Introduction to Diverse Learners: Dyslexia

by Becky Bollinger

The second of a five-part video series by Becky Bollinger on diverse learners and learning disabilities, this video focuses on dyslexia. Becky explains what dyslexia is and is not, how it affects the learner, ways to diagnose it, and what a teacher can do to overcome the disadvantages it brings. The information in this video should be helpful for all teachers, since any teacher could encounter a dyslexic student without knowing it, and also because it relates to the mental processes of language and reading more generally.

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In the previous video, we took a look at 14 of the different categories of disabilities, and today we’re going to talk about one of those specific categories, which is a Specific Learning Disability or SLD for short. And one of those specific learning disabilities is dyslexia.

Definitions

Dyslexia is a common learning disability, one that we know a lot about. In the Greek, “dys” means difficulty with, and “lexia” means language or words. And so dyslexia is difficulty with words. When a child has dyslexia, he has an average or above average IQ, and he’s very intelligent. But when it comes to learning how to read and write and spell, that task can look insurmountable.

And I think that is important for us to understand; when a psychologist is evaluating a child for dyslexia, they’re going to first test their IQ, or figure out their intelligence quotient, and then they compare that with their academic performance. A child is not diagnosed with dyslexia unless there’s a very large discrepancy between their IQ and their performance or their reading and their spelling skills.

Dyslexia is something that’s inherited, so it’s often passed down from one generation to the next. And there are quite a few signs or symptoms, things to look out for. If you’re wondering if this child might have a dyslexia, linked in the description below we’ll include a signs and symptoms sheet that was written by Susan Barton.

Teaching Phonological Awareness

I really think that if we as teachers understand this skill or understand what is going into reading, that’s going to help us when we think about “I have a child that’s struggling with reading. How do I help them? What can I be doing in the classroom to be assisting them?”

Phonological Awareness

I think it’s important for us to understand that dyslexia is not a vision problem. It is something called a phonemic awareness problem to understand this person, to talk about something called phonological awareness. And you can think about phonological awareness as being the umbrella term, the overarching term. It has a lot of different pieces or components to it. Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in spoken language. And so we use our ears, not our eyes, for phonological awareness.

Phonemic awareness is one piece underneath this umbrella, and there’s a progression of skills as someone grows in their phonemic awareness. So when a child is very young, they may just hear—like when you speak a sentence—it’s just like one long blur of language or a sound. And at some point a child is able to identify each of the individual words in a sentence. So, for example, if we have a sentence, “The cow plodded down the streets,” a child will first need to be able to identify that there are 1) The, 2) Cow, 3) Plodded, 4) Down, 5) The, 6) Street. Six words in that sentence.

The next step in the progression is understanding compound words. So if we have “cow boy,” we put that together and it becomes “cowboy,” and “air plane” becomes “airplane.”

The next step would be to identify syllables in a word. So let’s say you have “table.” A child should be able to identify that there are two syllables in that word, [clapping on each syllable “ta ble,” or “banana” would have [clapping on each syllable] “ba na na.”

You could also have the child make those motions on their on their legs and they could say [slapping one’s own thigh on each syllable] “ba na na,” or say that we do “dictionary” [slapping one’s own thigh on each syllable] “dic tion ar y.”

Phonemic Awareness

Then as they get better at this skill of phonological awareness, we get to the place where it’s called phonemic awareness and that’s taking the word and breaking it down to each of the individual sounds.

So let’s say we have the word “go.” A student would be able to identify, “g-oh,” makes the word “go.” Or sometimes it’s helpful to use this motion. We can say “g-oh” and then teach the child to slide. And you blend it together, and you have “go.” Also that would work with like “past” “p-as-t.” And these are the types of skills that a child with dyslexia is struggling with. They’re having difficulty breaking down a word into its parts, and that happens when they need to read a word.

Also, when they need to spell. It’s the same skill. It’s just, you know, encoding and decoding. Then we can even make this even trickier, and I can say, if I ask you to say the word “hop,” you can say “hop,” and then I can say change “h” to “st,” and the word is “stop.” And then I can just say change “p” to “k,” and the word is “stock.” And then I could change “o” to “i,” and now the word is “stick.” And so you have the ability to manipulate all of those sounds and change those words around just by changing one phoneme or one piece of the word.

Spotting Dyslexia

And so when a child has dyslexia, as you grow more experience with this, you’ll be able to spot it in your classroom.

Spelling

One of the most common things with dyslexia is the difficulty with spelling. And that that is because, when a child goes to write a word, they’re just trying to remember how it looked. They’re not thinking about how it sounds and all of the different parts that are part of it. And so they might just wildly guess the spelling or, if they have a spelling list, they might be trying to memorize the words when instead they should be sounding the word out in their head.

A child with dyslexia will do things like, when they’re reading along and the word should be “horse,” and they might say an entirely different word because of the picture. So let’s say there’s a dog, they might read puppy because they are basing what they’re reading off of the pictures.

Nonsense Words

One of the true tests of phonemic awareness is being able to read nonsense words. So a word like “mip”—they should be able to read that because they can sound out the individual parts. A child with dyslexia is going to struggle with that because it doesn’t ring a bell to them as far as having remembered it from somewhere else.

Relationship of Testing and Content Knowledge

In older grades, as students are learning to be more independent with their work, sometimes it’s— it can be really common that a child does really… like they know all of the information. They understand all of the content. And when you ask them questions in class, they can give you back the answers. They remember what they’re being taught. But then when it comes down to having a test and needing to read the test and write the words out, that can be extremely difficult. And so there’s like the question of, “is my test testing their knowledge, what they know, or is it testing their ability to read and write?”

Those are some of the things that I often see in students when they’re having dyslexia.

And as we mentioned in the previous video, there is a wide range. So it could be just a mild case where this shows up a little bit, but with help in the classroom, some accommodation or some extra teaching here and there, they will be just fine. And then dyslexia can also be a really severe problem. There’s a range there.

Tips for Responding to Dyslexia in the Classroom

Clear on Phonics

What should we do about this? And we’ve kind of touched on this already, but I think first as teachers we can think about preventing this problem or being intentional about our teaching, especially in the kindergarten through the lower elementary grades. If we can teach phonics very explicitly.

Motions

If we can incorporate motions like I was showing you and some phonemic awareness practice right— kind of incorporated—in with our reading and spelling, teaching that can be… we can maybe avoid some problems, especially when there’s just a mild or a little bit of a struggle for a student.

Adapting Tests

Also in the classroom, we’re going to need to be accommodating and doing things like reading the test out loud for them when they need us to. And I always think about, so I teach third grade and students, for the first time that they’re really having some of these… a lot of testing that they need to read on their own, like a bigger test, that they need to be independent as they do it.

Building up Stamina in Reading

And so I think about building up a child’s stamina in their reading ability. So maybe, maybe I’ll start by reading it for them, but then we’ll take turns and I’ll have them read it to me. And we kind of, or like they read a sentence, I read a sentence, and gradually we can build up, and until they’re at the place where they’re confident enough that they could push through and read on their own.

And often when I’ve when I worked with children with dyslexia, sometimes their reading is not very strong. But because they kind of know what it’s supposed to be saying, they’re able to use their comprehension and their other strategies to be able to be successful on the test.

One on One Help

Sometimes or often when a child has dyslexia, they’re going to need one on one help, one on one tutoring, to teach them how to read. A child with dyslexia can learn to read. They’re just going to need a different way to go about it, or they’re going to need some different strategies to help them to do that.

Resources

Resources

And perhaps you have heard about the Barton Reading & Spelling [System] that many different schools have begun using to help a child when they’re struggling to learn to read. And the foundation of Barton of that curriculum is teaching phonemic awareness, is teaching students each of the pieces, each of the components in words. And this is called Orton-Gillingham based instruction, and basically that means it’s a curriculum. It’s multisensory. It’s structured. You hear each individual sound. There’s progression with mastery.

All About Reading

And another curriculum that is Orton-Gillingham based that our school has begun using is something called “All About Reading.” And I feel like this is a little bit more child friendly than the Barton curriculum. But it’s taking the same techniques, the same procedures to teach a child to read. And there are many books out there that are resources that we can look at to help us to understand this a little bit more.

Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz

One of the—this is kind of the staple of books about dyslexia—”Overcoming Dyslexia” by Sally Shaywitz would be a really good book to read.

The Alphabet War by Diane Burton Robb

Also, I came across this children’s book recently. It’s called “The Alphabet War.” And this book is just a story about dyslexia, helping children, even helping adults understand the challenges that are the struggle that a student can feel when they understand, but they just these words are so hard to understand them or to be able to read them. And so this book also points out that children with dyslexia often have significant strengths in other areas, and so kind of like we already mentioned, these children usually are auditory. They can just listen and soak in the information, but they struggle then with putting it on paper.

Seeing the Strengths in Students

I think that we need to also look for those strengths, look for the ways to encourage these students and build on what they’re good at and the ways that they that they shine.

Conclusion

And so, if you’re a parent or an educator of a child with dyslexia, I encourage you to keep learning, keep pressing into resources, and let’s be well-informed so that we are understanding so that we can be prepared and be able to support and accommodate these children as best we can.

Resources

All About Reading. All About Learning Press. https://www.allaboutlearningpress.com/all-about-reading/

Barton, S. (2002). Warning Signs of Dyslexia. Barton Reading & Spelling System. https://bartonreading.com/pdf/Dys-warning-signs1.pdf

Robb, D. B. (2004). The Alphabet War: A Story about Dyslexia. Albert Whitman & Company. https://www.amazon.com/Alphabet-War-Story-about-Dyslexia/dp/0807503029

Shaywitz, S. (2020). Overcoming Dyslexia (Second). Vintage. https://www.amazon.com/Overcoming-Dyslexia-Complete-Science-Based-Problems/dp/0679781595/

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CONTRIBUTOR: Becky Bollinger

Series

Introduction to Diverse Learners
Publication Date: May 6, 2021
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