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37 Ways to Help Students with Dyslexia Flourish in the Mainstream Classroom

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You work so hard. You’re dynamite with your students. You spend hours preparing your classroom activities. And yet, your hard work isn’t paying off for all of your students.
You’re not alone.
Most classroom teachers have a small handful of students who misspell words, struggle to memorize math facts, or hate to read out loud. Sound familiar?
Chances are good that some of these students have dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a loaded word.

There are lots of misconceptions and misunderstandings about this condition. Maybe you’ve heard a few of these myths?
  • People with dyslexia see words backwards.
  • Only boys are impacted by dyslexia.
  • People with dyslexia are less intelligent.
  • Dyslexia is caused by bad teaching.
  • People with dyslexia can’t learn to read.

Here’s what we know to be true.

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that can impact reading, writing, and spelling. People with dyslexia struggle to match up letters with their sounds.
Typical learners use the temporal-occipital lobe to read. Individuals with dyslexia use different neural pathways and different areas of the brain to read. As a result, reading is often slow and inaccurate.
I’m going to be honest with you: dyslexia interventions are time-intensive. As an educational therapist, I frequently schedule over 100 sessions per year with individual students.
You probably have 25 other students in your classroom, lessons to plan, and homework packets to correct. So, the question is…

What can you do right now to reach the students in your classroom who struggle with dyslexia?

37 things, actually.
Well, you don’t have to do all of them once! But seriously, I hope that as you read this list, a few items pop out at you and you’re able to add one or two more instruments to your toolbox.

Explicit Instruction

    1. Make directions clear. Kids with dyslexia often can’t remember multi-step or complex directions.  Speak briefly and clearly, and always provide written directions. Try this: video yourself for an hour and see how you can tighten up your delivery.
    2. Get students interacting! To ensure that all of your students are engaged, require frequent responses from students. Kids with dyslexia have perfected how to fly under the radar.  This will also allow you to provide immediate corrective and positive feedback.
    3. Build in review. To help students retain information, check for mastery before jumping into a new topic.

Reading

    1. Use an Orton-Gillingham-based reading program. Orton-Gillingham is explicit, systematic, and multi-sensory. It works. Other good programs: Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O, Slingerland, Wilson, and Barton. Many classroom teachers successfully use Fundations for whole class instruction.
    2. Act on your suspicions. If you have concerns about a student’s reading progress, refer him or her for appropriate services. Kids don’t outgrow dyslexia! Early intervention can change the way the brain reads, preventing decades of struggle.
    3. Use audiobooks too. Audiobooks allow all students to access the curriculum. They help students build background knowledge, comprehension skills, and vocabulary. Audio books can be found at Learning Allyand Bookshare.
    4. Teach phonemic awareness. All students in kindergarten, first, and second grade need daily phonemic awareness instruction. Phonemic awareness creates the foundation for long-term success in reading and spelling. Here are two fantastic programs: Phonemic Awareness in Young Children and Road to the Code.

    1. Read aloud to students. This is the perfect way to develop vocabulary and explicitly model reading comprehension strategies. Even better, you can demonstrate your love of books.
    2. Teach phonics. New readers and older students who struggle to decode need help. Make sure students know their letter sounds and can blend sounds together.
    3. Teach reading fluency. Once students have mastered basic phonics and decoding skills, make sure they can read with grade level speed and accuracy.
    4. Monitor reading progress. One straightforward way to monitor progress and spot problems is the DIBELS program.
    5. Use Speech-to-Text Software. With headphones and a computer, students can “read with their ears,” regaining independence. Here are two videos on how to set this up for PC and for MAC.
    6. Don’t require students to read aloud. Many adults with dyslexia vividly describe the shame they felt when they read in front of the class as children.

Writing

    1. Teach specific strategies. Decades of research have demonstrated that one method, Self-Regulated Strategy Development, produces significant improvements in students’ writing. (Graham & Harris, 2005). This book will save you hours preparing your writing lessons.

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    1. Give credit for graphic organizer use. Do you have students with great ideas, but their writing is unclear?  Show the class how to use graphic organizers. If you give credit for  thoughtfully filled out graphic organizers, your students will buy in!
    2. Use Speech-to-Text Software. Make sure handwriting and spelling challenges don’t get in the way of students expressing their ideas. Say good-bye to resistance to writing. Dragon Dictate is popular.
    3. Teach handwriting. Research has shown that elementary students who write legibly and automatically write longer and better compositions (Graham, Bernginer, Abbott, Abbott, & Whitaker, 1997).
    4. Teach spelling. Spelling instruction needs to continue through seventh grade according to researchers (Jushi, Treiman, Carreker, & Moats, 2008). Here are some of the best programs for providing explicit, differentiated instruction: Spellography, Spelling Through Patterns, and Words Their Way.
    5. Use Ginger. Students with dyslexia sometimes can’t effectively use the built-in spell checker because spell checkers are designed for fixing typos. Programs like Ginger correct severe spelling mistakes.
    6. Help students with persistent letter reversals. In my article, What Tigers Can Teach Us About Letter Reversals, I explain why letter reversals happen and how to help students avoid them. I also offer a free workbook of activities for eliminating letter reversals on my Teachers Pay Teachers page.

Math

    1. Teach with manipulatives. Kids with dyslexia don’t always understand symbols immediately. You can use manipulatives like base-10 blocks to teach basic math operations. Avoid rote learning like the plague.
    2. Write accessible word problems. Use straightforward language, with simple vocabulary and short sentences.
    3. Spend more time teaching math facts. Mastery of math facts frees up working memory for other cognitive demands.
    4. Use graph paper. Sometimes kids with dyslexia have a hard time lining up their numbers.
    5. Try alternate methods for teaching math facts. Many of my students finally learned their math facts with the School House Rock songs. Here’s one of my favorites:
    6. Avoid timed math drills. Timed tasks send anxiety levels skyrocketing. You can use the same tests and turn off the timer. Some kids prefer to be tested privately so they can’t compare themselves to others.
    7. Provide calculators. I recommend allowing students to use calculators once they’ve demonstrated conceptual proficiency and fact fluency. This will free up working memory so they can do higher level work.
    8. Invest in programs designed for all kinds of learners. I’ve found the Making Math Real and Jump Math programs helpful.

Social-Emotional

    1. Teach to strengths. Students with dyslexia often have pronounced strengths in big picture thinking, problem solving, creativity, and design. Check out the Strengths Assessment from Headstrong Nation to find out where your students shine.
    2. Emphasize problem solving and critical thinking. Try some of Rachel’s fabulous tips.
    3. Read books that feature characters who learn differently. Here are a few of my student’s favorites: The Dunderheads, Tacky the Penguin, Thank Your Mr. Falker, Percy Jackson, Two Minute Drill.

  1. Build rapport. Students with dyslexia are hungry for approval. Make a point to greet students daily and connect about their personal interests.
  2. Call home with good news. This is powerful reinforcement that students with dyslexia rarely get.
  3. Feature all student work. Some of my students have never had their work displayed or held up as an example of good work.
  4. Be on the lookout for bullying, and stop it.
  5. Help students build community. Kids with dyslexia need to know that they are not alone. Eye to Eye is a national mentoring organization that pairs college students and elementary-aged students with learning disabilities.
  6. Empathize. Motivate your students by helping them feel understood and respected. On my website, I share my favorite strategies for building empathy.

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