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Dyslexia for the Newbie

By:  Kelli Sandman-Hurley

Recently I read a blog post by a mom who was describing how overwhelmed she was feeling after her child received a diagnosis of dyslexia.  She wasn’t necessarily overwhelmed with emotion, but instead she was overwhelmed by the amount of information she had to sift through to figure out the best thing to do for her child. In the age of surging dyslexia awareness, there are endless articles and blog posts by other parents, professionals, and everyone in between.  There are advertisements promising impressive results in small periods of time.  There is advice from friends and neighbors that often includes suggesting what worked for their children. This avalanche of information can be conflicting and confusing.  It is difficult to discern good, quality advice from snake oil and “quick fixes.”  So, let’s unpack all the information that parents, new to the dyslexia, need to know.


Trust Your Instinct

Remember that you know your child better than anyone.  When your instinct is telling you that something isn’t right for your child, it probably isn’t.  Keep an eye out for those who promise you a specific amount of progress in a specific amount of time.  Your gut should tell you that this is impossible without meeting your child and without understanding how dyslexia is affecting him or her.  If you are feeling pressured to sign a contract or pay an exorbitant amount up front, sleep on it.  The important point here is that dyslexia affects each individual differently and those differences necessitate individualized approaches and the decision of whom to trust is a big one.


Understand Dyslexia

A quick internet search of dyslexia will bring up many interesting opinions about what dyslexia is and is not.  You will come across everything from dyslexia doesn’t exist to dyslexia is a visual problem to dyslexia is a phonological processing deficit.  The last option, phonological processing deficit, is the only description of dyslexia that has been consistently observed in the research and by countless professionals who work with students with dyslexia.  Here is a link to a brief video explanation that you can view.

You should also be familiar with the most widely accepted definition:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin.  It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.  These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.  Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

There are some important words within this definition to pay close attention to.  The first one is unexpected.  Your child may be able to do everything his or her peers can do until you place written language in front of him.  It seems like his difficulty with written language shouldn’t be happening in comparison to all the other things the child can do.  That’s dyslexia.  Neurobiological is also important to understand.  Trust me, if your child could be a better reader and speller, he or she would be.  It’s not about motivation or interest; it’s just really difficult.  They are trying; just ask them.  Lastly, poor spelling, poor spelling, poor spelling.  Did I mention poor spelling? Spelling is part of being a fully literate person.  A student with dyslexia may read at an average level and still not be able to spell; that is still dyslexia.  Don’t let anyone tell you spelling isn’t important.


What ‘Works’?

Now that you have an idea about what dyslexia really is, it’s time to sift through all that advice about ‘what works’ for a student with dyslexia. The answer can be frustrating because the answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the child in question. However, in general, the approach needs to explicitly teach the underlying structure of the English language. The approach needs to be implemented by someone who deeply understands the English language and dyslexia. You should interview the professional and ask the following question (and don’t be shy, this is important):

  • Can you describe to me what a student with my child’s strengths and weaknesses needs to learn to improve reading and spelling?

You are looking for a professional who describes a program that meets your child where they are in the reading and spelling process. You want to hear a professional talk about English like it has sense and meaning and that he or she has enough understanding of English to explain that sense and meaning to your child in a way that will make sense to someone who has dyslexia. You want to hear that the approach they will use is multisensory and explicit. This means the child is involved in the learning process, conversations about English take place and, as a team, they will be looking for the reasons for English spellings which leads to better understanding of their own language. You want a professional who is confident in explaining “irregularities” in English that students with dyslexia have such a difficult time remembering. Last but not least, you want a professional who has a good rapport with your child and who can make the process interesting and effective at the same time. Remember to trust your instincts and you’ll find the right person.


Embrace Accommodations

You already know your student is bright.  You already know she has been trying.  You already know she is capable.  Now it’s time to provide the tools needed to show that to the student herself — and the world.  Classroom and homework accommodations have the potential to make academics a pleasure instead of a grind for a child with dyslexia.  You can start with books in an audio format, and this can start in kindergarten.  This gives the student the opportunity to listen to high quality literature that they cannot access via print.  Learning Ally and Bookshare are two good places to start.  From there you can add things like requesting that your child not be required to read in front of their peers, unless they volunteer; have them learn to type and/or use speech to text; put a time limit on homework and sign-off on the homework when they reach that limit.  Start with these basic accommodations and adjust as you figure out what works and what doesn’t.


The most important thing to remember as a newbie is that dyslexia is not the end of the world.  Yes, it is hard, harder than it seems it should be.  But if you keep your eyes open for credible resources, appropriate approaches to intervention, and begin to use accommodations, the road will be less bumpy.  Remember to take time every day, and every summer, to take a break and focus on strengths and passions.  Let your child shine in his or her own way.  As parents, we should do that for all of our children, but kids who struggle more than their peers will appreciate it even more.

Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D. is an author and co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute. She received her doctorate in literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. Dr. Kelli is a certified special education advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. Dr. Kelli has studied Structured Word Inquiry, the Orton-Gillingham approach, Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Read Naturally. Dr. Kelli is a Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. She is a dyslexia consultant working with schools to improve services offered to students with dyslexia and training teachers. She co-created and produced “Dyslexia for a Day: A Simulation of Dyslexia,” and she is a frequent speaker at conferences. She is the author of the well-received book, Dyslexia Advocate! How to Advocate for a Child with Dyslexia within the Public Education System. Her newest book is, Dyslexia and Spelling: Making Sense of it All.

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