It’s Dyslexia: What’s a Teacher to Do?
What is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia means, by its Greek roots, difficulty with words. More specifically, dyslexia is an unexpected problem with accurate and efficient recognition and spelling of printed words. It is to be distinguished from reading comprehension problems that may occur even though students can read the words reasonably well.
Dyslexia is the most common type of developmental reading disability and one of the most studied of all learning disorders. Advocates have successfully pushed more than 40 states to adopt rules and guidelines for the identification and treatment of dyslexia. Given prevalence estimates of about 5 percent to 17 percent of all students, one or two who merit this descriptor are likely to be in every classroom. Thus, every teacher should be familiar with the nature of the disorder and how to teach children who are affected by it.
In spite of progress in public awareness of dyslexia, several myths persist. One is that the term refers to a distinct and uniform set of symptoms. In fact, the only firm diagnostic criterion is that the student experiences significant difficulty reading and spelling words out of context. The condition can range from a mild impediment to a severe inability to learn to read. Beyond that, individuals will also have varying problems with attention, memory, language comprehension, and processing speed, as well as varying abilities or strengths in visual-spatial reasoning, problem solving, art, athletics, math, and so forth.
Another common myth about dyslexia is that it is a visually based disorder that requires vision therapies and/or remediation of “visual memory.” A popular idea, reinforced in our media, is that people with dyslexia have directional confusion, see things backward, or have a general problem with sequencing. Mountains of research, however, point squarely to specific language-processing difficulties as the culprit in faulty word recognition. Word recognition and spelling depend on the ability to notice, remember, and make sense of linguistic details in spoken and written language. Linguistic abilities affected in dyslexia include problems recognizing and mentally manipulating individual speech sounds or phonemes, syllables, and meaningful parts of words (morphemes), and may extend to understanding grammatical elements and aspects of text organization, including story structure and expository text conventions.
A third myth is that students with dyslexia are unusually creative or intelligent and must demonstrate average or above IQ to qualify for remedial services. In fact, dyslexia affects all levels of intellectual ability. Some have unusual talents and gifts, but others are just typical people. Many students with reading disabilities are in the lower half of the distribution of intellectual ability. It is not true that Albert Einstein was dyslexic or that students must be gifted to be dyslexic. It is true that word-level reading problems require explicit, systematic instruction aimed at the language skills underlying reading, no matter what the IQ of the individual.
Taking Aim at Language Abilities
Since learning to read words depends on linguistic awareness and knowledge of language forms and uses, good instruction explicitly and systematically builds students’ command of both word recognition and language comprehension. In a nutshell, here’s how.
Phoneme awareness. Common in the majority of individuals with dyslexia is inaccurate processing of speech sounds (phoneme awareness). The individual speech sounds in words may be misidentified (e.g., /f/ for /v/), or not fully separated in the mind of the learner (e.g., slot = sl – ot, instead of /s/ /l/ /o/ /t/). Therefore, the sound elements cannot be mapped to print elements (letters and letter combinations) completely and accurately, and the word cannot be stored in memory as a clear, complete mental image.
So, teachers must learn the 44 speech sounds of English and their distinguishing features. Build sound walls in your classroom, not alphabetic word walls. Know the progression of phonological skill from early, to basic, to advanced. Screen your students for phoneme awareness and aim your teaching at their level of skill development. Practice identifying, separating, blending, and substituting sounds in spoken words. Then, connect the sounds with print.
Orthographic (spelling) knowledge. Use a good phonics survey to identify what kids do and do not know about sound-symbol correspondences. Then teach explicitly, following a scope and sequence that has been developed by an expert so that one skill builds on another and nothing important is overlooked. For example, words with consonant blends are much more challenging than words with single consonants, and words with long vowel spelling patterns must be gradually tackled over months. Teach phonics and spelling as complements of one another. Decoding skills should be applied to texts designed to provide practice in what has been taught, rather than texts containing many words that beginners will be unable to decode. Move gradually to longer words by teaching syllable patterns and morphemes.
Oral and written language comprehension. Language is learned through human interaction. Teacher talk, reading aloud, and classroom discussions about meaningful content support growth in vocabulary and higher-level language abilities such as understanding complex syntax, paragraph structure, and story grammar. They should never be neglected because a student can’t yet read the words.
It’s Called Structured Literacy
The term Structured Literacy is shorthand for the content and methods referred to here. What teachers should know and do to reach students with word-level reading and spelling problems is elaborated in the Center for Effective Reading Instruction’s Knowledge and Practice Standards (KPS) for Teachers of Reading. LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) professional development provides a way to learn that content and those methods. LANGUAGE! ® Live embodies that content and those methods, effective for all adolescent students with underdeveloped language and reading abilities. I recently led a webinar on this subject entitled, “The Truth About Dyslexia: Myths vs. Facts”. You can view it here to learn more.
Let’s leave the myths behind and focus on providing the instruction that will work best for all students who suffer language-based problems with reading.