4 Ways to Identify and Support Students With Dyslexia
By Shantell Thaxton Berrett
California is home to about five million K-12 students. According to the most recent studies, an average of 20% of the population has dyslexia, so it's reasonable to estimate that one million students in California have dyslexia. Currently about 220,00 dyslexic students are being served in special education. Here are four ways that educators can help the 800,000 students who aren't in SPED classes but might need remediation and accommodation.
1) Identify them early.
A recent addition to California's guidelines for identifying dyslexic children for special education services added "phonological processing" to the identification process. Phonological processing is the ability to attend to, remember, and manipulate sounds at the sentence, word, and syllable levels. It's a pre-reading skill, and students with dyslexia have an impairment in this area that affects their ability to read. One of the reasons the state recently clarified its law is because phonological processing can be assessed even before students are reading, which helps educators recognize students with dyslexia earlier.
One of the challenges of universal screening in early grades is distinguishing between dyslexia and a developmental issue. I have a son who has dyslexia, and his teachers often told me, "Just wait, just wait, it will come." Waiting can be damaging, though, because then we've lost time to make vital connections in the brain.
The current thinking is to assess students for phonological processing as early as kindergarten, and certainly by first grade. That way, educators can recognize students like my son, who never qualified for special ed but who certainly needed support, and they can start providing targeted instruction earlier.
2) Ideally, keep dyslexic students in mainstream classrooms.
California law says that, "If a pupil who exhibits the characteristics of dyslexia or another related reading dysfunction is not found to be eligible for special education and related services pursuant to subdivision (a), then the pupil's instruction program should be provided in the regular education program."
Keeping students with dyslexia in mainstream classrooms, if they're getting needs met, is ideal because it allows them to have a feeling of inclusion and connection that's so important. These students will require a mix of remediation and accommodation, though.
3) Offer both remediation and accommodation.
Supporting students with dyslexia takes a balance between remediation and accommodations. A structured literacy approach that is based on Orton-Gillingham principals of instruction and includes systematic, multi-sensory, sequential phonics is essential for students with dyslexia, but it's effective for any student, so even those students who aren't getting identified are still being served.
As much as students' overall reading skills will improve with this remediation, there are other parts of the brain that are affected by dyslexia. That's where the accommodation needs to come in. For example, their processing speed is going to be different than their peers'. They're always going to need more time. That doesn't get remediated. They also have executive function deficiencies that need accommodations as well.
What does this mean to educators on daily basis? Students with dyslexia need simple directions, not multiple steps. They need to have a visual cue to guide them. They need to be told what to prioritize within assignments, because they lack that ability.
4) Build a community of support.
When my son was in 5th grade, he had to do a book report every month, but his teacher allowed different ways to present that report, whether with a guest speaker or a video presentation. When it came time for my son to do his first report, he said, "Mom, I want you to be the guest speaker. I want you to help those kids in my class understand what I see, what it's like for me."
So, I came, and he read some of his favorite quotes from the book, and he shared what it was like for him. And then I talked about the brain and how we all process things differently. And I said, "How many of you are good at soccer?" Some raised their hands. "How many of you are good at basketball?" Some raised their hands. Then I asked, "Does that make you better?" We talked about how we all have things we're good at, but that doesn't make one person better than another.
After that class, I had parents call to thank me, saying they had other children who had struggled. And when I asked Tyler at the end of that year what that was like for him, he said, "Mom, it was the first year I haven't been made fun of."
I think sometimes we don't give kids enough credit. If we explain to them what's happening, they're not always cruel. Ignorance is always the underbelly of cruelty, so the more we can explain to them that we all process differently and that some kids are going to need more time, the more likely they are to be helpful to their classmates.
That same year, the teacher assigned Tyler a note-taking buddy, someone to help him capture the important parts of what the teacher was saying, and those students became this collaborative community where they supported each other in their weaknesses and strengths. It was unlike anything I've ever seen happen in a classroom.
Shantell Thaxton Berrett is the lead professional development and dyslexia specialist for Reading Horizons. She has a B.A. in English teaching and an M.A. in education, with a reading science concentration and dyslexia certification.