Understanding Dyslexia And What You Can Do About It

How to help students in your classroom, what every teacher should know.

Natalie appears to be reading at grade level, but when reading a new passage, her teacher notices she is making up words using the first letter on the line she’s reading and isn’t as fluent as she thought. She works with Natalie and learns she has been memorizing words and using picture strategies to ‘get by.’ Once Natalie’s teacher uses some screening tools to assess her ability to identify letters, initial sounds, and phonemic segmenting, she learns Natalie has only mastered 7 initial sounds. She works with the school and Natalie’s family and after a rigorous process, a diagnosis of dyslexia is the result. Dyslexia is real and it doesn’t go away. It is a language-based reading disorder, supported best by evidenced-based, structured literacy interventions (ie Orton-Gillingham). There isn’t a cure for it, and Natalie isn’t lazy or unmotivated. Dyslexia doesn’t have to be limiting, in fact, many students with dyslexia often have average or above-average intelligence. Teachers are a key factor in helping build a student’s literacy skills. Here are 5 things every teacher should know about dyslexia.

  1. Students with dyslexia need accommodations, and by law, they are required to be provided in the public school systems. Read, ask questions, clarify, and provide the necessary accommodations listed in your student’s evaluation and/or Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Common accommodations include verbal instructions, larger text, text to speech options, extended time, and dictation to name a few. Find out what accommodations are included and make them happen for your students.
  2. Allow technologyAssistive technology can be a game-changer for students in your classroom. Accessibility features are built into most devices now, you just need to know how to access them and set them up for students. For older students, teaching them how to access the technology and settings empowers them and allows them to build self-advocacy skills as they progress through school. A student requesting to use the speechify app (created by a college student with dyslexia!) to a teacher for example. Check out this video of rewordify (another great tech tool for dyslexics!) my friend and Speech-Language Pathologist Tomoko Yokooji and I created. 
  3. Use a multi-sensory approach whenever possible. It’s just good teaching! And, it’s also engaging for more students!  Multi-sensory instruction combines listening, reading, speaking, and hands-on (tactile) activities. Tracing short vowels or cvc words (cat, bed, dog) in shaving cream on the desk, or using clothespins to cover the picture associated with the word on the card while reading the word aloud are examples of multi-sensory approaches. Allowing a student to see, hear, say, and touch a sound, blend, or word has proven effective to teach reading.
  4. Remember dyslexia is complex, and what is your point anyway? – the task may not be complicated, but the ability to complete the task for a student with dyslexia can be extremely complex. New brain science has opened educators to better understand all the neural pathways required for a child to access reading. We also know now that the brain is not only living but can be constantly ‘rewired’ and building synapses which can lead to higher functioning skills in reading, memory, and more. Check out this post on metacognition. Remind yourself what the point of your lesson, activity, etc. is and what different ways students might be able to show knowledge and understanding of it. Can you create a menu of options for students to prove they understand the difference between a plant and an animal cell? Can they watch a rap, or build 3-D models of cells to identify similarities and differences? 
  5. Talk to your students about what works and what doesn’t. Reading trackers may be just what Johnny needs, but causes extra distraction for Alice. Enlarged text can be a game-changer for Maile, while noise-canceling headphones help Meg. Try different approaches and talk to your students. Will offering an oral defense for a final assessment provide a better understanding of Max’s content knowledge? Can using the Explain Everything app with math word problems read aloud take away that extra layer of cognitive load so Amy can focus on showing you her ability to do the math? We can learn a lot from our students.


We know better these days. In the past, we used to isolate support within academics or behaviors. Now we also know to pay attention to a student’s social and emotional well-being. We can no longer say a student with dyslexia only needs support in reading. If a student is struggling in reading, they may act out (behavior) and feel bad about themselves (social-emotional). It’s like a child whose parents are getting divorced. We no longer only focus on their social-emotional status, because we know their behavioral and academic health may also be affected as a result of the divorce. They are all connected! Remember, dyslexia is real, it’s complex, and it’s not going away. It can affect not only a child’s academic performance but their behaviors and social-emotional status as well.  You can help your students with appropriate accommodations, assistive technology, multi-sensory approaches to teaching and learning, focusing on the ‘why’ of your lesson, and building relationships and communicating with your students. Now go out and teach!

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