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How schools are disrupting dyslexia

Understanding condition and intervening early and often gives students better chance of success

Educators know that most dyslexic students will need interventions and accommodations throughout school, but best practices continue to evolve as more is learned about this reading disability.

Addressing dyslexia should start with universal screening in kindergarten or first grade, if not sooner, says Marilyn Zecher, a language therapist who provides PD with the Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center in Maryland.

“If we use a wait-to-fail model and we don’t flag students until third grade, they’re already three years behind,” Zecher says.


Sidebar: Laws and guidelines


When help isn’t provided, gaps in vocabulary and background knowledge grow because a student does little reading, which results in a need for intensive and explicit instruction in the structure of language as the student ages, says Louisa Moats, a consultant who’s chairing the rewrite of the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading.

“In kindergarten, if you do a half-hour a day of intensive instruction, that can have a very beneficial effect,” Moats says. “In first grade, it might be 45 minutes but in second and third grade, it’s more like an hour. Beyond third grade, it’s an hour and a half to two hours.”

In the general classroom, some schools are providing accommodations, such as extra time for completing assignments or tests, opportunities to demonstrate knowledge orally, and practice using assistive technology such as audiobooks.

Some students are placed in small groups where they receive explicit and systematic instruction on the structure of language.

A delay in getting help has long-range consequences beyond reading success, says Sally Shaywitz, a professor of learning development at the Yale University School of Medicine and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

“What happens if you’re in school and you’re called to read aloud and you can’t? The kids start teasing you and the teacher will say, ‘How do you not know this?’” Shaywitz says. “Kids get turned off. They begin to think they’re stupid, and they begin not to see school as a place for them.”


Sidebar: It’s never too late to address dyslexia


A look at ‘structured literacy’

Dyslexia is the most common developmental reading disability, is lifelong and can range from mild to severe. Estimates of its prevalence range from about 5 percent to 20 percent of all students.

Effective instruction

To reach dyslexic students, many reading experts recommend a structured literacy approach, which is an explicit and systematic way of helping students take apart the sounds of words. Effective instruction includes:

  • Phonology: Study of the sound structure of spoken words, which includes rhyming.
  • Sound-symbol association: Connecting sounds with letters or groups of letters. Often called phonics.
  • Syllable instruction: Helping readers divide unfamiliar words.
  • Morphology: Study of the smallest units of meaning, such as base words, roots, prefixes and suffixes.
  • Syntax: Grammar, sentence variation and the mechanics of language.
  • Semantics: Meaning of words and reading comprehension. Source: International Dyslexia Association

Contrary to what some believe, though, dyslexia is not a problem that causes a reader to reverse letters or read backward. It is a language-based disorder resulting from how the brain processes sounds.

“It’s a difficulty in getting to the individual sounds of spoken words—in order to read, you have to be able to connect the letter on the page to the sound it represents,” says Shaywitz.

Dyslexic students struggle with decoding, a key literacy skill in which the reader matches letters to their sounds and recognizes patterns that make syllables and words. Dyslexic students can have trouble rhyming, sounding out words, reading fluently and spelling.

They also may struggle with some aspects of math, such word problems or other assignments that rely on word retrieval skills.

To reach dyslexic students, many reading experts recommend the structured literacy approach, which is an explicit and systematic way of helping students take apart the sounds of words.

Along with structured literacy, multisensory instruction can create learning memories in various parts of the brain, Zecher says. This approach uses manipulatives, such as pipe cleaners, beads and paper cut in sections, to teach numeracy and fractions.

A multisensory approach works for young children as well as for middle and high school students who, for example, can use linking cubes to model linear functions in algebra, Zecher says.

Increasing confidence

Districts are seeing success from early identification and intervention. Fort Worth ISD in Texas provides intensive help for about 1,400 students in elementary and middle school, says Sara Arispe, associate superintendent for accountability and data quality.

The district is in its second year of offering students two years of structured literacy instruction for one hour per day, five days per week, in groups no larger than six. The district hired 60 teachers last school year and another 60 this year and provided extensive PD.

Students can also receive accommodations in their regular classroom, such as extra time on assignments or the chance to demonstrate knowledge orally.

As one example of success, Arispe recalls a child who started school eagerly and loved stories but struggled to read, becoming unhappy and resistant to reading. After repeating first grade, he entered the district’s intensive program at the beginning of second grade. The child’s demeanor and progress improved dramatically by winter break.

Arispe says the child’s parent put it this way: “‘He looks forward to going to school. He feels confident in himself again and his ability to learn. He’s making progress by leaps and bounds.’”

In East Brunswick Public Schools in New Jersey, dyslexic students can read and listen to a wide array of audiobooks.

Adjusting the speed and presentation of the audio enables struggling readers to access books at higher comprehension levels, to build vocabulary and fluency, and to develop a love of literature, says Patricia LaDuca, supervisor of language arts and primary education.

The district added audiobooks and other literacy supports after New Jersey passed new dyslexia education laws a few years ago.

All K3 students in East Brunswick also get more phonics-oriented instruction through a multisensory, structured literacy program offered for about 25 minutes per day. Some of the activities include tapping the sounds of words and building words by manipulating letters.

“We’ve certainly seen some great progress,” LaDuca says. “We’ve seen fewer kids struggling because we’re meeting their needs sooner. Kids like to read more, and are reading more at home.”


Eleanor Chute is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.