As an educator, you know that reading is fundamental to a student’s long-term success in the classroom and beyond. You also probably know that some bright and hardworking students still struggle to read. The underlying cause of their reading difficulties may be dyslexia — one of the most common and most commonly misunderstood learning differences.

To understand how to teach students with dyslexia, you first need to understand dyslexia – what it is, what it is not, and how this common learning difference affects students.

To understand how to teach students with dyslexia, you first need to understand dyslexia — what it is, what it is not, and how this common learning difference affects students. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological, characterized by difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition, poor spelling and decoding abilities, and/or difficulties with reading comprehension. Dyslexia does not correlate with intelligence or motivation. In fact, quite the opposite is true. These children are working overtime to decode information and fall behind their peers in fluency and comprehension.

Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading difficulties. Current estimates are that 15 to 20 percent of the population has a language-based learning difference like dyslexia. That means one in five students in each and every classroom is struggling. Further, of the students with specific learning disabilities receiving special education services, 70 to 80 percent have deficits in reading.

Despite this prevalence, many educators and administrators have not received training about the signs of dyslexia or methods of instruction that benefit dyslexic students. They do not know where to get additional information on how to help struggling readers.

At Riverside School, we understand that these students are bright children who need a different approach to learning to read. And we believe that with the right training and resources, teachers and administrators in all schools can implement programs that will benefit all readers.

Knowing the Signs

The Learning Disabilities Roundtable states, “All preschoolers should be screened to assess early language and reading skill development just as they are for vision and hearing.” Students who cannot read well read less. This lost practice time makes it more difficult to acquire even average levels of reading fluency.

Training educators at all levels, especially those in pre-K and elementary grades, to recognize early warning signs of reading delay is a critical first step in addressing the problem. Signs of dyslexia are present even before children begin to read. Early red flags of dyslexia in preschoolers may include delayed speech, difficulty with rhyming, trouble calling things by the right name, or difficulty following directions.

As children move into elementary school, signs of dyslexia include trouble sounding out new words, inability to remember details in what was just read, lacking an interest in reading or books, or mixing up the order of letters. Educators need to be aware of these red flags and be able to help identify struggling readers early on so that they can begin to refer students for educational evaluation and the right kind of instruction.

The Right Approach

All students benefit from a multisensory, hands-on teaching approach, but students with dyslexia need this type of instruction. The tried and true approach to working with dyslexic students is the Orton-Gillingham (O-G) Approach.

Since Riverside School’s founding 41 years ago, hundreds of students have benefitted from this type of instruction. The O-G Approach is diagnostic and prescriptive. It continually evaluates each student’s problem areas and uses this information to influence future instruction. The O-G Approach is direct, systematic, and structured, and teaches language in a way that is sequential, incremental, and cumulative. Further, the Approach is emotionally sound. Student’s feelings about themselves and their learning are vital. The Approach is directed towards providing the experience of success.

With the advent of functional MRI (fMRI) studies, scientists can now see what educators like us have known for decades — this Approach works. People with dyslexia have neurobiological differences in how they process information, specifically in the brain’s left hemisphere posterior regions. The fMRI scans show that after receiving instruction using a multisensory approach to teaching language, new connections have been made.

Empowering Teachers

One of the most critical things that educators can learn from independent schools for learning differences is the importance of empowering all teachers with a firm knowledge of early warning signs of dyslexia and professional development opportunities that include instruction on an approach that works for these students. We must empower teachers with the tools they need to reach dyslexic students.

Riverside has an accredited teacher-training program through the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. There are several accredited training programs throughout the country that offer continuing education for teachers in the O-G Approach. Other multisensory programs include The Wilson System or Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. These programs offer multisensory techniques for working with dyslexic students.

On-going mentoring and support for teachers are also critical. Along with training, educators need opportunities for practicum learning. School administrators can help with this by identifying educators who show an interest and talent in working with dyslexic students. Providing additional training opportunities to these key teachers and encouraging them to mentor other teachers will ensure that this knowledge is passed down to benefit more children.

Small Changes, Major Impact

There are also small changes that can be implemented in classrooms that will benefit all students, especially those one in five who struggle to read. Try to integrate non-verbal cues to help aide memory throughout your instruction. Including Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Tactile (VAKT) learning throughout the school day can help reinforce information and create connections for students with dyslexia.

Direct instruction of sounds can include pictures and keywords to incorporate the visual modality. Practice of sounds should include tracing of the letters on textured surfaces or in sand to incorporate tactile and kinesthetic modes. Using chips to count sounds in words uses visual and tactile senses. Rhyming games and segmenting words into syllables are other good activities. Understanding how language works is key.

Dyslexic students will also greatly benefit from skills being taught to mastery before moving on. When possible, provide specific feedback to the students that are struggling to read or have been identified as dyslexic. Directly teaching vocabulary and comprehension skills are also important.

Finally, there are some simple accommodations that can be made available in classrooms that will greatly enhance a dyslexic student’s ability to learn. For math, consider incorporating manipulatives in instruction or have students illustrate vocabulary in word problems. When working with students on writing, programs like word processors, text to speech, or graphic organizers are accommodations that allow many dyslexic students to access content or organize information.

Resources for Learning More

National organizations such as The International Dyslexia Association, National Council for Learning Disabilities, and offer wonderful resources on dyslexia and how to help these students. Decoding Dyslexia is a grassroots organization with chapters in all 50 states that provide support and resources for families and educators working with dyslexic students.

In addition, there are eight independent schools in the Southeast that serve students with dyslexia that are accredited by the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, the accrediting agency which oversee the use of the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Riverside School, located in Richmond, Va. is one of these schools that welcome the opportunity to inform and educate others about dyslexia. South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia also have Academy accredited schools.

Students with dyslexia will continue to need to deal with dyslexia throughout their lifetimes, but with early identification and an appropriate intervention, teachers can help inspire these students to a lifetime of success. Ultimately, all educators — both public and private — can work together to share knowledge to benefit students with dyslexia. Let’s work together to ensure that all students, even those one in five who struggle to read, receive the approach to instruction that they need to be successful.

Debra Mitchell is the current Director of Language Fundamentals at Riverside School in Richmond, VA. She has a Master’s Degree in Learning Disabilities from Virginia Commonwealth University.Mitchell has an Associate Level certification with the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, is working towards the Certified Level, and has Wilson Level 1 certification. In addition, she has over 20 years of experience teaching in public and private schools in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. She has worked as an educational diagnostician, teacher trainer and curriculum creator. Gena Farinholt is currently the Head of School at Riverside School in Richmond, Va. Prior to joining Riverside in fall 2015, Farinholt had been the Head of School at The Schenck School in Atlanta, Ga. since 2001. She is a Fellow with the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, a past board member of the Georgia Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, and a member of the Learning Disabilities Association. Farinholt holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Elementary Education from Agnes Scott College and a Master’s of Education in Learning Disabilities from Georgia State University.

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