Educators Can Help Young Children Diagnosed With Dyslexia
The science of reading shows new ways to help children overcome dyslexia.
Posted April 7, 2020
Early diagnosis increases the chance of effective early intervention. Studies show the power of effective early intervention, which capitalizes on the brain’s plasticity (Fox et al., 2010; Gaab, 2017). Additionally, early screening increases the likelihood of catching struggling readers “before they fail” (Torgesen, 1998).
Typically, dyslexia is not diagnosed until second grade or later; at this point, the most effective period for intervention has passed — often referred to as "the dyslexia paradox" (Ozerno-Palchik & Gaab, 2016). Not only are children who struggle in early reading skills unlikely to catch up to their peers, but they may also experience the socioemotional challenges that too often coincide with learning disabilities.
To provide students with effective instruction, teachers can apply a structured literacy approach for students with dyslexia. Structured literacy is not a curriculum or a program; it is an instructional approach that provides systematic, explicit, and diagnostic instruction. Moreover, structured literacy is not only phonics; structured literacy provides the following elements:
- Phonology, or instruction of the sound structure of language (including phonological and phonemic awareness such as the awareness that rat has three phonemes /r/ /ă/ /t/ and it rhymes with cat)
- Sound-symbol correspondence, both letter-to-sound decoding for reading and sound — to-letter encoding for spelling which enables readers/writers to map phonemes to printed letters
- Syllable awareness and recognition, including teaching spelling of the six basic syllable types in English across grade levels with more advanced words
- Morphology, the study of word parts that carry meaning (including base words which stand alone but can take on prefixes and suffixes, roots such as the Latin root cycl in bicycle and cyclone, compound words, and contractions)
- Syntax, the arrangement and grammatical structure of words and phrases to create coherent sentences
- Semantics, the meaning of words and sentences in both spoken language and in print for comprehension
Work by Mark Seidenberg, a reading scientist and thought leader in the science of reading movement, has had a great impact on helping children diagnosed with dyslexia. His 2020 article explains how crucial components of reading are integrated in the brain for proficient reading, as opposed to being separate skills.
Using the skill of riding a bicycle as a metaphor for learning to read, he posits that helping struggling readers isn’t a simple matter of isolated skills lessons any more than riding a bike can be learned that way. However, there is reciprocity between explicit and implicit instruction in the aforementioned literacy components, as explicit learning serves as a scaffold for children to connect to and build on what they already know. For example, some explicit instruction in vocabulary is helpful even though children don’t learn most vocabulary through direct instruction. The same is true with the need for grade-by-grade explicit and systematic instruction in spelling as an example of structured literacy.
While Seidenberg doesn’t expect teachers and practitioners who work with children diagnosed with dyslexia to be cognitive scientists or neuroscientists, his article recommends that they do need to challenge old beliefs debunked by science and stay up to date as knowledge of how the reading brain functions increases (Seidenberg & Borkenhagen, 2020).
Unfortunately, many teacher preparation programs have not embraced the science of reading. Social media and public press are filled with stories of teachers who express frustration at their training programs and professional development for inadequately preparing them to teach students with dyslexia. Fortunately, many resources including books, websites, webinars, and professional associations provide busy teachers with cost-conscious ways to support ongoing learning (see Table 1).
We have reached an exciting time in identifying and educating students with dyslexia. Conversations around dyslexia have led to significant collaboration from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and education. Grassroots movements (like Decoding Dyslexia) from well-intentioned parents are spearheading conversations at local and state legislatures. Furthermore, the research around effective instruction is compelling; when struggling beginning readers received intensive remediation, well over half of the participants reached the average range of reading skills (Torgesen, 2000). When early childhood educators operate with a clear understanding of dyslexia, we move towards the essential direction of early diagnosis and effective instruction so that all children are successful readers.
Co-written by Molly Ness, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. In addition to writing about teachers’ knowledge of dyslexia, her forthcoming publication encourages pediatricians to be advocates in the early identification of children with dyslexia. She is the guest author of the related post, A Guide to Early Markers of Dyslexia.
Fox, S. E., Levitt, P., & Nelson III, C. A. (2010). How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child Development. 81(1):28-40.
Gaab, N. (2017). It’s a myth that young children cannot be screened for dyslexia. Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association.
Ozernov-Palchik, O. & Gaab, N. (2016). Tackling the ‘dyslexia paradox’: Reading brain and behavior for early markers of developmental dyslexia. Cognitive Science. Doi: 10.1002/wcs.138.
Torgeson, J.K. (1998). Catch them before they fall. American Educator. 22(1-2)32-39.
Torgeson, J.K. (2000). Individual differences in response to early intervention in reading: The lingering problem of treatment resisters. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 15, 55-64.
Seidenberg, M.S. & Borkenhagen, M.C. (2020). Reading science and educational practice: Some tenets for teachers. The Reading League Journal. 1(1): 7-11.