How Dyslexia Affects Classroom Learning

Holly Elmore
Holly Elmore
Elementary school principal; M.A.Ed. in Educational Leadership, M.A. in Special Education
‘Dyslexia’ spelled out in letters surrounded by other letters.

Dylexia, a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to associate letters and sounds, causes reading, writing, speaking, and spelling to be very difficult. While many think dyslexia is an educational word, it is a medical diagnosis and cannot be determined by your school psychologists. Often hereditary, a person with dyslexia does not have the same brain function in the area that is active during reading as those without dyslexia. So, why is dyslexia discussed in educational circles? Teachers are often the first people to recognize the signs of dyslexia, so, as an educator, it is significant to know what the signs are and strategies to support student learning.

Signs of Dyslexia

Dyslexia does not discriminate, equally affecting gender and race. The disorder affects the language processing portion of the brain, the left temporal cortex; specifically it is under-stimulated when reading. As a result, according to the International Dyslexia Association (2017) and Dyslexia Help at the University of Michigan, students exhibit some of the following difficulties:

  • Difficulty learning letters and sounds
  • Difficulty remembering words
  • Reversal of letters and numbers
  • Spoken language difficulties but comprehension is typically strong
  • Difficulty reading different fonts
  • Discrepancy between their potential and performance
  • Difficulty telling time
  • Oftentimes does not acknowledge punctuation
  • Reading fluency is delayed
  • Difficulty learning to read or speak
  • Difficulty learning a new language

Every reading disability is not dyslexia. However, if you have a student that displays these signs, a universal screener can typically be utilized to determine if there are discrepancies between language processing skills and comprehension. If there is a gap between the two, a reading diagnostic is used to determine if there are phonological processing delays, specifically decoding difficulties. Given this information, additional subprocess assessments from a reading diagnostic assessment would further determine dyslexia over other disorders.

Screening a student and identifying the signs of dyslexia is significant to employ appropriate instructional strategies but does not serve as a medical evaluation, which must be completed for a student to be identified as dyslexic; therefore, the school would need a doctor’s statement to provide an IEP for a student with dyslexia under specific learning disabilities.

Strategies for Teaching Students with Dyslexia

When considering how to best educate a student with dyslexia, there are a couple of ideas to take into account. Specifically designed instruction (SDI) is the instructional strategies a teacher will implement to best teach students content. There are also accommodations, which change the way a teacher presents the same material to a student with dyslexia while removing barriers to instruction.

Specifically Designed Instruction

For General Instructional

Auditory Instruction

  • Auditory strategies including language structure
  • Audio texts
  • Auditory bombardment

Visual Instruction

  • Grapho-phonic strategies
  • Visual cues
  • Modeling

Accommodations

According to the International Dyslexia Association, there are four categories of accommodations: presentation, response, setting, timing/scheduling.

Presentation

  • Verbal instruction
  • Repeating instruction
  • Larger print
  • Audio-recorded instructions/lessons
  • Speech-to-text
  • Fewer items on a page
  • Musical alternatives to information

Response

  • Verbal response
    • Orally to teacher
    • Recorded answers
  • Mark directly in answer booklet rather than separate answer sheet
  • Point to choice

Setting

  • Small group
  • Reduction in distractions
  • Furniture arrangement
  • Preferred seating with close proximity for prompting and cuing

Time

  • Flexible schedule
  • Extended time
  • Visual schedule
  • Intermittent breaks

Utilize Digital Applications

We live in a time where everyone has a computer in their hands all the time. What an awesome way to engage a student with dyslexia in learning! There are many apps that will help to alleviate some of the pressure for students as they learn in a way that best fits their needs.

  • Epic!
  • Storyboard That
  • Teen and Adults Phonics Library
  • Learning Ally
  • Dyslexia Quest
  • Natural Reader
  • Sound Literacy

Classroom Challenges

As with any disability, there are challenges students face when their learning requires something different than the status quo. Teachers are essential to creating a learning environment that is inclusive and meets the needs of the students with disabilities. Dyslexia requires a dedicated practitioner who will learn new ways of instruction and utilize creativity to develop a learning pathway for the student that is differentiated from the general population.

One of the greatest challenges in the classroom to a student with dyslexia is a teacher who does not understand how to teach him or her. Dyslexia has its own set of accommodations, modifications, and specifically designed instruction, and it will require professional learning on how to implement in a way that will be beneficial to the student with dyslexia.

Intelligence is not an issue with dyslexia, and that is a common misconception. Students are able to learn the content; however, the gap lies between ability and achievement and is bridged with intentional instructional strategies.

Frustration oftentimes is demonstrated by students with dyslexia. Defiance or outbursts, in what appears to the untrained eye to be a behavioral issue, are actually a child’s way of letting you know they need a break, they are stuck, or whatever strategy you are currently using is not working for them. Effective teachers will utilize responsive teaching techniques to de-escalate the situation and bring the child back to an instructional level. This may include a physical break including walking, moving from a current seat to a different area of the classroom, or it could mean an instructional break is needed. Chunking out the assignment or providing a visual “If…Then” chart and allowing the student to choose which break activity he or she would like to do have proven to be successful strategies.

Another challenge of students with dyslexia is low self-esteem. Since dyslexia affects the ability to communicate effectively, students may have negative self-talk, feel as though they are not good at anything, or choose to isolate to avoid being singled out in the crowd. As educators, it is imperative that we educate the whole child and not get lost in academia. Allowing a student with dyslexia to complete tasks employing methods that boost their self-confidence is essential to building trust and best instructing a child with dyslexia.

As educators, the most important thing to remember is we teach people, not content. Building a relationship with your students and their families, professional learning, and demonstrating the flexibility to learn and try something new for a student is what will prove to have the ultimate success. Employing empathy and high expectations for all students, regardless of their uniqueness, will bring your classroom alive, establishing a meaningful learning environment.

*Updated December 2020
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