Dyslexia is one of the most commonly reported learning disabilities in schools and occurs across all writing systems, yet myths about the condition—and about how best to support students identified as dyslexic—remain stubbornly influential, according to an article by Sharon Vaughn and Jack M. Fletcher for American Educator.
These misconceptions persist in part due to “rather large holes in our collective knowledge,” write Vaughn and Fletcher, respectively a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a distinguished professor at the University of Houston. “We know more about the science of reading than the science of reading instruction.”
Yet for kids with significant reading problems like dyslexia, “classroom teachers are their primary reading teachers, as well as the educators who have the most influence on their self-worth,” the authors note, pointing to research about the urgent need to train teachers to identify and support kids with dyslexia and other reading issues. “Armed with the knowledge and skills, classroom teachers can alter the learning and life trajectories of students with dyslexia.”
Dyslexia, which affects approximately one in five students and often includes a genetic component, is sometimes perceived as a vision problem—reversing letters, or writing backwards, for example. But the disorder is actually connected to decoding—particularly to matching letters to sounds and identifying basic morphemic units of sound in written language—according to a growing body of research. Dyslexia can also affect spelling, writing, and math, and doesn’t “look precisely the same for all learners,” according to Vaughn and Fletcher.
Early screening and intervention for dyslexia are important—in fact, the popular practice of waiting until second grade to assess reading needs tops the authors’ list of myths about dyslexia—and the notion that only certified language therapists can provide effective reading interventions for these students once they are identified is false. Classroom teachers who are trained in reading instruction are well-equipped to meet the needs of kids with dyslexia, Vaughn and Fletcher note.
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT DYSLEXIA
- Reversed letters: When students with dyslexia read, they’re not simply seeing letters flipped around on the page—despite popular and persistent depictions of the disorder. In reality, many children reverse their letters in the early grades when they’re learning to read and write, and for most, instructional practice and feedback remedy the issue. Students with dyslexia, meanwhile, largely struggle with associating the right sounds to letters, which can make reading feel laborious and result in spelling that feels like guesswork according to Dr. Nadine Gaab, a researcher and neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. Difficulty with phoneme awareness—the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words—is the most common symptom of dyslexia, but the disorder can also manifest as a problem with reading speed or linking words together too slowly.
- It’s a vision problem: Theories around treating dyslexia often focus on vision—providing colored lenses or overlays, for example, which Vaughn and Fletcher say are not supported by evidence. Meanwhile, vision therapy is also not effective: “The faulty idea that dyslexia is a result of a vision disorder of some type has been very slow to go away,” the authors assert. They also note that multisensory instruction, or engaging senses such as sight and hearing to connect students to their learning, is similarly unnecessary for students with dyslexia.
- More reading will help: All students benefit from more opportunities to read, but simply piling on additional reading practice for students with dyslexia—assigning more at-home reading, for example—is an “inadequate” approach, Vaughn and Fletcher write. These students require specific instruction that includes decoding work and practice developing fluency and comprehension. “While opportunities to read are beneficial to all learners, improving home literacy will not resolve reading challenges for individuals with dyslexia,” note Vaughn and Fletcher.
- Medication and brain training work: Medication cannot cure dyslexia. While some students might concurrently struggle with attention and be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, medications appropriate for these students are “aimed at their attention problems, not their reading difficulties,” Vaughn and Fletcher write. Similarly, approaches aimed at “training” the brains of students with dyslexia are generally not useful at improving reading outcomes. “Cognitive training in isolation of a reading program does not generalize to improved academic outcomes,” they write.
HOW TEACHERS CAN HELP
While an official diagnosis of dyslexia can only come from a medical professional, the authors note that there are screens and assessments teachers can use to help identify students with reading problems, including dyslexia. It’s better to “over-identify children at risk for reading problems as early as possible and provide necessary instruction than to under-identify and have large numbers of students who suffer as their problems linger without the required instructional supports,” they write.
Screening is just one part of the equation though. Research also shows teachers often lack the confidence they need to teach students with dyslexia and might believe only trained experts can help. But teachers are up to the task if they are armed with the correct information: “Educators with extensive knowledge of the science and practice of reading instruction who are using evidence-based practices are prepared to meet the needs of students with dyslexia,” they conclude.
When assigning homework to students with dyslexia, educator Jessica Hamman writes, be strategic about the number of problems assigned to students so that they are focusing on essential content knowledge as opposed to conducting an “exercise in endurance.”
Directions and instructions can be extra challenging for students with dyslexia. Consider simplifying directions and highlighting key words and ideas so students can focus on them first, according to Understood.org. Check in frequently to make sure students understand instructions, and offer examples of past completed work to serve as a model for what a successful assignment looks like.
When it comes to grading, focus on content that needs to be mastered, rather than on spelling or reading fluency. And don’t forget to offer opportunities for students with dyslexia to demonstrate their understanding in different ways, such as oral reports, posters, or video presentations.