October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. As an educator, have you ever wondered how reading can be made easier for children with dyslexia? Here are answers from Dr.Shailaja Menon that will not only help you understand the problems dyslexic children face, but also offer great advice toward dealing with their reading challenges.
SHAILAJA MENON: As I understand it, reading is not “an act”, but a complex set of interrelated skills, strategies, attitudes, preferences, and so on. Let us take this slightly more complex picture of reading and ask ourselves: as teachers what are our “big objectives” or goals related to reading? Your responses may include goals such as: (1) children should be able to see reading as a meaningful and enjoyable activity; (2) children should be able use reading to accomplish different purposes in their lives; (3) children should be able to think critically about the books they read; and of course, (4) they should be able to have the necessary skills and strategies to access books independently.
Now, let us turn to the issue of children with dyslexia and ask ourselves: which of these goals is a child with dyslexia likely to have trouble with, as compared to other children? Children with dyslexia tend to have trouble with acquiring the skills and strategies needed to access books independently, and this may impact the other goals, if we are not careful. My advice to teachers is to take a two-pronged strategy to teaching children with dyslexia: (1) enable children to experience reading as meaningful and enjoyable; even while (2) empowering them with the needed skills and strategies to access texts independently.
In order to empower children with the needed skills and strategies, teachers would need to develop a careful and specific plan for each child with dyslexia, preferably in consultation with a special education teacher who understands their needs. In general, children with dyslexia may not “automatically” pick up skills related to words, letters and sounds that other children might. Explicit teaching, opportunities for practice, and specific and immediate feedback helps. They may need to be taught decoding in small-group or individualized formats. Teachers should teach not just skills, but strategies, by “thinking aloud” for children about how they (the teachers) solved a problem (e.g., decoded an unfamiliar word, or inferred something from the passage). Seeing the teacher make their own thinking visible helps all children learn how to be strategic readers; it is also helpful to children with dyslexia. Without explicit, intensive, guided teaching of skills and strategies, reading is never likely to be truly enjoyable for children with dyslexia, no matter how kind, supportive and child-friendly the overall environment is!
That said, we cannot wait until all the needed skills and strategies are acquired in order to develop the other goals related to reading, such as, enabling children to see reading as enjoyable and meaningful, thinking critically about texts, using texts meaningfully in their lives, and so on. Reading aloud good books and inviting children to having meaningful conversations is one way by which all children can be invited into the world of literature and books, even if they cannot yet read independently. While reading aloud, you may ask children with dyslexia to sit closer to you, or in a quieter spot. Some children are helped by having a small manipulative to hold and squeeze in their hand, that helps them to focus. Other children don’t need such support. Once the pressure of reading independently is taken away from them, children with dyslexia enjoy books as much as other children. Read alouds can be used to introduce children to a wide variety of genres and types of literature, and can be used as a time when children learn to think critically about texts, or respond aesthetically to them. You could set up your classroom to show children how different kinds of reading are useful to us in our daily lives – for example, literature for aesthetic enjoyment, different kinds of non-fiction for different kinds of information, and so on. You could show children how you, yourself, use reading for a wide variety of purposes in your life.
You could also build opportunities for collaborative work where peers help each other through a complex task. Pairing/grouping children with dyslexia with children without, helps each of them work to their own strengths. Even while the child with dyslexia feels supported with the nitty-gritties of decoding the text, she can bring other strengths to the group (e.g., thinking about a problem, or representing it visually, or presenting it verbally). It is important to remember that all tasks in the classroom (as in real life) do not need to be accomplished individually. Collaborative language learning is a key strategy that can be used to support children with dyslexia in the classroom.
It might also be a good idea to bring in a selection of books into your library that are easy to decode, but not conceptually simplistic. Make interesting (but easy-to-read) books available.
In short, children with dyslexia are remarkably similar to children without dyslexia when we take a broader view of what we mean by “reading”. Principles of good teaching that apply to all children would also apply to children with dyslexia; in addition, they would need more intensive, explicit and guided support with the acquisition of specific skills and strategies related to reading independently.
Have questions related to reading or literacy that you haven’t yet found the answers to? Send in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and have Dr Shailaja Menon respond to it.
Dr. Shailaja Menon currently works as faculty in the area of Language and Literacy, School of Education, Azim Premji University. She has her Ph.D. in language, literacy and culture from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and degrees in human development and psychology from MSU, Baroda, and Delhi University, respectively.
Shailaja has worked in various educational settings in the US and in India. She has an abiding interest in imparting a love for language, literature and literacy to children, teachers and teacher educators and engages in a variety of initiatives that help promote these.