. Finally, after reading, have students not only retell the events of the story, but summarize and analyze the text more deeply.
It is never easy to see a student struggle with reading. Fortunately, through the implementation of reading programs aligned to the structured literacy approach and ongoing assessment and diagnostic instruction encompassing all pillars of reading, students with dyslexia can move toward the goal of reading proficiency.
All graphics are based on Cowan’s (2016) International Dyslexia Association infographic “What Is Structured Literacy?”
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Zoe Del Mar