Answered by Mike Di Donato, OCT and Brian Hayes, OCT
Dyslexia is a general term for disabilities that include difficulty in learning to read words, letters, and other symbols; it is a common condition that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language. In Ontario, we refer to dyslexia as a learning disability in the area of reading; other areas affected may include spelling and writing. Essentially, students with dyslexia have all of their cognitive functions intact, but often tend to have deficits in memory, processing speed and phonological processing. A good analogy we use with parents is that the above mentioned deficits mask the student's cognitive ability.
It is important to have a firm understanding of memory, processing speed and phonological processing because for students with LDs in reading, these are the areas that are impacted.
Here are some strategies we use at Sagonaska that can be entirely tech free:
- Take time to know, understand, and ask questions about the student’s psychoeducational report: The psychoeducational report will give you great insight to the student and their LDs. Knowing the student’s strengths and weaknesses is a huge step in setting these students up for success. For example, a student may have strong verbal comprehension skills but struggle with phonemic awareness. Knowing this will allow you to choose specific strategies that will prove effective.
- Break reading down: Model strategies to develop phonemic awareness. Explain how to break down words into syllables and even further into individual sounds. Many students struggle with spelling, but by taking time to review sounds, sound blends, and word structure, all students will be better equipped to take words apart and put them back together!
- One-on-one reading: This can be anything from letters to sounds, to sight words and leveled texts. Taking time to read one-on-one with a student allows you to model perfect practice and provide immediate feedback to the student for future improvement. Some good resources to look into come from all of the major publishers. At Sagonaska, we have had great success using leveled texts like running record passages, fluency passages and levelled books from Reading A to Z.
- Perfect practice: A well-known adage is that practice makes perfect … however, this is not necessarily true. Perfect practice makes perfect. This is important to remember when working with students who have any kind of processing or memory issue. Students with LDs in reading need a lot of repetition. It is very important that educators take the time to accurately assess their students’ independent reading level. When students are reading above their independent reading level, they will get frustrated. Students then begin to associate the feeling of frustration with reading and that is a vicious circle we all must stay away from.
At Sagonaska, our teachers use DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) by Pearson to identify what level students can accurately read independently. Be aware that there are also a few online resources that can give a rough idea of the grade level of a text. These levellers are primarily for levelling your books so you know that your student is engaged in reading something at or below their independent reading level.
- Slow it down: We already know that students learning with a learning disability in reading have deficits in processing speed, memory, and phonological processing. It is unfair to ask them to be fluent readers when all of their brain’s power is working on decoding the words on the page. When working with students with LDs in reading, think of reading as a three-part process. Decoding is the first step, comprehension is the second and fluency is the third.
Reading fluently takes a long time to master. To help students become fluent readers, have them practice reading at least a few levels below their independent reading level. This instructional method relates back to perfect practice. When students are reading below their independent reading level, calculate their words per minute. Once you know this, have them read the same passage until their words per minute reaches a goal you have previously set for them. Be sure to keep the goal attainable by the fifth or sixth reading of the same passage. Then, set a new goal and give the student a new passage at the same level. As time goes on, students will eventually read at the predetermined speed. When this happens, give the student a slightly harder text to read and repeat the process.
- Take advantage of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies at your school: Let’s face it - technology is expensive. In a perfect world, every classroom would be outfitted with the latest technologies for learning. Your students may already have access to some form of personal technology that they use on a daily basis. Students may not be aware that their personal mobile devices can be a great tool for learning.
There are many free applications that are great tools for students with LDs. These apps can be downloaded quickly and are usually user friendly. For example, we have seen students master Google Read and Write in a single language block.
Today, there are built in accessibility features in all devices. Our students are regularly accessing Siri and voice commands to assist with spelling of words, using the built-in speech-to-text feature to help with writing, and to self-edit our students use the reading feature to listen to their work.
Just because technology isn’t always an option at your school doesn’t mean the classroom teacher or resource teacher can’t provide some insight for students on how to best use their personal mobile devices to help students compensate for their LDs. This can be a great learning experience for both student and teacher, but also foster the ability to be independent when it comes to reading and writing. The newfound independence can be very empowering for our students, and in many cases, these students can become the “tech professional” inside the classroom.
For further information on mobile devices, check out this great article on the LD@school website: Click here to access the article, "Mobile Assistive Technology for Learning in a Digital World", by Michael Kerr.
The strategies mentioned above are ways in which we experience success with students who have a learning disability in reading. At Sagonaska, although the class size is much smaller than the average classroom, we believe that these strategies will yield results for any type of class. Give one or two of these strategies a try and see if they work for you!
Do you have other suggestions for how you can support students with a learning disability in the area of reading? Let us know by entering your suggestions in the comment box below!
Brian Hayes is currently teaching grade 7 at Sagonaska Demonstration School in Belleville, Ontario. A seconded teacher from HPEDSB, Brian has been supporting students with a wide variety of exceptionalities from grades 6 - 10 both as a teacher within the Provincial Schools Branch and within his home board, however he has most closely worked with students with learning disabilities. As an educator, Brian believes that the exposure to a wide range of technologies, development of strong self-advocacy skills, and helping students learn about how they learn best are key to levelling the playing field in order for success for all students.
Mike Di Donato is currently a Special Education Resource teacher in a grade 7 classroom at Sagonaska Demonstration School. He holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honours from Trent University and completed the Professional Program in Education in D’Youville College, New York. Prior to working at Sagonaska, Mike worked with students with exceptionalities in Mackenzie, British Columbia. He also taught grade 6 for several years in Trenton, Ontario where he decided to focus his professional career in Special Education. In 2011, Mike earned his Special Education Specialist qualification from the Ontario College of Teachers. Mike is a passionate educator who facilitates a growth mindset and progress in students with Learning Disabilities.