Treating Dyslexia

By Margie Gillis, Ed.D. with Eve Kessler, Esq.


Children with dyslexia can learn to read, but there is no quick fix for this reading disability • Teaching these children requires a systematic approach that builds on previously learned skills one step at a time • Instruction must be individualized to address each child’s unique challenges and abilities

Happy pupils at schoolDyslexia is a specific learning disability characterized by difficulties with word recognition, spelling, and decoding. People without reading disabilities process a word instantly and can automatically access the definitions of words as they read. In contrast, those with dyslexia experience reading as a slow, labored, and error-prone activity.

The goal of reading instruction for children with dyslexia is to help them acquire the knowledge and skills they need to understand printed material at a level consistent with their verbal ability or comprehension skills.

Children with dyslexia will not learn what is left unsaid and must be taught in a programmatically scaffoldedmanner, building little by little upon what they have already learned.

As with many learning disabilities, there is a continuum of dyslexia, with each child having his or her own unique learning profile. In order to instruct children properly, teachers must understand each student’s particular challenges, have a working knowledge of the rules of the English language, and know how to teach reading in a direct, individualized, explicit, and systematic way.

Core Components of A Reading Program

Reading is the product of two essential activities: decoding (the ability to understand how the letters of the alphabet represent the sounds we speak) and comprehension. The National Reading Panel has identified the following core components of a comprehensive reading curriculum.

Phonemic Awareness: We speak in language that can be broken apart: paragraphs, sentences, words, syllables, sounds or phonemes. Phonemic awareness, a necessary prerequisite to reading, is the awareness of and sensitivity to the speech sounds of language that allow one to make judgments about or manipulate the sounds of speech. For example, “tip” has three phonemes: /t/, /i/, /p/. If you can say tip without the t, you are manipulating the sounds.

Once children can segment three- or four-phoneme words (tip, slip) they are ready to learn the “alphabetic principle” (sound-symbol correspondence or letter-sound knowledge).

This understanding that the letters of the alphabet —arbitrary symbols on a page—represent the sounds of the words we speak is essential to learning how to read. English is not a predictable language and does not have a one-to-one correspondence between letter and sound. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, 44 phonemes and 1,100 ways to spell those 44 sounds.

For children with decoding weaknesses, the more explicit the intervention is for developing phonemic awareness, the more effective it will be.

Explicit Phonics: Phonics instruction should reinforce the letter-sound relationships, teach spelling rules, and explain the English writing system, including vowel patterns, word origins, and meanings of roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

Fluency: Fluency is fast, accurate, effortless reading with appropriate inflection, intonation, and phrasing. In order to comprehend well, understand complex language, and draw inferences, children must first read individual words on a page accurately and quickly.

By middle school, children who read well read at least 10 million words during the school year, while children with learning disabilities read fewer than 100,000 words during that time.

Text Comprehension and Vocabulary: Text comprehension refers to understanding passages that are read. Vocabulary includes knowing what words mean and the ability to use a variety of words in spoken and written language.

Vocabulary is developed through reading. Because children with dyslexia read less and are exposed to fewer words, they may lack command of the language despite good verbal skills. Even if they have good listening comprehension, they may have weak reading comprehension because they read words slowly and inaccurately.

For children with comprehension problems, it must first be determined what the root cause is: poor decoding, an inability to connect with what they read, or difficulties with complex language structure. The instructional focus should address the specific difficulties. Comprehension depends on increasing vocabulary, word knowledge, and the active use of comprehension strategies that require the reader to interact with the content of the text.

There is no quick fix for students who have reading disabilities. Children with dyslexia can learn, but they must be taught properly and systematically.

Tips for Parents

1. Surround your child with reading. Read out loud to her, modeling phrasing and intonation. Allow her to read anything and everything, many times if she likes. Have her read out loud, giving corrective feedback. Listen to books on tape in the car. Make reading a positive experience.

2. Encourage reading fluency. Have him read a short passage several times while you record the time it takes. Children often enjoy seeing if they can improve their time, and the repetition helps establish fluency.

3. Build vocabulary. Ask your child to tell you a new word she has learned every day. Talk about what it means, look it up in a dictionary, and make up sentences with the word. Play a game where each of you uses the word in a sentence at least twice that day, then again that week. Post a “New Vocabulary” word list and add to it daily or weekly.

4. Play games. For a young child particularly, playing games is fun and instructive: clap so she can hear how many syllables a word contains; segment word sounds and blend them back together; call attention to alliterations in songs, poems, and nursery rhymes.

5. Go high-tech. Use computer resources, including apps, digital learning games, and websites with learning games.

Tips for the Classroom

Work with your child’s IEP team to ensure that the following principles and strategies are incorporated in the reading curriculum:

  1. Instruction must be explicit, intensive, systematic, supportive, tied to regular classroom teaching, guided by individual assessments, and motivating. The goal is to increase the number of positive instructional interactions (PIIs) per school day.
  2. Students learn more effectively in small groups (1:3) than in a whole class or larger groups.
  3. Verify that your child’s teacher has undergone appropriate training in reading. Those that are unprepared may need ongoing in-service training, possibly including a mentor in the classroom.
  4. Encourage pre-teaching prior to reading a text. Relate everything to real experiences. Generalize with visuals, toys, common household items, field trips.
  5. Increase vocabulary by bringing words to life. Select high-utility words. Use new words in conversation and in writing and make sure students have frequent contact with new words in order to “own” them. It’s important to teach pronunciation and strategies to read, and to learn new words (roots, affixes). Teach multiple meanings of words, concentrate on figures of speech, synonyms and homophones, always making them concrete.
  6. Teach the rules of language, e.g., spelling rules and rule-breakers.
  7. Have your child read controlled texts at his level. Have him build speed and knowledge by reading the same words in different contexts. Include timed-fluency drills for repeated practice reading the same words.

Dr. Gillis is the President of Literacy How and a Research Affiliate at Haskins Laboratories and Fairfield University. Kessler, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is President of SPED*NET Wilton, CT and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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