The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the needs of students with dyslexia, but also made it more difficult to support them.
Some students have found that their support services, such as one-on-one or small-group reading sessions, have been disrupted by the need for social distancing. Others may bestraining to understand what their masked teachers are saying in class.
And, almost a year later, still others remain physically separated from the teachers that help them overcome the challenges presented by dyslexia, which is marked by readers’ struggles with recognizing and decoding words.
Because schools often don’t track it, there is no way to know how many students struggle specifically with dyslexia, which can lead to difficulty with reading comprehension. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s special education law, dyslexia is listed as an example of a disability under the broader term “specific learning disabilities.”
Part of the problem lies in the difficulty in diagnosis. Not all students with reading difficulties have dyslexia. Some students with dyslexia can go undiagnosed until late elementary, middle or even high school because they can conceal their struggles or find ways to compensate for them.
Education Week interviewed four experts to find out what advice they have for educators and parents who are working with students with dyslexia.
Here’s a look at what the experts had to say. Their statements have been edited for length and clarity:
1. Avoid asychronous learning
The experts universally agreed that students with dyslexia need direction, instruction, and real-time feedback that isn’t available during recorded lessons.
“The idea of asynchronous learning for dyslexic learners is not appropriate,” said Josh Clark, the head of school at The Schneck School, an Atlanta-based private school for children with dyslexia. He also serves as the executive director of The Dyslexia Resource, a nonprofit that focus on dyslexia education and advocacy through teacher training, tutoring programs and community partnerships.
“You know they’re already struggling in the traditional school environment. Then you expect them to navigate independently work they can intellectually access, but they can’t decode the instructions?”
Yvette Goorevitch, the chief of specialized learning and student services for Norwalk, Conn., schools, said her district has also avoided asychronous instruction for students with dyslexia.
“There is a distinction between teaching children how to read and assigning reading. We have stayed away from asynchronous learning because it’s not direct instruction,” Goorevitch said. “There needs to be guided practice. Kids need feedback and immediate correction. They need independent practice, and then they need review. You’re constantly evaluating.”
2. Find new ways to support students who struggle
Students with dyslexia may not be comfortable discussing their difficulties in front of the class or signaling for help if they have trouble. Teachers should communicate how students and parents can ask for help or additional support.
“We sometimes have this misconception that this generation all really feels comfortable online,” said Donnell Pons, a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City. “But that’s not always the case with someone who struggles with language difficulties. As a teacher, you have to have clear protocols for how students engage in the online classroom, like, ‘Is it clear how I communicate when I have difficulty?’”
For older students, Clark recommends teachers reach out directly to students.
“If you have a dyslexic learner in your classroom, it’s not something that we need to hide or not talk about or ignore,” Clark said. “Let’s have the conversation, especially for older students. Let’s have conversation about what works: ‘What would remove barriers for me to better understand what you know and you’re able to produce?’”
Students in middle and high school may be able to advocate for themselves and seek help in office hours or through private online chats, but students in early elementary school have often not developed those skills, said Joanne Pierson, project manager for Dyslexia Help at the University of Michigan. The website serves as a resource for people with dyslexia and their parents and employers. Pierson, a speech and language pathologist by training, also runs a private clinical practice that specializes in helping students with dyslexia.
“Keeping those children engaged, when you can’t do something subtle like walk around the classroom and stand next to them or gently put your hand on their shoulder or notice when they’re looking lost, has to be tough,” Pierson said. “All those subtle things that teachers do to keep kids on track. Those are big challenges, particularly if you don’t have a parent sitting there with the child because many parents are working. I work with kids one-on-one. So I can say things like, ‘Are you with me?’ or ‘I’m on page whatever in the middle of the paragraph’ and show it to them. That’s a whole different ballgame when you have 25 or 30 students.”
Schools must also remember that a year into the pandemic, some studentsstill struggle to understand how to use technology.
3. Rethink how and what you teach
Teachers cannot take what worked in the traditional classroom and try to transfer it to an online setting. When they make changes, they must consider the needs of students with language-based learning disabilities, especially disabilities that can make some tasks more difficult.
“As we’ve gone online, a lot of teachers have thought, ‘Oh, if we can’t be in-person having class discussions, I guess more reading and writing is called for,” Pons said. “We need to evaluate putting more demands in the reading and writing area without understanding the needs of students with dyslexia. We need to be patient and understanding, reach out to students who seem to be disengaging and ask questions like ‘What is this workload like for you?’”
Students will also need help maintaining their focus as the pandemic stretches on. While students will benefit from in-person instruction, expecting them, dyslexic or not, to sit through six or seven hours of screen time is not the solution, said Goorevitch of the Norwalkschools.
“The challenge for the kids and for the staff has been, how do you inhibit the intrusion into the instructional day? If the kid is remote, you know the distractions that can happen at home,” Goorevitch said.
“There’s an intrusion into the natural flow (of the school day) that teachers need to plan for and overcome,” she added. “Students need real help in sustaining their efforts and developing the stamina to do the really hard work of learning to read, particularly when you have a learning disability or you’re dyslexic. The kids need that support as well as the direct explicit instruction.”
4. Take advantage of remote options
A school district that has five dyslexia specialists each with dozens of students to support may be able to use online learning to its advantage, even after the pandemic.
“If you can do things online, the breadth of resources is no longer limited by geography,” Clark said. “As long as you have an adult in the physical room, they don’t have to be the one delivering the instruction.”
The Norwalk school system operates a literacy center that focuses on early identification, assessment, and intervention for students with dyslexia. During the pandemic, the district has found new ways to connect students and staff.
“We’ve been able to pull together kids with similar needs from across the district and put them together in small remote groups and have our literacy and dyslexia specialists work with them very intensely,” Goorevitch said. “Rather than sending these specialists out to all our schools or pulling kids in from a variety of schools and (having them miss) instructional time, we have been able to come up with a good remote option to help them.”
5. Embrace assistive technology
With students with dyslexia spending more time in front of screens, whether at home or during in-person learning, schools should use tools, such as speech-to-text and text-to-speech functions, that can help them navigate lessons and complete assignments.
“I do think people are not so afraid of technology anymore. It levels the playing field for these students,” Pierson said. “If these kids aren’t reading the same text as their peers, they’re not getting that vocabulary.”
Clark, the chairman of the International Dyslexia Association Board of Directors, is dyslexic. Both of his children also have dyslexia.
“It’s just the idea of presenting multiple ways of gaining meaning,” Clark said. “So I could read an article, but I could also watch a YouTube video. That removes barriers to the knowledge so that more people can access it.”
Coverage of students with diverse learning needs is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as 5 Ways to Remotely Support Students With Dyslexia