My neighbor recently posted on Facebook, “Talk to me about dyslexia. What are the biggest challenges? Any good do-it-yourself strategies for learning to write?”
No one answered.
So I decided to help out.
Definition Of Dyslexia
Dyslexia is a difficulty in learning how to read that is not explained by medical conditions such as far-sightedness or cognitive impairment. Specifically, dyslexia is caused by an inability to connect letters with the sounds that they represent, which is called “a lack of phonemic awareness.”
Phonemes are the speech sounds that combine to form words - there are about 44 phonemes in the English language. For example, the word “car” has three phonemes: the “k” sound, the “ah” sound and the “r” sound. English is especially tricky because one letter may have many sounds, and one sound may be represented by several possible letters.
So how do we teach phonics to a person who has difficulty interpreting phonemes?
The answer is: with creativity and repetition.
The Role of Phonology
In the world of dyslexia, it is necessary to return again and again to the very basics of phonics and “sounding out” words - even in adulthood, since reading fluency is often a lifelong problem. The place to start is to learn the alphabet, not by the names of the letters, but by the sounds they make. Songs and videos with a phonetic alphabet like the one below are widely available.
The next step is to practice saying and memorize the most common words in the English language. About 50% of all written material is made up of the 100 most frequent words, so reading fluency depends on learning words such as “the,” “no,” “on,” “like” and “open.”
For longer words, a student must learn to break down words into semantic or syntactic chunks. For example, an ending of “-s” or “-es” signifies a plural noun or a third person singular verb. A prefix of “un-” indicates some type of negative meaning.
If a person can learn to read and understand part of a word, then the rest of the word can be dissected, too. Latin is sometimes recommended to high school students with dyslexia, because every word in a Latin sentence must be broken down into prefix, stem, infix and suffix to unlock the meaning.
A Multi-Sensory Approach
The mechanics of word-building must be experienced through all of the senses. The senses reinforce the learning process by activating different parts of the brain. Here are some sensory approaches that can be incorporated into reading:
Use a transparent colored sheet on top of the text you are reading. Sometimes the black and white contrast makes it hard to read. Also use colored index cards for flash cards - you can color-code for parts of speech (nouns on pink cards, verbs on blue cards, etc.) or for the number of phonemes in a word (green for 2 phoneme words, yellow for 3 phoneme words, etc.).
Bring music into lessons - learn the lyrics to a new song or watch music videos with subtitles. Recite poetry and dramatic speeches, record them and play them back.
Smell and Taste:
If “apple” is your sight word of the day, eat an apple during the lesson. If you’re talking about the sound of the letter “p,” take a whiff of black pepper. Scented candles are usually on clearance in the last week of December, so now is the perfect time to stock up new scents.
Make words out of sandpaper or cotton balls or modeling clay or other materials with unusual textures.
Vestibular and Balance:
Recite the phonetic alphabet while swinging or jumping on a trampoline.
Proprioceptive and Kinesthetic:
Crawl or do the wheelbarrow walk while spelling sight words aloud. Do sit-ups or yoga stretches while sounding out words posted on the wall in front of you.
Sometimes visual processing or tracking skills may be a contributing factor to dyslexia. A developmental optometrist may diagnose convergence insufficiency, the inability to move the eyes inward together to focus on a nearby object such as a book. Fortunately there are many exercises to retrain the eyes and develop better focus and eye-hand coordination.
Bal-A-Vis-X exercises can be integrated into a classroom environment or done at home as a family. Therapy Street For Kids also recommends dozens of activities to strengthen visual motor skills, including fine motor, gross motor and academic strategies like using graph paper instead of lined paper for homework.
Focus on Positive Traits
Many people with dyslexia learn to compensate in original ways for their difficulty with reading fluency - so it makes sense to build upon these strengths while teaching reading. Creative problem-solving skills can be developed with mazes, crossword puzzles and mindbender games.
Drama is a natural outlet for people with dyslexia, because there is a set text to work with and repeat. Recitation allows an individual to explore the subtleties of language and play with meaning through intonation, gesture, eye contact and costuming.
Vocal performance has the same benefits with the added element of music, which is not processed in the same part of the brain as language. The goal is to establish new connections between different parts of the brain and different types of thinking.
Sally Shaywitz, author of “Overcoming Dyslexia,” writes about the importance of choosing a supportive literacy curriculum and following through with it. Here are some of the curricula that she recommends:
1. Read Naturally is an intervention program based on teacher modeling, repeated reading of the same text until mastery is achieved and daily monitoring of student progress.
2. Language! The Comprehensive Literacy Curriculum is an intensive, research-based program for struggling readers - the phonics and reading exercises are intended to take 90 to 120 minutes per day.
3. SpellRead is a one-year multisensory intervention program for small groups of struggling readers.
4. SRA Early Interventions in Reading is the curriculum that many public schools use, since it is intended as a supplement to the core curriculum already in place.
5.Lindamood-Bell Phoneme Sequencing Program focuses on speech sounds instead of written words. once the speech sounds are mastered, individuals become self-correcting in reading and spelling.
6.Wilson Just Words curriculum places emphasis on word study and phonics to increase reading fluency.
7. Orton-Gillingham approach is the most well-known type of instruction for those with dyslexia. The practices are multisensory and highly structured.
It turns out that there are plenty of ways to help a student with dyslexia learn how to read and write! Please share your success stories in the comments below.
Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"