In my last post we explored the exceptional ways in which dyslexia enhances certain types of thinking. This week we’ll look at some best practices, including useful education technologies that are addressing the needs of dyslexic, and indeed other students with special learning needs.
First, let’s remove the elephant from the room: identifying a child with dyslexia as “a dyslexic student” does them and their family nothing but good. Many studies have found that not having the ability to frame one’s struggles with reading and writing as “dyslexia” causes unnecessary stress and confusion. Once dyslexia has been identified, the student and their support structures can discard the notion of being “stupid” or “lazy” and address the issue at hand, using the very many resources available to dyslexic learners and teachers.
When school or work is difficult, the best news to tell a parent, child or adult is “it’s because you have dyslexia”. This unlocks doors to self-understanding”. Bernadette McLean, Principle Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre.
In her doctoral thesis, Ruth Gwernan-Jones studied (through in-depth interviews), the actual coping mechanisms of dyslexics, as a way of contributing sociological and educational research to the medico-psychological bias in the available research on dyslexia. She found that according to her interviewees, “Identification of dyslexia provided a means of making sense of difficulties, bolstered self-belief in intelligence, and initiated changes in support and personal motivation which, for the majority of participants, were notably beneficial.”
Yale University’s article puts a finer point on the issue: “Policies at all levels of government, but especially in school districts, often resist naming dyslexia as a specific disability, making it harder to identify and help dyslexic individuals.”
A matter of words
A number of books and studies indicate that using the term “dyslexia” as a catchall for students with learning disabilities is unhelpful because it applies a regime of changes that are not always specific enough to that particular student's issues. The solution however is far from ideal, “Specific Learning Difficulties” - which, when one is a parent or teacher, is in effect less specific, or helpful, than the term “dyslexia”.
A more subversive reason schools don’t like to use the word dyslexia has also emerged: money. Schools are obliged to provide special assistance and tools to special needs students — but only if they are identified as “special needs”. With tightening budgets, schools are slipping into a nefarious habit of simply ignoring potentially expensive problems, like dyslexia.
From a formal policy point of view, and in terms of resources made available to schools through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it is critical to realize that dyslexia does not, in and of itself, qualify a student for IDEA resources, and this is perhaps the nub of why some teachers and schools are cautious about including “specific learning disability” in their prognosis and solution-design.
Best practices for dealing with dyslexia in the classroom: The Schenk School
Let’s move onto the long-promised classroom techniques, technologies and processes that are not only assisting students with dyslexia, but indeed children with other learning disabilities, as well as the entire class.
The Schenk School, in Atlanta has long been one of the preeminent schools for students with dyslexia, and are part of a broader campaign to educate educators about dyslexia, and how these special students can be taught in a way that engenders confidence, creativity and help them to find “their learning lane.”
Of course, activities like experiments, maker spaces, movement, sports and arts are all fields research has shown dyslexics can thrive in, however it remains a fact that reading and writing are essential to every graduate’s very basic skill-set. In that regard the school applies the Orton Gllingham (OG) principles in terms of reading, spelling and writing.
Teachers are trained in the phonological (sound structure), morphological (form of words), and orthographical (writing convention) structure of the language. By using tactile, manipulable, sensory, and phonetic tools to spell, hear and see words, the teacher helps students with dyslexia to engage a more multisensory “word world”. Students with dyslexia tend to struggle with “decoding letters”; here are a few tips and tricks from both the OG syllabus, as well as experienced teachers to overcome that hurdle.
- Observe how you are grouping words: many syllabi tend to group words students need to learn by arbitrary categories, such as length or even topics like “Summer” or “Food”. This is not helpful to the dyslexic student who is trying to find an organisational pattern. Grouping words according to how they sound, similarities in how they look, or number of syllables will not only assist students with dyslexia to categorize the words better, but will also teach the rest of the class essential spelling rules.
- At Schenk teachers try as much as possible to add a sensory element to learning to read. From chiming out words to music, playing hopscotch using syllables, or simply tracing letters in the air while they are being sounded out have all shown to expand students with dyslexia ability to “feel and see” the words they are learning.
- Speak to dyslexics about their worst days in a classroom and many will tell you, “group reading”! There can be few things worse than a child with reading difficulties being forced to read a sentence or paragraph in front of their peers. Perhaps allow the student to practice their “part” earlier at home, or make aloud reading less of a group, and more of a 1-1 activity.
- Understand that the effort and time dyslexic students are applying to completing assignments compared to their peers is excessive. In addition, the end of the school day will find many dyslexic students more fatigued than their counterparts. As such, taking time to help them to organize their homework, as well as actively giving them time limits on their homework will be appreciated by both students and parents.
- According to teachers at the Schenk school, dyslexic students crave context and the “bigger picture”. They tend to do better in learning environments where they know what is happening, why and what is happening next. A schedule of the day’s or week’s activities will help enormously.
- Metacognition is learning to learn; dyslexic students can often feel adrift and disorganized as they struggle to “identify connections and relationships between different learning tasks.” Teachers who understand this are better able to create and explain those connections to students, helping them to understand the “bigger picture” of why and how they are going to learn something.
Assistive educational technologies
Naturally there are a range of simple and common technologies that are an absolute boon to students with dyslexia. It is important that teachers jettison any idea within the class that students typing, or using text to speech are in any way cheating — if the lesson is about frogs, and some students comprehend the lesson better when the text is read out loud, or when they can provide a portfolio (rather than essay) on their understanding of frogs, so much the better.
Here are some technologies to consider:
- Microsoft Immersive Reader: This technology makes it easy for students to take any text and break it down in ways that they know will help them to read the text easier. From changing font size, text spacing, and background color to being able to split up words into syllables, highlighting all verbs and nouns or text-to-speech applications.
- Word prediction software: There are many free tools that can help students write and express their thoughts. Most of the tools are specifically designed for students with difficulties, and can predict words the student is trying to spell, and can even be programmed to suggest words depending on which topic is being studied and written about.
- Learning Ally: this is an audio library collected specifically for young students who struggle to read. This is a non-profit organisation and the USD135 annual fee goes straight back to creating more audio children’s books.
- Read Mode: this is a helpful Chrome extension that removes all clutter like ads and extraneous images from a web page, and convert the page into simple black-and-white text.
- Inspiration: This is a software package that helps students to recreate almost any text-based subject matter into a visually organized mind map, story map, graph, graphic organizer or outline.
The truth is that we have only caught the tip of the iceberg in terms of contemporary research on dyslexia and other associated, or similar, learning disabilities. The common approach, however, in all cases is: early diagnosis, support and planning.