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.
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.
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 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.