There’s an old saying in the education world that we learn to read through the third grade, and after that we read to learn. When the learning to read (and spell) is still a struggle into middle school and beyond, it’s time to change the plan. The needs of students with dyslexia change during their academic careers. They may always need instruction to improve reading and spelling, but once they hit adolescence, their needs are more complex.
At this point, we need to acknowledge their experience and their effort, teach them to self-advocate, and accommodate them in the classroom and beyond.
Often, kids are pulled out of class or they sit down with a tutor without an explanation of what is happening and why. They know they’re not reading at the same level as their peers. They know they’ve been tested more than their peers. The problem is that before a student who has struggled for years can really begin to learn and trust the process, we have to acknowledge the trauma. We have to acknowledge the effort. We have to acknowledge that the lack of progress is our fault, not the fault of the student.
We have to convince them that we understand their experience, and we understand that dyslexia is neurobiological and it affects how they process written language. We have to let them know that we believe they are trying, and we believe they can learn.
Teaching self-advocacy skills should begin no later than the end of elementary school. Before a person can self-advocate, they have to have a deep understanding of what dyslexia is and how it affects them. That can be done only if we use the word dyslexia and if we explain it as honestly as possible.
Once they have that understanding, then they can begin to learn how to self-advocate. They also need to understand that their self-advocacy not only helps them but also will help other students who cannot self-advocate—which can be motivational. To begin this process, students should be aware of whether or not they have a diagnosis and whether or not they have an IEP or 504. This information will inform how and what they advocate for. The most important thing they will advocate for is their accommodations, and they have to become experts in explaining why they need them.
Student self-advocacy can take several forms, but the Dyslexia Training Institute’s Virtual Student Academy offered a class for students over the summer, which included the following steps to help students become their own advocates:
Step 1: Use the word dyslexia, and use it a lot. Teach them what dyslexia is and what it is not. Help them discover some role models with dyslexia.
Step 2: Teach students how to create an “elevator speech” about what dyslexia is and is not. They can practice this speech so that they can use it to talk to their teachers, family members, friends, and everyone else about their dyslexia.
Step 3: Make a list of common misconceptions people have about dyslexia, and work with students to practice how to respond to these misconceptions. For example, when someone says something like “Dyslexia is seeing words backwards,” the student can practice their response, which should include an explanation about why that is not true.
Step 4: If the student has an IEP or 504, sit with the student and make sure they understand what an IEP and/or 504 is and why they have it. Educate them about how and why an IEP or 504 protects their rights to learn to read and spell, and explain how to talk to their teachers about what is in their IEPs.
Step 5: Work with the student to determine which accommodations are best for them and their academic needs.
For many adults with dyslexia, accommodations helped them get through school. But more important than getting through school, accommodations allow students to provide an accurate representation of what they understand instead of being hindered by written language. There are several popular accommodations for students with dyslexia.
Speech-to-text: This allows students to show their mastery of what they’re writing about without being hindered by spelling. They’re more likely to use complex sentence structures and higher-level vocabulary with this type of accommodation.
Text-to-speech: The ability to listen to text is a gateway to higher-level information. Many students with dyslexia are relegated to books with simpler vocabulary, and they are intellectually capable of understanding higher-level topics.
Grammarly: Spelling is a huge area of frustration for students with dyslexia. Adults with dyslexia often report that Grammarly is a very good resource that helps them correct their spelling mistakes.
Keyboarding: Many people with dyslexia also have dysgraphia, a learning disorder characterized by trouble with the production of writing. Beginning keyboarding as soon as possible can make writing a far less frustrating experience for students with dyslexia and let them showcase their intellectual capability when letter formation is not a hindrance.
Last but not least, students with dyslexia should never be required to read in front of their peers; they can do so when they feel ready to volunteer. Adults with dyslexia share that reading out loud is a traumatic experience that they seldom forget.
The bottom line is that the social and emotional health of a person with dyslexia is more important than anything else. Helping them understand that the school experience does not have to be full of stress and anxiety will also help them cope as they become adults with dyslexia. For students with dyslexia, early identification, acknowledgment of their struggle and their effort, teaching them to advocate, and accommodating them so that they can participate at their intellectual level should be nonnegotiable and offered to each and every student with dyslexia.