Expert Viewpoint

A Road Map to Helping Young Students with Dyslexia Succeed

At least 40 states have passed legislation mandating how teachers deal with dyslexia in the classroom, from proper screening methods to timely intervention strategies. And yet, misconceptions about dyslexia linger even among educators. In fact, research indicates over half of teachers, administrators, and the general public harbor mistaken beliefs about the disability and the specific challenges students with dyslexia can face.

Following are specific ways for educators to help students with word-level reading difficulties in the early grades, as well as how to help students identified with dyslexia as they progress through school.

Understanding What Dyslexia Actually Is

One of the most common misconceptions is that dyslexia is a visual difficulty. But dyslexia doesn’t mean the individual sees words or letters backwards or jumping around on the page, contrary to popular myths.

Instead, dyslexia is the label researchers use to identify people who have a greater difficulty in learning to read and spell fluently — connecting the letters on the page to sounds, turning those individual sounds into whole words, words into paragraphs.

Schools typically use the term “specific learning disability in basic reading skills” to describe this great difficulty with word-level reading skills. By definition, this is synonymous with the term dyslexia.

In schools, students typically don’t get identified with dyslexia, or an SLD in basic reading skills, until second or third grade. But we don’t need to wait until students are officially found to have dyslexia in order to help them succeed.

Instead, research suggests early screening in PreK, kindergarten, and first grade can help to catch kids that might be falling behind their peers in their reading abilities and provide targeted support. Catching them early and providing this targeted intervention can help to prevent or alleviate future reading difficulties, helping to close the achievement gap before it widens.

PreK and Kindergarten: Screen and Help Students Through Extra Practice

In PreK and the beginning of Kindergarten, schools can screen students to see who may be falling behind their peers on letter-sound correspondences.

Teachers can help kids who may not be meeting benchmarks by providing extra time and more practice connecting letters to sounds and begin teaching them to read simple, single-syllable decodable words that include the letters they have learned.

In the classroom, this could be as simple as giving each student a “magic letter ring.” Each letter they learn can be written on a separate flashcard, hole punched, and put on a binder ring.

A partner can work with them for 2 minutes multiple times a day (I liked to do this during each transition) to go through the letters and say the sounds. And each week, students can individually show the teacher what they have learned. The teacher can then help the students tear off the letters they have mastered and make them “disappear.”

Kindergarten and Early First Grade: Continue Screening and Help Students Build Skills

From the middle of kindergarten to the middle of first grade, students typically are reading single-syllable decodable words, like hat and dig, more fluently. Teachers can screen students to see who may need extra help reading these short words, or who still is not fluent on their letter sounds.

Teachers can provide “magic letter rings” to students falling behind peers on their letter-sound correspondences, like “ch” and “igh,” and continue to practice reading and spelling short decodable words. They can also provide an extra, brief intervention time on top of their typical instructional practices.

This extra intervention could focus on connecting the letters to sounds they’ve learned and spelling, then reading, short, one-syllable words that follow the sequence of the phonics curriculum. This brief, daily practice in letter-sound fluency-building, then spelling and reading, can help provide some students with the boost they need to improve their skills.

Continuing to build language comprehension skills orally through engaging and vocabulary-rich read-alouds will help all students to continue to build background knowledge.

Mid–Late First Grade: Offer More Intensive Intervention Focused on Specific Needs

By mid-first grade, if students are falling behind on oral reading fluency benchmarks, they will need more intensive intervention in decoding, focusing on their specific needs.

A phonics diagnostic survey can help teachers know which letter patterns to focus on with students during this time.

Continuing to read aloud to students and providing audiobooks becomes even more important to allow students with reading difficulties to continue to access the content-rich books their peers are beginning to read on their own.

Text-to-speech software or teacher read-alouds make sure students with reading difficulties can access classroom instruction, homework, and assessments in a more valid way.

Beyond First Grade: Continue Targeted Intervention and Support

After mid-first grade, students who are identified with dyslexia, or a specific learning disability in basic reading skills, need continued, targeted intervention in reading and spelling patterns in addition to classroom literacy instruction.

They will also need support in the classroom to access the information their peers can read fluently and demonstrate their knowledge their peers would demonstrate by writing. For example, providing students with dyslexia access to listen to new information their peers can read fluently is important to help continue to build knowledge and vocabulary.

And allowing students with dyslexia to demonstrate their knowledge in other ways than writing can be helpful, as students with dyslexia may know the answers to questions but may have great difficulty spelling, and therefore expressing themselves in writing.

Questions to Help Educators Make Their Own Road Map

When working with students identified with dyslexia in any grade, educators can use these questions:

  1. Are students with dyslexia receiving specific interventions to help them improve in reading and spelling words in addition to classroom literacy instruction?
  2. What are students expected to read to access information? Can classes use audio recordings or other methods to better help students access the information?
  3. What are students expected to write to communicate information in class? Can educators use spoken responses or other methods to help students better demonstrate what they know?
  4. How can we make classwork, homework, and assessments more accessible and valid for students with dyslexia?

Supporting Students in All Grades

Remember: Dyslexia describes a difficulty with word-level reading and spelling skills. Students with dyslexia need targeted interventions to become more fluent readers and spellers.

It is important to screen K–3 students for signs of reading difficulties so that students can receive targeted, early intervention to minimize the future impact on their reading achievement. Students also need equal access to the information their peers can read fluently, and ways to demonstrate what they know that do not depend on their ability to spell words.