5 tips for supporting students with dyslexia during COVID-19

What is that awful sound? Upon hearing the screeching noise, my two middle-schoolers yelled from their rooms, “Be quiet!” My husband shouted the same from his basement office. I was in a virtual meeting, quickly muted myself, and ran to investigate. When I got to the top of the stairs and looked into my third grade son’s room, I had to stifle a guffaw. There he was, in Zoom music class, happily playing the recorder for the very first time.

The show must go on in music class, even during remote learning in a pandemic. In Illinois, where I have lived since I was seven years old, teaching the recorder to third-graders is as much a rite of passage as it is necessary for learning how to read music. Perhaps a bonus for teachers this year is the power of the Zoom mute button. At my house, we could hear the teacher’s beautiful rendition of “Hot Cross Buns,” but she could not hear Harrison’s honking goose version. Alas, his musical stylings were to be heard only by the members of his family.

The challenges of hybrid or remote learning aren’t always so funny. The changes in learning environment during COVID-19 can have a particularly big impact on students with dyslexia. Learning in a global pandemic has led to lessened access to accommodations and a decrease in, or even loss of, specialized instruction, especially for students learning in a totally remote model. Synchronous learning (where the teacher is live on video) versus in-person instruction can also negatively impact a student in areas of instruction where they may normally shine.

I spent 15 years as an elementary school special education teacher, and now that I’ve spent almost a year as a parent of three children impacted by coronavirus school closures, I would like to share some tips for navigating this “new normal” in a way that keeps the needs of students with dyslexia front and center.

Tip #1: Identify and build upon the student’s strengths

This is so important, pandemic or not. Once a child can recognize their own areas of strength, they will be more likely to use them to further their learning and understanding. Teachers and families can play a huge role here.

Learning in a global pandemic has led to lessened access to accommodations and a decrease in, or even loss of, specialized instruction, especially for students learning in a totally remote model.

Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence. That myth was debunked long ago. Sharing this fact with a child with dyslexia is important because it helps them understand that they are just as smart as other kids. If you have access to any neurological or cognitive assessments, share information on identified areas of strength as well, and give concrete examples of where you notice that strength shining through in real life.

Communicating in this way can encourage a child to talk about what strengths they notice in themselves and how they can use those strengths to further improve areas of interest (either academic or nonacademic) and areas of difficulty. Pointing out the child’s area of strength and tying it to a concrete example are both really helpful here. Use phrases such as, “This is something you’ve been working really hard at. I am excited to see your finished product,” or “I noticed you were better able to answer the test questions successfully when you used the outline.” For more ideas on how to go about this, read “Students’ strengths and interests” from the University of Michigan or “Recognizing dyslexia’s strengths in the classroom” on ASCD’s educational leadership website.

Tip #2: Empower kids with information about dyslexia

It is important for a child with dyslexia to learn about how their dyslexia impacts them. Coming to an understanding and acceptance that reading and writing will be difficult for them is a hard pill to swallow, especially since being able to do both well tends to act as a gatekeeper to most subjects in school. Of course, children with dyslexia can learn to read and write extremely well, but it will take them more effort than a typical learner. For example, students with dyslexia need more time to read materials and prepare oral or written responses to the material. Some other common characteristics in students with dyslexia include:

  • Limited short-term memory
  • A family history of difficulty with reading or spelling
  • Difficulties with rhyming or manipulating individual sounds or syllables in spoken words
  • Struggles sounding out words on a page
  • Dislike and avoidance of reading aloud

When students know more about dyslexia and how it can play out for them, it can be easier for them to feel empowered as learners. Conversations with a child acknowledging the realities of these difficulties and what you—as a parent, guardian, or teacher—can do to make things a bit easier for them will go a long way in building the student’s self-esteem and giving them the push they need to put the extra effort in.

Tip #3: Check in with students

In a typical, in-person school year, a student with dyslexia would have a lot of access to their special education teacher, an expert at speaking up for student needs and teaching them how to be their own advocate. This teacher is tasked with informing all the student’s teachers what to do to ensure success for that student.

Whether you’re a teacher or family member of a student with dyslexia, talk frequently and honestly with them about which areas of their learning day are causing distress and what you can do to help them better access the learning environment. Then, find ways to adjust lessons so they work for the student. One positive of a remote learning environment, for example, is the potential for processing time that a prerecorded lesson allows a student. This method of remote instruction allows the learner the ability to relisten to a lesson as needed. Maybe some live course requirements can be switched to asynchronous to better serve the needs of the student. That brings me to my next tip.

Tip #4: Collaborate with students on modifications

When Harrison plays the recorder, he can hear when he is playing the notes correctly and when he is missing notes. He does not enjoy making mistakes, especially mistakes he knows his sister and brother could tease him about later, mistakes that make the dog run and hide. But a little teasing from a sibling or a pleading look from the family pet are easy for him to deal with. It’s not the same for kids with dyslexia. As my colleague Elizabeth Barker details in a recent post, the anxiety students with dyslexia feel when they publicly make mistakes is very real and has the potential to be very damaging to their learning.

Making meaning from someone speaking to you in your preferred language is innate, but learning to read that same statement in the printed word is not.

Teachers of students with dyslexia need to have a plan or secret code with their students. One way to help Judy, the student from Dr. Barker’s post, avoid anxiety during a class read-aloud is to give her plenty of say in whether she reads out loud at all. Having a plan between the teacher and student to signal a need for help or modification is a great way to lessen anxiety and allow for growth. For example, Judy and her teacher could agree that if she raises her hand holding a pencil, she feels confident enough to read and wants to be called on. In an online class, Judy could send a private message to her teacher, or she could be excused from the live, read-aloud portion of the class ahead of time and given a different assignment to work on independently and asynchronously. Not only does this approach help Judy get her very real needs met, but it also helps students of all abilities feel emboldened to ask adults for what they need so they can learn and grow in a way that is productive for them.

In the case of Judy in particular, having difficulty with the mechanics of decoding words on a page should not be a barrier to her absorbing content. She should have opportunities to learn to decode and practice fluently reading in her language arts class but also in other classes, like science and social studies. For this reason, access to audio versions of textbooks is imperative for understanding. They remove the mechanics of reading and allow students to focus exclusively on comprehension skills. The International Dyslexia Association has an excellent reference for accommodations for students that is super helpful for in-person or remote teaching for kids in elementary through high school.

Tip #5: Go back to basics, as often as needed

As the weeks progressed in my son’s music class, Harrison’s recorder playing did get better. The honking goose sounds were fewer and fewer and we, his captive family audience, were better able to tell it was “Hot Cross Buns” he was playing. He still struggles during certain notes, however. Revisiting the basics can help him improve.

It’s not all that different with reading. Just like Harrison needs to be led back to the basics of musical notation or how to position his fingers on his recorder, children with dyslexia need frequent and explicit teaching—and reteaching—of phonological awareness and phonics. Studies have shown that phonological awareness, phonics, and decoding need to be taught explicitly and systematically for all students, including kids with dyslexia. Making meaning from someone speaking to you in your preferred language is innate, but learning to read that same statement in the printed word is not. Reading words needs to be taught. This is critical for students with dyslexia because being able to assign an individual sound to a letter (or letters) is one of the known difficulties for students with dyslexia. It does not matter the age of the student; if there are holes in that child’s knowledge of phonics, these methods need to be taught.

Most school curricula incorporate the teaching of phonological awareness and phonics up through grade 2. It is important to assess a student with dyslexia to find and remediate any missing skills in this area, whether they’re in early elementary school or have moved on to third grade or beyond. Once students are reading connected text fairly fluently, explicit instruction on morphological awareness will help them further improve reading, writing, and text comprehension. The International Dyslexia Association has some great resources on instruction and morphological awareness. Our e-book “How to support reading and math skills during COVID-19” also offers advice on how to focus on phonological awareness and put formative assessment to work online.

Small changes have big consequences

Everything is different for everyone right now, with few signs of things changing anytime soon. As you think about how best to reach out to your students with disabilities, especially those with dyslexia, consider that sometimes the most meaningful changes are really very small.

Read “5 things to know about the new MAP Reading Fluency Dyslexia Screener” to learn more about how to screen students for dyslexia. 

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