Monday, October 30, 2017

The Emotional Toll of Dyslexia

If you’ve been following the posts in this month-long series on dyslexia, you know by now that people with dyslexia are bright and creative, that they can achieve excellent outcomes with the right instruction, and that there are plenty of great tools to help readers and writers with dyslexia navigate the challenges of literacy. All of this sounds optimistic - and it should. But parents and educators should be aware that students with dyslexia may suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and frustration related to their academic challenges.

Feedback from their teachers, even the most well-meaning, can be discouraging for children with dyslexia. Because of the types of errors they tend to make, particularly in spelling, dyslexic children are often told to try harder or pay more attention. Their errors may be labeled as “careless” or “lazy.”  Some teachers, confronted with an obviously intelligent student who is making the simplest of errors, assume she just isn’t trying. In fact, many children with dyslexia are some of the hardest workers in their classes, so being misunderstood as careless can be especially frustrating.

It may also be emotionally trying for students with dyslexia to see their classmates learning to read and spell with an ease that is difficult to understand. As children develop proficiency with reading, they are often asked to read aloud in front of the class, placed in leveled reading groups, or sent to the library with their classmates to check out books. All of these scenarios could be uncomfortable for a  child with dyslexia, especially one who has not received a diagnosis. All she knows is that she is in the lowest reading group and that she struggles with the easiest books while her classmates are graduating to chapter books.

Social struggles can continue outside academics, too. Some individuals with dyslexia struggle with language-even oral language-and may not understand complex social scripts. Some also have difficulty understanding sequencing, making blindingly fast social interactions governed by cause-and-effect relationships seem bewildering. Finding the right words is another language-based challenge that impacts people with dyslexia, so even if a child understands what is being discussed, the process of adding his insight can be frustrating. An additional hurdle, more relevant now than in the past, is the constant presence of text in young people’s social worlds. Rather than chatting on the phone, a majority of kids socialize via text messages and social media platforms, which can make it tough for  kids with dyslexia to follow what’s going on with their friends and add their own contributions.

One of the best things that can happen to a child (or adult!) with dyslexia is a diagnosis of dyslexia from someone who can help him understand what this disability really is. He must be shown, over and over again, the difference between the kind of rote learning that his brain doesn’t master as easily and the kind of high-level thinking at which he excels.

Children with dyslexia need opportunities to feel successful, whether or not these occur in the classroom. Sports and the arts have been critical confidence-boosters for innumerable students with learning challenges. Volunteer opportunities, particularly those in which they can play a leadership role, are also excellent places for young people with dyslexia to build feelings of success and self-efficacy.

Finally, kids have trouble appreciating that things tend to get markedly easier for people with dyslexia once they finish school. School has made up an enormous part of their life experience for about as long as they can remember, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s any other system. Luckily, there is. The real world is kinder and more accommodating than school often is, and there are a variety of ways to build and measure success rather than a single report card.

photo credit: Redd Angelo

Monday, October 23, 2017

Assistive Technology for Managing Dyslexia

Having dyslexia can be tough, but the breadth of innovative tools available to help with literacy tasks makes dyslexia a lot easier to manage than it used to be.

Below is a limited list of high-tech assistive technology (AT) to help dyslexics with literacy tasks. But first, an important consideration: Be aware that simply choosing a great tool and giving a student access is not going to solve any problems. Adults must carefully consider the parameters of the task the student struggles with as well as the setting. Speech-to-text software is great, but if the student doesn't have a quiet place to go when it’s time to dictate his ideas, it’s not going to be a successful tool. Similarly, an app that reads text to a student won’t help if she’s too embarrassed to be the only one in the class using headphones.

After selecting the right AT, parents and educators must realize that even today’s tech-savvy youth need lots of training. Would-be users have to understand all the ins and outs of the tool they’re given, including what its capabilities are (and aren’t) and when and how to use it. Plenty of kids have given up on technology that would have been extraordinarily helpful because they couldn’t understand how it could work within their specific academic requirements.

The AT suggestions we’re sharing below are great for students, but even individuals with dyslexia in the professional world may benefit from them.

Tools for Reading


Snap&Read is an excellent text-to-speech program. A small sampling of the many sites it reads aloud include Google docs, Moodle, Bookshare, Evernote, The New York Times, and even social media sites like Facebook and Instagram (which is a great way to get reticent kids to start experimenting). Snap&Read also reads screenshots and PDFs. This software has some other capabilities beyond its reading services. For example, the Simplify tool provides definitions for difficult words. With the Capture tool, users can enter notes on what they read (either by typing them or copying and pasting from the text), which is useful for writing papers. Snap&Read also words in other languages.

Cost: $3.99/month

Learning Ally and Bookshare

With a letter certifying that a person needs their services, both Learning Ally and Bookshare provide users with audio versions of texts. Their libraries include more basic selections, like audio versions of novels, and hard-to-find texts, like periodicals and textbooks that students can listen to. Though on the surface Learning Ally and Bookshare are similar, there are some important differences. There is a yearly fee associated with Learning Ally, for example, while Bookshare is free. Texts on Learning Ally are read by people, whereas Bookshare uses computerized voices; this sounds like a negative aspect, but some learners find that they like the computerized voices better because it is easier to modulate their speed and pitch.

Cost: Bookshare is free, and Learning Ally costs $119 a year.

C-Pen - The Reader Pen

C-Pen is a small device about the size of a highlighter that users can use to scan text, either a single word or whole sentences. The pen will read the scanned section aloud (it has a headphone jack for use in classrooms) in a computerized voice that users describe as natural. The pen can also provide definitions of words. Importantly, the pen accommodates both left- and right-handed users. Scanning takes a bit of practice, and the pen is best suited for reading a word here and there rather than large blocks of text.

Cost: $250


This app, which works only on iPhones, is a combination scanner and reader (unlike other apps that only scan but require a separate app for reading). It can read almost anything, and its portability is a huge boon. Users can scan passages they need for school, like worksheets and sections of books, but it’s a handy tool for reading tasks in the “real world,” too, and can be used for menus, maps, signs, time tables….

Cost: Free

Tools for Writing


The spell checkers built into word processing programs are better than nothing, but they’re famously inaccurate. Enter the amazingly accurate Grammarly, which catches spelling errors and finds usage mistakes, too. It’s good at using context to determine whether a word or phrase is correct, and it can even give users feedback about style. Grammarly works with Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and nearly anywhere one would want to write on the web. It is compatible with MS Word, too, but for now it works with Windows machines only. (Never fear, Apple fans: It’s easy to get around this by composing in the body of a Google Doc and then pasting into a Word document, if that’s the format one needs.)

What really sets Grammarly, apart, though, is the detailed explanations it provides about mistakes, so users can learn as they’re editing. It can also generate weekly progress reports, which can be motivating for students. Other neat features are genre-specific style monitors and a plagiarism detector.

Cost: Grammarly offers a basic version, which includes only basic checking and does not give access to explanations, for free. The premium version, with all the bells and whistles, costs $139.95 a year.


Whether students use Dragon software, Google Read&Write, or simply dictate into their phones, there’s more to text-to-speech than you may think. Here is a useful guide to training students to use speech-to-text software successfully; it takes some time to get it right, but the results are worth it!

Reading and Writing

Google Read&Write

Probably the biggest advantage to using Google Read&Write is that users don’t need to use multiple forms of AT. GRW is the total package, offering both text-to-speech and speech-to-text. It works with documents, web pages and common file types in Google Drive (including: Google Docs, PDF, ePub & Kes). Like many good text-to-speech programs, GRW highlights each word as it’s read, making both following along and editing much easier. The dictionary is quite handy. For typists, the word prediction feature takes some of the heavy work out of spelling. And distractible users will be grateful that GRW simplifies and summarizes text on web pages to remove ads and other copy.

Cost: For an individual license, GRW is $145 a year, though many school districts provide it as a free accommodation to students with IEPs.

For Even More Information

QIAT, an Online Forum

This listserv for people who are interested in AT in education is free to join (and we recommend that you do!). Contributors include assistive technology specialists, students in higher education, educators, vendors, and parents. Send out any questions you have to the group —none are “silly!”—and brace yourself for a flood of knowledgeable responses. (You can adjust your email preferences at any time if it gets to be too much.) The group requests that users be mindful that every email sent goes to 4,000+ users, so it’s a good idea to respond with private messages when appropriate. There are lots of good resources on their website, too.

Look for one more Dyslexia Awareness Month post next week! We’ll explore the emotional toll dyslexia can take and offer suggestions to parents and educators.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dyslexia Instruction That Works

A diagnosis of dyslexia can bring with it a range of emotions. Some people are crushed, thinking that their, or their child’s, potential is irrevocably limited. Some are relieved: There’s something empowering about being able to name a condition and, of course, it’s validating to have a professional verify that the affected student isn’t “dumb” or “lazy.” But one of the most common reactions is confusion. Parents may feel overwhelmed and lost. Is there a way to teach literacy skills to a child with dyslexia that really works? If so, how does one find it?

We are happy to say that the answer to the first question is an emphatic “yes!” There are several thoroughly researched, time-tested instructional methods that can help students with dyslexia make sense of language. This instruction can occur in a variety of formats, but parents should always look these indicators of a highly-effective program:

  • Curriculum is multi-sensory, explicit, and structured. Orton-Gillingham, and programs based on it, is the gold standard when it comes to instruction for students with dyslexia. There are lots of curricula (Wilson, Lindamood-Bell, Barton, etc.) that are O.G.-based, so don’t be thrown off by names. But research the curriculum to be sure it is grounded in this solid, well-researched approach.
  • Curriculum includes training in phonemic awareness by itself. Phonemic awareness (skills needed to recognize and manipulate the sounds in language), is a key component of good early childhood instruction, but older students with dyslexia need this kind of instruction, too; their brains are less able to develop these skills simply from exposure to language. Recent research shows that phonemic awareness instruction should happen by itself, not in conjunction with written letters, to be most effective. In other words, both phonemic awareness (sounds) and phonics (sounds plus letters) should be part of instruction.
  • Curriculum is administered by a certified reading or literacy specialist, or by an educator certified in an O.G.-based curriculum. No matter how talented, smart, or well-intentioned, standard classroom teachers and even special education teachers are not trained in the kind of reading instruction children with dyslexia need. (Trust me on this; I used to be one! It wasn’t until I obtained a masters degree in literacy, then was trained in Orton-Gillingham, that I was prepared to teach individuals with dyslexia.) 
  • Other parents give the curriculum a thumbs-up. Ask to speak with parents of other children with dyslexia (not just struggling readers) who have received instruction from the provider you are considering.
So now that you know what to look for, how do you find it? That’s often a little more complicated. High-quality instruction for students with dyslexia can occur in a few different formats.

Services in Public School

Your child is entitled to a free, appropriate instruction from her school, often referred to by the acronym FAPE. This will probably take the form of pull-outs, meaning that a special education teacher or reading specialist will take your child out of her mainstream classes to work one-on-one or in a small group of similar students. Please note what we said above about the qualifications of your child’s instructor. If your district doesn’t provide a qualified reading specialist, you may need to do some research and be prepared to demand that your child receive instruction from someone who is properly trained; this should be set out in your child's IEP.  Most special education teachers are not trained in the specific reading instruction students with dyslexia need.

Dedicated Schools

Special schools for children with dyslexia are few and far between, but if you’re lucky enough to live near one or are flexible and up for a new adventure, this might be worth considering. (Some families even move to new cities in order to be near top-notch institutions!) The benefits of a quality school that is dedicated to dyslexia instruction are enormous. Not only are the teachers knowledgeable and experienced in reading instruction, but curriculum that benefits students with this profile is woven into every subject. Most schools also teach students how to self-advocate effectively and use helpful technology that can assist them in college and beyond. And, perhaps most importantly, students become friends with other bright, creative, dynamic, wonderful kids who share their struggles.

Private Instruction (e.g. Tutoring)

Sending your child with dyslexia to a special school isn’t feasible for lots of families for a variety of reasons. For kids who need help beyond what the special education services in their public school provide, private instruction is a great option. This usually occurs through two channels: established organizations or private practitioners.

Tutoring companies that specialize in reading disabilities, like Lindamood-Bell, can be good options for families. Look for an office that administers lots of benchmark assessments throughout instruction that clearly demonstrate that your child is making progress. Avoid tutoring companies that don’t specialize in reading disabilities; most of these organizations (Kumon, Sylvan, etc.) may provide great homework help for typically developing readers but don’t staff the specially trained teachers students with dyslexia must learn from.

Private practitioners vary enormously in training and quality. One surefire way to find a good one is to check out the International Dyslexia Association’s provider directory. Even if one of these professionals can’t take on another student, they may be able to point you in the direction of someone who can. Another suggestion is to speak with the administration at a school for students with dyslexia or students with language-based learning disabilities. The expert teachers who work at these schools often tutor on the side. If they don’t, chances are the principal knows someone who will.

A few words about scheduling, no matter where your child goes for private instruction:

  • Set up at least two sessions a week initially. For younger children, shorter sessions (30-45 minutes) two or three times a week are better than an hour-long session once a week. Remember that your child will be working hard, and an hour in one go, even for older kids, may be too much at first.
  • Your child will likely be worn out at the end of a school day, so morning sessions work better than after-school sessions for some families. 
  • Some tutors will travel to your child’s school to work with him during instruction from which he gets little benefit, like spelling. While this can be an efficient use of time, some students feel self-conscious about being pulled out of class, making it hard for them to learn.
Summer Learning Opportunities

Summer slide, the tendency of kids to lose some of the skills they worked to gain during the school year, hits students with dyslexia particularly hard. It’s tempting to give kids a break for the summer, but they need at least some opportunities to keep their skills sharp to prevent frustration when school begins again. The summer months are a great opportunity for multiple weekly sessions at Lindamood-Bell or with a tutor. For older learners, excellent schools like Kildonan, the Landmark School, the Brehm School, and the Gow School offer residential summer camps that blend expert literacy instruction with opportunities to explore the arts, play sports, and have fun getting to know  peers with dyslexia.

Look for our post next week on high-tech tools to help learners with dyslexia (and adults!) with literacy demands.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Assessing for Dyslexia

The best kind of intervention is early intervention. When it comes to dyslexia, though, this can be tricky because dyslexia can’t be diagnosed until a child begins to show significant difficulty learning literacy skills. That doesn’t mean parents have to simply watch and wonder until first or second grade, though.

The earliest common symptom of dyslexia is late speech (though not all late talkers have dyslexia, and not all children with dyslexia were late talkers). There is a wide range of “normal,” but Reading Bright Start, a useful site for parents of children from birth to age five, provides some useful milestones to look for.

Kids may begin to speak later than expected for a variety of reasons, but no matter the cause it’s a good idea to have a child evaluated as soon as there is concern. A quick consultation with your child’s daycare or preschool teacher can be valuable; these professionals have worked with countless children and usually have a good sense of whether a child is behind or not. Free early intervention evaluations are available in every state for young children. Young kids just beginning school should be monitored, too. According to the International Dyslexia Association, at least one of a handful of measures* should be given to all school-aged children, beginning in kindergarten, to identify kids who are at risk for reading difficulties.

Speech and language sessions for young children don’t focus much on reading skills. It’s too early for that. Instead, the therapist helps children to understand the sounds that make up language, which is a critical foundation for literacy down the road. Strengthening skills early can prevent or lessen many struggles children may otherwise have when they begin school.

Sometimes, though, the signs of dyslexia aren’t addressed until elementary school (or later). Never fear, though; with the right instruction (look for our upcoming post on that topic) there is still good reason to believe that older kids can learn important literacy skills at any age. Recent neurological research indicates that brains are plastic throughout much of our lives—great news for adults!

When seeking out an assessment for an older child, a good assessment should probe all areas in which the child appears to be struggling. An assessment that only seeks to determine whether a child has dyslexia may miss other important issues that are contributing to that child's academic struggles.  Among the aspects of an assessment that are most helpful in determining whether a child has dyslexia or another language based learning difficulty are the following:

Intelligence – A child with a cognitive deficit is not considered to have dyslexia.

Oral Language Skills – It’s important to rule out a language impairment. Children with dyslexia typically have strong higher-language skills, though they may struggle with building blocks, like word pronunciation.

Phonological Processing
– These measures usually don’t involve written language at all; rather, the assessor will examine the way your child identifies, pronounces, recalls, and manipulates the sounds in language. An assessment of phonological processing must be a part of a dyslexia evaluation.

Word Recognition – This means reading familiar words in isolation.

Decoding – This means reading unfamiliar words in isolation. Students may be required to read “nonsense words,” too, to ensure that they aren’t simply recognizing the word’s shape instead of actually interpreting the individual letters.

Spelling – This is usually one of the toughest tasks for children with dyslexia.

– Some students with dyslexia can stumble along with good accuracy, but measures of fluency will reveal how taxing literacy processes are for them.

Reading Comprehension – Children with dyslexia usually have the cognitive skills to understand grade-level text but score poorly on measures of comprehension measures. This is an artifact of their difficulty decoding the text.

Vocabulary Knowledge
– Most children with dyslexia have smaller vocabularies than their peers because of their difficulty processing oral language and accessing written language.

The assessor should also ask about physical and emotional health and family history and educational history. Issues with any one of these areas can interfere with a child's learning.

If it turns out that your child does need special reading instruction, the resulting report will be invaluable. It will help service providers make a treatment plan, and it will demonstrate your child’s needs if you need to negotiate with the district to get your child the services s/he deserves. We have countless posts on this blog about all aspects of assessments and special education laws. Start with the "search" feature on the right hand side of this post, looking for posts on subjects like "IEE" (Independent Educational Evaluation) and "IDEA" (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

So what happens if your child is diagnosed with dyslexia? Look for our next post on effective instruction for dyslexic learners.

*Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR); Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS); Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI); and AIMSweb screening assessments

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Monday, October 2, 2017

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month

It’s Dyslexia Awareness Month! During October, we’ll be running a series of posts about this common and commonly misunderstood condition.

First, test your knowledge. Below are some statements you may have heard about dyslexia. Can you tell which ones are myths?

  • Kids with dyslexia are mentally handicapped or lazy.
  • Boys are more likely to have dyslexia than girls.
  • People with dyslexia see letters backwards.
  • Individuals with dyslexia can read better with the help of colored films.
  • Dyslexia can be cured.

OK, that was a trick, because ALL of the above statements are FALSE. In my work with students with dyslexia, first at Columbia University’s Teachers College, at The Yellin Center, and now at Hillside School in Colorado (where we serve only young people with dyslexia), I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about this disability. So what is dyslexia? And what isn’t dyslexia? The answers may surprise you.

Dyslexia is a genetic, lifelong, language-based disability. It is neurological in origin; brain scans of people with dyslexia show that they process language differently than typically-developing youngsters, even when they’re just listening or speaking and not reading at all! Individuals with dyslexia are most certainly not cognitively limited. In fact, a person must have average to above-average intelligence in order to be diagnosed with dyslexia. And dyslexia is positively correlated with creativity, which will not surprise anyone familiar with Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Pablo Picasso, Stephen Spielberg, and Henry Winkler, (all of whom have dyslexia).

The International Dyslexia Association, an outstanding resource, estimates that 15-20% of the population has dyslexia. Only 13-14% of the school population receives special education services for literacy because of dyslexia, though. (Look for our upcoming post on instruction that words for students with dyslexia.) This reason for this disparity is two-fold: some students with dyslexia have a fairly mild impairment and don’t qualify for special services, and some students with dyslexia go undiagnosed. This is especially true for students with attention deficits or who are viewed as having “behavior problems” or those in ESL classes. Dyslexia affects boys and girls in equal numbers, though boys are more likely to receive a diagnosis, possibly because girls “fly under the radar” more frequently.

Interestingly, speakers of any language can have dyslexia, even those who speak logographic languages (which use a different symbol for each word, like Chinese) instead of letters. This is because dyslexia is a disorder of language processing, and that means language in all its forms, even oral language. Most individuals with dyslexia were late talkers as young children, likely because they struggled to recall and produce the sounds that make up words. (Look for our upcoming post on assessment to learn more about the early signs of dyslexia and when to seek a professional opinion.) Dyslexia is considered a reading disability because this task is particularly difficult for affected individuals and has an enormous impact on their lives, but spelling and even pronouncing words can pose serious challenges as well.

Dyslexia can occur alongside other difficulties, and comorbidities like ADHD and dysgraphia are common. Many individuals with dyslexia struggle with math, too. It’s difficult to tell whether there is a causal relationship because an individual with dyslexia's difficulty processing language may make it hard for them to benefit from instruction across subjects. However, I’ve worked with a number of  students with dyslexia who were impressive mathematicians. It’s useful to remember that dyslexia affects each person differently.

Be wary of anyone claiming that they can help learners with dyslexia with the aid of special glasses or colored films. Dyslexia is a neurological condition and has no relationship to vision. In the reading world, common knowledge is, “If the eyes work for seeing, they’ll work for reading.” Of course any student struggling with reading should have a vision screening to rule out poor vision as a factor, but a person with dyslexia with 20-20 vision will still have difficulty reading written words. There is no evidence to suggest that colored films do anything more than hold a child’s attention for a few minutes while they’re still novel. And the belief that students with dyslexia see letters backwards is completely false. Children with dyslexia do reverse words when reading and writing, but typically-developing readers do, too. Learners tend to stop reversals when the sequence of letters begins to have significance for them, and this understanding takes much longer for students with dyslexia to develop.

Finally, an individual with dyslexia has dyslexia for life. There is no “cure,” but this doesn’t mean there is no hope. With the right instruction, almost all children with dyslexia can learn strategies to read and write and manage their dyslexia in a way that allows them to access the kind of opportunities that interest and suit them.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts throughout the month of October about dyslexia!