A Grade-Specific Approach to Supporting Students with Dyslexia
By Dr. Jan Hasbrouck, Author and Educational Consultant
How do we address dyslexia in the classroom, so we can turn struggling readers into confident ones?
Decades of research have clearly shown that the most effective instruction and intervention for reading should be systematically designed and delivered. This instruction should also include high levels of student engagement and feedback, and look different across the grades.
In past installments, Dr. Jan Hasbrouck has discussed the research behind dyslexia, dispelled common misconceptions surrounding the disorder, and described the signs and symptoms. This blog, adapted from Dr. Hasbrouck’s 2019 book, Conquering Dyslexia, will outline prevention and intervention strategies teachers can employ across various grade levels to support students with dyslexia.
Focus on language development, both expressive (encouraging students to use their expanding language to communicate in increasingly complex sentences) and receptive (by reading aloud to students from language-rich books, including nursery rhymes, and using academic vocabulary while interacting with the students). Students at this level should start to learn print concepts: Following words in texts from left to right, from top to bottom of the page, from page to page; recognizing that spoken words are represented in print by specific sequences of letters; words are separated by spaces in print; beginning to recognize and correctly identify upper- and lower-case letters of the alphabet, starting with the letters in each child’s name. Several times daily, have students play games and engage in activities that help them develop phonological awareness.
Continue to expand and develop students’ expressive and receptive language while increasingly incorporating new vocabulary and experiences with print. Students should also continue to frequently play games and engage in activities that help them develop their phonological and phonemic awareness.
Teach that words have internal structures that relate to the sounds of speech. As students show interest and readiness, incorporate letters into auditory games as you teach them the sounds of letters that they will encounter and use in their early reading and writing.
Continue to develop proficient phonological and phonemic awareness in all students using multimodality practices and activities that develop and expand students’ language skills and vocabulary. Use an evidence-based, comprehensive core reading program that helps teachers provide high-quality instruction and supports students as they progress along the continuum from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
Provide instruction using explicit instructional strategies (i.e., demonstration, guided practice, collaborative practice, independent practice, etc.) with appropriate intensity and active student engagement using a lively pace. Incorporate spelling and writing words with decoding lessons.
Differentiate reading instruction to meet the needs of each student depending on their level. Provide opportunities for all students to practice their developing skills by reading and engaging with connected text.
- Level 1 (still learning letter names and sounds): Students still at Level 1 of reading development, including students with dyslexia, should receive additional, targeted intervention daily, based on the results from diagnostic data. Regularly collect and use that data and observation results from progress monitoring to adjust instruction and interventions as necessary.
- Level 2 (learning to decode words with blending and segmenting): Students in Level 2 should do most of their text reading practice in small group lessons or 1:1 tutoring, where errors can be corrected, and skillful reading modeled and encouraged.
- Level 3 (reading fluently and building a growing set of sight words): Students reading at Level 3 can benefit from independent reading and related writing and reading increasingly complex text with appropriate scaffolding support from the teacher. Begin to incorporate instruction in morphology, learning about prefixes, suffixes, root words, and base words to expand their word reading skills and vocabulary.
Grade 2 and up
Continue developing and expanding students’ language and vocabulary in speaking, reading, and writing. Continue to teach accurate decoding and spelling using a wide range of two-syllable and then multi-syllable (i.e., three syllables or more) words.
Instruction in decoding these longer words should include attention to common syllable division patterns and syllabication rules. Continue using the core reading program and differentiate to provide appropriate Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention. Some students will need supplemental support daily for many years.
English Learners and Dyslexia
Students in our classrooms who are learning to speak English may be at risk for dyslexia at the same levels as their English-speaking peers. The fact that some English learners (ELs) may have the underlying language disorder that can lead to dyslexia can often be overlooked because many teachers are understandably more focused on the challenges of helping students learn how to speak and understand English.
On the other hand, it has been noted, that there may be an overidentification of EL students as having reading difficulties in some cases. This can be a result of using evaluation processes that are merely looking for “low-performing readers” and not taking into account that these EL students may currently be “low-performing” because their English language skills are still developing, rather than because of any underlying cognitive disorder.
Even though EL students represent one of the fastest-growing populations in U.S. schools today, there is limited research on these students. The limited research available is often fragmented and inconsistent, leading to fragmented and inconsistent policies and practices (Lesaux, 2019). However, conclusions from this limited body of research do indicate, especially for the largest population of EL students in the U.S., native speakers of Spanish, that many of the same “red flags” or indicators of dyslexia can be as readily identified in these students as in the students who are native speakers of English (Lesaux & Siegel, 2003). This research also indicates that assessing and teaching EL students with dyslexia would follow a similar process as native English speakers while taking into account their unique needs due to their varying levels of language acquisition.
“[E]specially for the largest population of EL students in the U.S., native speakers of Spanish, many of the same “red flags” or indicators of dyslexia can be as readily identified in these students as in the students who are native speakers of English.” — (Lesaux & Siegel, 2003)
For example, Raynolds, López-Velásquez, & Olivo Valentín (2017) found that reading and language skills learned in a child’s first language can be readily transferred to English, especially when there are commonalities between the two languages, such as with Spanish. For ELs with learning difficulties in kindergarten and first grade, there is a strong consensus across research studies that reading instruction that includes explicit, systematic instruction of phonological awareness and phonics is associated with improved word reading outcomes (Hall, Steinle, & Vaughn, 2019). This type of instruction is especially effective when provided using evidence-based strategies for teaching EL students (Mathes et al., 2007; Richards-Tutor, Aceves, & Reese, 2016).
Oftentimes — but not always — dyslexia — along with closely related and sometimes coexisting conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), DLD, and dysgraphia — can be a factor in why a student is struggling despite adequate effort and instruction. Unfortunately, prevalent and disproven myths about this learning disability can potentially prevent early detection, delay intervention, and abet ineffective, sometimes even unscientific, instructional methods causing students to continue to struggle unnecessarily.
Luckily, in the past century, we have made great strides in understanding dyslexia, its causes, and how we can effectively address it with instruction and intervention. We now know that with scientifically proven instruction, intensive intervention, and adequate support, students can not only overcome dyslexia, but we can potentially its symptoms from ever manifesting. Best of all, these instructional methods can help ALL readers — not just those with dyslexia — excel. We also know that with the right interventions and supports, we can address the needs of all struggling readers, regardless of the cause.
Adlof, Suzanne M, and Tiffany P Hogan. “Understanding Dyslexia in the Context of Developmental Language Disorders.” Language, speech, and hearing services in schools vol. 49,4 (2018).
Brady, Susan. “The 2003 IDA Definition of Dyslexia: A Call for Changes. Perspectives on Language. 15–21. (2019).
Fletcher, J. M., Lyon, G. R., Fuchs, L. S., Barnes, M. A. “Learning disabilities: From identification to intervention” (2nd ed.). Guilford Press. (2019).
Gaab, Nadine. “How Can We Ensure That Every Child Will Learn to Read? The Need for a Global, Neurodevelopmental Perspective.” 10.13140/RG.2.2.18537.13927. (2019).
Shaywitz SE, Shaywitz BA, Fulbright R, et al. “Neural Systems for Compensation and Persistence: Young Adult Outcome of Childhood Reading Disability.” Biological Psychiatry 54:25–33. (2003).
Jan Hasbrouck, Ph.D., is a leading educational consultant, trainer, and researcher. Dr. Jan Hasbrouck worked as a reading specialist and coach for 15 years before becoming teaching at the University of Oregon and later at Texas A&M University. She served as the Executive Consultant to the Washington State Reading Initiative. Dr. Hasbrouck works with educators across the United States as well as internationally, helping teachers, administrators, and specialists design and implement effective assessment and instructional programs targeted to help low-performing readers. She earned her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Oregon, and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. Her research in areas of reading fluency, reading assessment, coaching, and consultation, and second language learners have been published in numerous professional books and journals. She is the author and co-author of several books, including training manuals and administrator guides for GHA to support professional development and help educators change practices in schools.
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