Stephen Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Cher—people often cite these celebrities as individuals who managed to thrive despite the potential limitations of their dyslexia. While it’s encouraging to know that people can overcome the challenges of this learning difference, educators need practical tools to help them support students with dyslexia.
An advanced degree in education can equip educators with key teaching strategies for students with dyslexia, helping to ensure equity for all learners.
What Is the Definition of Dyslexia?
By definition, dyslexia is a learning disorder that includes trouble recognizing language sounds and how they relate to written language, also known as “decoding.” Areas in the brain responsible for processes that detect and link sounds to their corresponding letters don’t function in people with dyslexia the same way that they do in people without it. Research published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities suggests dyslexia can affect up to one in five people.
Although it doesn’t impair development or intellectual functioning, this variation in neuro processing makes it difficult for students with dyslexia to quickly and accurately hear, store, remember, and produce different speech sounds. As a result, students with dyslexia can struggle with reading, writing, and spelling. They frequently take longer to decode words when reading and may have limited comprehension of what they’ve read. They also may have trouble rapidly verbalizing responses to what they see.
Dyslexia presents itself in various ways, but a student’s age strongly factors into the symptoms teachers may observe.
Students with dyslexia in grades K-5 struggle to remember letter names and sounds. Recognizing sight words also poses a problem. When reading aloud, these students may substitute words and confuse letters with similar appearances or sounds. For example, students commonly mix up the letters b and d.
Additional signs of dyslexia in this age group include difficulties:
- Blending letter sounds
- Sounding out unfamiliar words
- Recognizing words that rhyme
- Skipping smaller words such as of and by when reading aloud
- Spelling the same word consistently
- Remembering important details from readings
It’s common for younger students with dyslexia to feel frustrated and overwhelmed when reading. Many avoid reading as much as possible.
Students in grades 6-12 may have a hard time recalling common abbreviations and acronyms such as approx. and ASAP. These students may need much more time to read assignments than their peers. When speaking, they may struggle to find the right words and use substitutes instead. For example, they may substitute the word gate for fence.
Other common signs of dyslexia for older students include:
- Taking notes and copying material from the board
- Following multistep instructions
- Spelling all words phonetically
- Summarizing stories
- Making sense of jokes, idioms, and puns
- Reading at a normal or quick pace
Effects of Dyslexia on Students
Dyslexia can significantly affect students in classroom environments, especially when educators don’t use inclusive teaching strategies for students with dyslexia to help address its related challenges. For starters, dyslexia can impede a student’s academic progress. Students with dyslexia may struggle to keep up with their peers. Their basic skills, such as word reading, can fall below grade level, as do their reading comprehension and analysis skills.
Research also shows that dyslexia can affect students’ ability to perform across the curriculum. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities found that students with dyslexia performed well below their peers in both reading and math. Such learning deficits build up over time, making it more and more challenging for students with dyslexia to experience academic success.
In addition to its academic impact, dyslexia has social and emotional impacts. As noted, some students with dyslexia struggle to find words, making it hard for them to express themselves. This can interfere with their ability to make social and emotional connections.
At some point, students with dyslexia also begin to notice that they don’t learn as fast as their peers. This may cause them to question their intelligence and develop low self-esteem. It may also cause them to withdraw or misbehave out of frustration.
Tips for Teaching Students With Dyslexia
While students with dyslexia face challenges, they can still thrive in school if given the right support. Teaching strategies for students with dyslexia can help these learners compensate for the different ways that their brains process information, giving them a chance to succeed academically.
Incorporate Multisensory Learning
In many classrooms, students rely almost entirely on their sight and hearing to learn. Multisensory learning aims to incorporate tactile and kinesthetic activities into the learning process as well. This gives students with dyslexia more ways to understand, remember, and recall new information.
Multisensory learning engages students in movements and activities that involve touch. This, coupled with the use of visual and auditory materials, creates multiple opportunities for students with dyslexia to absorb and retain information. It also helps take abstract ideas and turn them into something more concrete.
Multisensory activities may include:
For sand writing activities, students receive paper plates with sand. The teacher calls out a sound and students repeat it. Students then trace a letter in the sand corresponding to that sound as they verbalize the letter’s name and sound.
This kinesthetic activity stimulates the brain in many different ways, giving students a greater chance of successful retention.
For blending board activities, teachers use large cards printed with individual letters; digraphs, such as ph and ck; or blends, such as sh and st, to form a CVC word: a word consisting of a consonant, a vowel, and a consonant. To help students read the word, the teacher covers up the letters and reveals them one by one. Students produce the sound of each letter individually and then blend them together to read the word in its entirety.
For arm tapping activities, teachers display a card with a word written on it. Using their dominant hand, students say the letters of the word. As they say each letter, they simultaneously tap their arms, starting from their shoulder down to their wrist. Next, students say the whole word and sweep their hands down their arms as if underlining the word.
Use Assistive Technology
Assistive technology empowers students with dyslexia to overcome some of the challenges that hold them back. These tools help students save time and give them a chance to showcase their abilities and knowledge in ways not possible before. Assistive technologies range from recording devices that allow students to take notes to voice recognition tools that transform speech into text on a screen.
Assistive technologies that can help students keep pace with their classmates include:
These devices contain dictionaries that recognize phonetically misspelled words. Students type in a word to the best of their ability and the spellchecker provides the word’s correct spelling through text or audio. Students with dyslexia can use this tool to build their confidence when writing and get instant feedback on their spelling.
Some students with dyslexia struggle to see words accurately on the page. Letters may appear to be moving or students may see them in the wrong order. Line readers can help eliminate some of these distractions. The tool highlights a single line of text at a time and blocks the surrounding areas. This helps students keep their place and stay focused.
Digital Scanning Pens
Digital scanning pens can capture both handwritten and digital text and transmit it to a mobile device or a computer. Some versions of the tool read text out loud as a user scans it.
Provide Appropriate Accommodations
Students with dyslexia often have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that lay out accommodations appropriate to their needs. Educators are responsible for familiarizing themselves with these accommodations, which may include the following:
- Extended time to take tests
- The option to provide oral answers rather than written ones
- Exemption from reading out loud in class
- A quiet study space
Additionally, when introducing new material, teachers can use teaching strategies for students with dyslexia such as:
- Preteaching vocabulary and unfamiliar ideas
- Providing outlines of the lesson with space for student to add notes
- Creating advance organizers that preview the material covered in the lesson
- Giving students a glossary of terms used in the lesson
Teachers may also consider the following inclusive strategies when giving instructions:
- Offering written step-by-step directions and reading them aloud
- Keeping instructions simple
- Showing students how to break assignments into smaller tasks
- Providing checklists that help students monitor their understanding and progress
- Underlining keywords and ideas on materials that students should read first
- Giving examples of completed work, along with rubrics
Empower Dyslexic Students to Thrive
Educators who effectively employ teaching strategies for students with dyslexia open doors for a group of learners who might otherwise be stifled. With the right training, educators can gain the skills needed to empower dyslexic students. Discover how American University’s Online Master of Arts in Teaching prepares educators to create classrooms where all students can thrive.
Child Mind Institute, “Understanding Dyslexia”
Journal of Learning Disabilities, “Reading and Math Achievement in Children With Dyslexia, Developmental Language Disorder, or Typical Development: Achievement Gaps Persist From Second Through Fourth Grades”
Journal of Learning Disabilities, “The Prevalence of Dyslexia: A New Approach to Its Estimation”
National Center on Improving Literacy, Defining Dyslexia
Number Dyslexia, “7 Engaging Multisensory Approach Activities”
TeachHub, “How Does Dyslexia Impact Student Learning Long Term?”
Understood, “Classroom Accommodations for Dyslexia”