October 4, 2022
October 4, 2022
By Jennifer Floyd
As many as one in five of your students and 80-90 percent of those with learning disabilities may be affected by dyslexia, according to the International Dyslexia Association, but the disorder remains frequently misunderstood. Even after decades of research, misconceptions still thrive, leaving many educators somewhat unclear about how to best support their dyslexic readers.
To help your students succeed, it’s essential to know what dyslexia really is, to reject the most common misconceptions about it, to understand how it affects readers, to identify potential warning signs, and to learn a few effective instructional strategies. It’s also important to learn where to find trustworthy resources.
What is Dyslexia?
It’s a language-based phonological processing disorder that often causes those who have it to struggle with making connections between letters and sounds and distinguishing between individual sounds in words. Dyslexic readers have difficulty developing word recognition, decoding, and spelling skills, and in reading accurately and fluently, which can affect comprehension. As a result, many students with dyslexia often resist tasks that involve reading.
Dyslexia and the Brain
Dyslexic brains differ from the brains of non-dyslexic readers, according to image studies. One important difference can be the amount of gray and white matter in the brains of people with dyslexia. A reduced amount of gray matter can affect one’s ability to process phonological information; reduced white matter can limit the connections that enable communication between different parts of the brain. In addition, dyslexic brains show a lack of activation in key areas related to reading. The brain’s left hemisphere is responsible for reading and areas within it work together to enable language comprehension, phonological processing, and orthographic processing. The brains of students with dyslexia, though, do not show that activity. Instead, activity is often evident in the right hemisphere and seems to reflect efforts to compensate for weaknesses.
Misconceptions about Dyslexia Abound
Some misconceptions about the disorder involve characteristics of dyslexia or intervention materials; others are about identifying dyslexic readers. As a consequence, we need to evaluate information and resources carefully to ensure that these misconceptions don’t become part of our teaching.
One of the most common misconceptions is that reversing letters and words is an indicator of dyslexia. However, research has repeatedly rejected this misconception and recognized the role of phonological processing deficits. Dyslexic readers have an incomplete understanding of letter-sound relationships and labor to recall the symbols that represent different sounds. Therefore, when students reverse letters or words, it is a reflection of their struggle to access and use phonological information when reading and writing. Providing students with colored overlays or lenses to use when reading will not address the dyslexic reader’s phonological deficits. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Ophthalmology discourage the use of these lenses and overlays with dyslexic readers because it’s more important to offer interventions aimed at furthering the development of word recognition, decoding, and spelling skills, along with comprehension and vocabulary development.
A second common misconception deals with the idea that dyslexic readers can be identified through their scores on IQ and achievement tests, and that a significant difference in the two scores points toward possible dyslexia. This approach assumes that dyslexic readers differ from other struggling readers who have both decoding and comprehension deficits. However, both dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers who struggle display phonological processing deficits and those deficits are not the result of differences in intelligence. In addition, the IQ-discrepancy model does not differentiate between students who will be easy to remediate and those who for whom remediation will be more difficult.
The idea that boys are more likely than girls to be dyslexic is another misconception that continues to be widely accepted. This belief has become popular because boys are more frequently referred for special education evaluations, even though standardized testing results do not identify significant differences based on gender. In addition, there is no evidence identifying genetic differences related to reading disabilities by gender. Instead, the increased number of identified males seems to be based on behavioral differences: Specifically, males are more likely to demonstrate negative behaviors that factor into the referrals for testing. Since the identification of females often happens much later, the extended time taken before a diagnosis just serves to amplify their deficits. It’s extremely important to separate behavioral concerns from students’ actual reading abilities.
A final misconception suggests that dyslexia is limited only to English-speaking populations, an idea which can be especially harmful with the increasingly diverse student population in our schools. Dyslexia exists in any language with a written component and is even found in speakers of languages that do not have alphabetic writing systems, such as Chinese. The phonological deficits that define dyslexia that have been recognized in English are also factors in other languages. Additionally, phonemic and rapid automatized naming skills are recognized as “reading universals” that affect literacy acquisition and are not affected by the transparency of languages.
Recognizing the warning signs of dyslexia is an important skill for educators so students can be assured of receiving appropriate, timely support. Since dyslexia is a language-based disorder, the delayed acquisition of language skills is one clear indicator to consider. Students may demonstrate issues pronouncing words like “spaghetti,” where sounds within those words are altered even after the correct pronunciation. Word retrieval issues can be another indicator so it is important to notice when students use vague words like “thing” or “stuff” in lieu of more specific terms.
Difficulties acquiring letter-sound knowledge is another warning sign. Students may struggle to make connections between letters and sounds and may be unable to identify when words begin with the same sound. For example, when presented with a group of words such as rat, rake, and run, students may not realize that all three words begin with r. Students often also demonstrate weaknesses when asked to segment words into their individual sounds.
Significant deficits in word recognition, decoding, and spelling skills can be an indicator of dyslexia. An inability to recognize words by sight and laborious decoding are also characteristics of dyslexic readers. Students may guess words based on context or the presence of illustrations. Students may also continue to demonstrate deficits with foundational letter-sound knowledge and comprehension may be an issue unless material is presented orally. If you suspect that a student may be dyslexic, consulting with your school division’s Dyslexia Advisor is a great first step. Each division is required by state law to identify a reading specialist to serve in this role. The Dyslexia Advisor can provide suggestions for interventions as well as identify instructional methods and accommodations to help the student.
Instructional Strategies and Recommendations
Accommodations and modifications to the regular curriculum are vital for dyslexic readers to ensure that they can access the same information as their peers can. An accommodation, whether used during instructional activities or during assessments, is a change to the activity or assignment that enables a student to access and demonstrate their understanding of grade-level concepts without lessening the expectations you have for them. Providing a student with a read-aloud of material or additional time to complete assignments are examples of accommodations. Accommodations, though, are not limited to assessments, but should be made available to dyslexic readers as a regular part of instructional practices.
Modifications, however, do alter what is required by an assignment or test because expectations are adjusted to account for the student’s particular skill level. For example, a dyslexic reader who has not yet mastered short vowels when classmates are exploring long vowel patterns would need a modification to the curriculum that would allow for the student to work on the appropriate concepts.
Providing intervention support for dyslexic readers that targets and develops their areas of weakness is critical; experts recommend a structured literacy approach. Structured literacy is not a program, but represents interventions that address phonemic awareness, phonics, orthography, morphology, syntax, and semantics; reflect explicit, systematic instructional practices; and include opportunities for multisensory learning. Assessment is a key aspect of structured literacy and foundational skills must be mastered before students advance to more challenging concepts. Students will need regular and precise feedback during instruction and regular reviews of past concepts consistently embedded in lessons.
Resources and Additional Information
The International Dyslexia Association’s website (dyslexiaida.org) provides a wealth of information, from fact sheets and infographics to publications that include the journal Annals of Dyslexia and the Dyslexia Connection, an electronic newsletter. You will also find links to videos and materials targeted specifically to educators there. In addition, the state branches of the International Dyslexia Association provide a variety of resources.
The Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia at Middle Tennessee State University also offers valuable information. You may also want to visit The Windward Institute website, which includes professional development opportunities, presentations from leaders in the field of dyslexia, and hosts the Research Education Advocacy Podcast (READ).
Several books, such as Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, Basic Facts About Dyslexia & Other Reading Problems by Louisa Moats and Karen Dakin, and Structured Literacy Interventions: Teaching Students with Reading Difficulties, Grades K-6, edited by Louise Spear-Swerling, offer practitioner-friendly information about dyslexia and interventions for students.
Jennifer Floyd, Ed.D., a member of the Rockbridge-Lexington Education Association, is a reading specialist at Mountain View Elementary School in Buena Vista and past president of the Virginia State Literacy Association.