Although dyslexic individuals experience different combinations of strengths and challenges, one feature they are all likely to have in common is a difficulty with ‘cracking the code’ of written language. While some overcome this difficulty and go on to become proficient readers, many continue to struggle with the written word throughout their adult lives. The problems they experience may arise from weaknesses in phonological awareness, working memory, or speed of processing. For some, too, co-occurring visual stress issues may cause reading to be problematic and uncomfortable.
Whatever the root cause, the outcome is that a dyslexic learner is likely to read much more slowly than their non-dyslexic peers, and this will have an impact on comprehension as well as on their enjoyment of reading and their willingness to pick up a book. We know, too, that children who don’t read extensively miss out on opportunities for increasing their knowledge of vocabulary. The vicious circle this perpetuates is represented in the diagram below.
If we are to help dyslexic learners overcome their difficulties with reading and create a level playing field in terms of vocabulary knowledge and willingness to engage with the written page, it is essential that appropriate support is put in place right from the outset of a child’s journey through education.
Fortunately, there are many tried and tested materials and techniques available to both teachers and parents / carers. Many of these are described in the brand new 2nd edition of the British Dyslexia Association Dyslexia Friendly Schools Good Practice Guide. Chapter 2 of the Guide focusses on reading skills, giving a host of strategies to support dyslexic learners, whether in the early stages of learning phonics, or fostering a love of books and reading. A few of these strategies are listed below, but many more can be found in the Guide.
From Frances Robertson and Lisa Ryan of Yorkshire Dyslexia Network we have suggestions for teaching phonics skills, including:
Adjust expectations of the number of new phonemes introduced; base this on an understanding of the learner’s memory and processing skills.
Provide plentiful opportunities for over-learning and ensure that a cross-curricular approach is developed to teaching reading skills.
Use lots of ‘hands-on’ games and activities to engage the learner, and multi-sensory teaching methods to involve several senses simultaneously.
Provide training sessions for parents so that they can support their children at home.
Leicester City Council gives advice on supporting reading in the classroom:
Match the level of the book to the learner’s reading ability to avoid frustration, but also match to the learner’s age and interests.
Use a range of different reading materials rather than focusing on just one reading scheme.
Be careful not to overwhelm developing readers by trying to progress too quickly. Allow them to develop at their own speed.
Encourage learners to re-read books – familiarity with the text encourages fluency and the development of word recognition skills.
Support reading comprehension by
pre-teaching and focussing on new vocabulary and key words;
discussing the text before you begin reading;
asking questions as you read to check understanding and keep interest engaged.
While, from the Willows School in Rotherham, we have tips for parents to help foster a love of reading:
Read aloud to your child; set a regular time for reading together.
Encourage your child to select their own books at the library or book shop.
Listen to your child reading and don’t over-correct.
Praise your child’s reading, no matter how big or small their achievement – remember that small steps are important, too!
To these tips, I’d add the following thoughts:
Make reading a sociable activity: talk about books you’ve read together; revisit and practise using new vocabulary.
Encourage active reading, e.g. highlight unfamiliar vocabulary; read aloud; make predictions; discuss with peers; take notes or draw pictures, diagrams or mind-maps to process and review content.
Encourage a curiosity about words and language: teach morphology and word-building skills to raise awareness of spelling patterns; show how a knowledge of the derivation of words can help build up word families and provide clues about the meanings of new vocabulary.
Try reading poetry, drama or comics / graphic novels, where blocks of text may be shorter and less intimidating.
Above all, assure learners that there is no right or wrong in reading, whatever they choose to read and however they choose to access it, whether it’s by reading aloud rather than silently, by using assistive technology to convert text to speech, or by using different colour backgrounds or particular fonts to make the text clearer and more accessible. Most importantly, show children and young people that they can succeed with reading and, in so doing, enrich their lives by helping them to access a world of books and literature.