What is dyslexia?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines dyslexia as:
“A general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence”.
Whilst I do not personally agree with this definition of ‘intelligence’ (preferring instead from my experience to suggest that ALL children are capable given the right environment, nourishment of positive mental health and apropriate resources); what we can take from this definition is that when collaborating and working with any student who has a dyslexia diagnosis, it is key we understand that this is a processing issue. Namely, that the learner will visually experience something different than the reality of someone who does not have dyslexia. Some common characteristics may include: mixed-up letter order, blurry letters, double vision and disappearing words.
Below is an example of what a piece of text may look like for a dyslexic learner. Most people will still be able to decipher what the text says here but not without difficulty. This clearly demonstrates the challenges that learners with dyslexia may face when trying to complete reading and writing tasks. It is therefore reasonable that learners with dyslexia may read at a slower pace, skip words and may become fatigued more quickly when reading than someone who does not have dyslexia.
Needless to say, dyslexia should not be a barrier to learning. The key is to find what ‘works’ for each child; the appropriate teaching styles and resources.
Ross is an 8 year old from the UK who has a dyslexia diagnosis. Ross’s parents contacted me as they felt it would benefit Ross to have some extra support within his reading and writing. Initially it was clear that Ross was a very capable learner who just needed support in a few specific academic areas as well as some overall support with his confidence and self-belief. Choosing the right reading book was of key importance. Learners with dyslexia have to work much harder to achieve the same amount as those without. This requires a high level of motvation and determination. It is difficult to be motivated and determined reading a book you are not interested in, so giving Ross a large selection of books to choose from based on his interests was the first key step.
The second was to allow Ross to simply experience reading aloud. Much of the time adults wish to correct children when they make mistakes so they will learn. This is perfectly valid, but for a child who may make numerous mistakes frequently, it is not always the best approach to break the reading flow and correct every single mistake made; this will definitley impact upon the child’s confidence. It was important with Ross therefore, to allow him to make some mistakes with no correction, praise him for all correct words read, and model positive reading practice by sharing the reading between child and adult.
A third step taken with Ross was to focus on practising spelling of HFW (High Frequency Words). HFW are exactly as they appear – words that appear frequently in text but are not always blendable. For example we can easily blend the word ‘dog’ (d-o-g = dog) but we cannot do the same with the word ‘you’. If we attempted to blend the word ‘you’ it would sound: yuh-o-uh’ rather than ‘yooo’. Especially within elementary texts, HFW are frequently used so as to encourage both the learning of these words, but also to allow children to practice seeing these words within a ‘real-life’ context; such as a book rather than a spelling list. What was apparent with Ross, was that he did not have a solid base knowledge of these HFW which made reading even more difficult. So alongside reading, comprehension and writing, we made it a goal to practice a set list of HFW each week until we had covered the first 100.
Other strategies we used included coloured overlays which can support reading in learners with dyslexia, ensuring to put a finger under each word and following along as each word is read, and adjusting the amount of time/length that we would each read for.
Of course with consistent practice and hard-work, Ross largely improved his spelling of these HFW. However, the greatest impact this spelling had was on Ross’s word recognition which as a result enables him to read more fluidly and independently.
When reading, learners will use 3 key strategies; the blending of words, pictures for context clues and their understanding of logic/ meaning which makes some words more likely to appear in sentences than others.
Here is a more broken down explanation of this:
- Blending: the ability to blend together individually learned sounds to create words.
- Picture Context Clues: using the pictures in the story to gain some understanding of the meaning and relate this back to what the words might say on the page.
- Understanding/Meaning: using the storyline to determine what the words might say e.g if the word in question was ‘house’ and the reader was unsure as to whether this word was ‘house’ or ‘horse’ they might think back to the story plot/meaning to determine which word would logically make more sense in the sentence.
Often, children who find word blending challenging will expend more energy on this reading strategy which takes away from their ability to fully comprehend, follow and internalise the meaning or ‘happenings’ of the story. This as a result can often lead to poor comprehension. It can then be all too easy to diagnose a child as having poor comprehension when in reality, the difficulty lies not within their physical ability to comprehend/understand but rather their ability to do this simultaneously when all of their energy is being used to decipher how to correctly read each word. It would therefore make sense that a child who no longer has to spend as much time interpreting (decoding) each word will have more time and energy to spend on internalising and analysing the meaning behind the words.
This exactly is what myself, Ross and his family were able to achieve through working on HFW. As his knowledge of these HFW continues to improve and his vocabulary becomes enriched; his reading has begun to become more fluid/less of a challenge and therefore his mind is more freely able to comprehend and analyse the storyline. It is not only Ross’s spelling that we targetted through focus on these HFW but his word recognition, his reading and ultimately his experience of himself as a capable and achieving learner.
Part of working with children is learning to exist in their world and I have been so honoured to be brought into Ross’s world – one in which he has been able to take a relatively ordinary spelling assignment and turn it into a full fledged film production every single week!
Have a look below to see one of Ross’s homework videos focussed on his weekly spelling practice. From the idea, to the filming, the editing and the animations, Ross really covers it all! I have made him promise not to forget me when he is a famous film-maker in Hollywood. He agrees so far but I plan to get it in writing at some point in the future(!).
Presenting Ross and his incredible tech skills: