With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Teachers are superheros!

When students struggle with a task (e.g. reading), understandably, they may become unmotivated to do that task. As expected, much of the time when students struggle to decode (turn words into sounds that they can understand), they do not read as much. This is a tragedy for two reasons- one, because there are several, well-documented ways to teach decoding. Second, students with the Specific Learning Disability, dyslexia, have average to above-average intelligence by definition (i.e. in order to obtain the diagnosis). However, if students limit their reading, then their background knowledge, vocabulary, and general comprehension can be impacted.

It is our jobs as teachers and educators to ensure that this worst case scenario– in which children with difficulty decoding don’t read, and therefore become less able to understand complex information– does not happen for our students. “When children beat their heads against a wall of failure for several years, they are often scarred for life” (Wolf & Stoodley, 2007). Therefore, first and foremost, students with dyslexia should receive direct, explicit instruction from a reading or learning specialist or special educator so they can learn to decode. Decoding intervention is one of the most studied and most successful interventions there is. An Orton-Gillingham based approach (which is a hierarchical, multi-sensory approach to reading instruction) helps students with dyslexia learn to read with astonishing success (it even changes the structure of their brain!).

Dyslexia is not something people outgrow (which is positive considering all the benefits it has), but decoding struggles are absolutely something that students can be instructed beyond. Reading may always be effortful and slow for individuals with dyslexia, but it is an injustice if any student cannot properly decode words when there are evidence-based ways to instruct students in decoding.

How Technology Helps

All teachers can help support students by using technology tools to increase access to texts. We don’t want students thinking that reading only happens in the reading classroom, and therefore they should only be able to access the content in a reading class. Once students learn about text-to-speech tools, or teachers begin to use audio comments for commenting on student work, ideally, all content teachers will employ these tools to help all students students succeed. As a teaching team, ensure that you are all on the same page about expectations: Can students use technology tools to decode for homework? (My suggestion: yes!). Can students bring headphones to school to do “ear reading” at school? (My suggestion: yes, or to provide headphones for them to do the same!). Should teachers record audio comments for all content areas (My suggestion: yes!).

Final Thoughts

On an even more soapbox-y note, I feel compelled to add that it is also an educator’s job to help students love something. Many students with dyslexia do not like school (partly evidenced by the fact that 32% of them do not complete high school; NCLD, 2013), so it’s essential that we point out the benefits of dyslexia (and acknowledge their struggles), but also find something for them to love. Some students with dyslexia gravitate towards art because it’s visual, while others gravitate towards science because it’s hands-on and piques their curiosity; others gravitate toward music (although students with dyslexia tend to have difficulty with reading music) or theater (despite the reading, embodying a character can be a great source of joy for students with dyslexia, and reading scripts repeatedly also helps their reading fluency).

This post has been adapted from Differentiated Reading Instruction: Strategies and Technology Tools to Help All Students Improve, which is now available via the publisher, Routledge, or Amazon. It also appears on my personal blog, julesteach.es.

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