What Is Dyslexia? A Guide For Educators (Part 2)Oct 15, 2023
In my last blog, I shared some of the latest information available to teachers about dyslexia. (Click here to read the previous blog).
Dyslexia is ‘an unexpected difficulty learning to read despite intelligence, motivation, and education’ (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2020, p. 39).
As I said in that post, much has changed in the field of literacy instruction over the past 20 years, and it’s critical that us educators stay up to speed with these changes.
When we know better, we can do better.
In my last blog I explained that dyslexics experience issues at the phonologic level of their language processing system (the part responsible for processing the individual sounds in words). I also shared some common red flags you can keep an eye out for when working with students.
In this post, I’ll be sharing more practical information on what you can do if you suspect one of your students has dyslexia- including suggested assessments and classroom accommodations.
How common is dyslexia?
Although there are varying figures in the research (dependent on the way it’s defined and diagnosed), a 2022 meta-analysis found the prevalence of dyslexia in primary school students to be 7.1% (Yang et al., 2022).
This means that in a classroom of 25 students, approximately 1.7 of them are likely to be dyslexic.
What should you do when you suspect a student has dyslexia?
Identifying red flags is the first step on, what I refer to as, the conveyor belt of dyslexia diagnosis.
Unfortunately for students this conveyor belt is often long and slow, but there are things schools and teachers can do to help it move along more efficiently.
At the school level:
Implementing a whole school approach to systematic phonics instruction in the early years can set all students up for success in learning to read. Effective tier 1 classroom instruction can ameliorate unnecessary reading issues for many students.
Ensuring you have a comprehensive approach to assessing reading development that includes gathering data on critical emergent reader skills; such as phonological awareness, letter-sound knowledge, decoding skills and fluency.
Implementing a Response To Intervention (RTI) approach that efficiently and effectively identifies students at risk and provides them with targeted support.
Clearly communicating your school’s process for identifying students at risk. Ensuring all your staff are aware of how to get a student on the diagnosis conveyor belt and what happens once they are. E.g. :
What happens when a teacher has concerns about a student?
Who do they flag their concerns with?
When do they involve the students’ parents? Who will support them with this?
What is the process for referring the student to the school psychologist / speech pathologist?
How does the formal diagnosis process unfold? How long does it take?
At the teacher level:
If you suspect a student in your class has dyslexia, you should take the time to build a comprehensive mosaic of the student as a literacy learner. Compiling this information can help determine the best course of action for the student (e.g. do they need to receive Tier 2 intervention VS should they be referred to an educational psychologist for a formal assessment?)
In terms of dyslexia, you should aim to gather information on the student’s progress in the following areas in particular:
- Phonological awareness
- Letter-sound knowledge
- Decoding skills
Recommended assessments for gathering info on these key areas include the following (* = fee to purchase the assessment):
Phonological awareness assessments
- Sutherland Phonological Awareness Test (SPAT-R) (Australian) *
- David Kilpatrick’s Phonological Awareness Screening Test (PAST) *
Note: Click here to read my blog post about phonological awareness. This post includes suggested assessments.
Letter- sound knowledge assessment
- Motif Letter Sound Test (LeST) (Australian)
A note about non-word / nonsense word tests: Because dyslexic students have a tendency to rely too heavily on context clues, the use of a non-word decoding assessments can be quite revealing. Non-word tests force students to use their letter-sound knowledge and blending skills to decode the target word.
- Foundation & Year 1: Wheldall Assessment of Reading Nonwords (WARN) Australian*
- Years 1 and 2: Wheldall Assessment of Reading Lists (WARL) (Australian)*
- Years 2-5: Wheldall Assessment of Reading Passages (WARP) (Australian) *
- DIBELS 8th Word Reading Fluency
At the higher professional level:
Teachers cannot diagnose dyslexia. For students to be accurately diagnosed they need a comprehensive assessment to be carried out by a qualified educational psychologist or specialised speech pathologist.
Before students are referred to these health professionals, they should have received at least 6 months of appropriate intervention (e.g. small group intervention, tutoring etc). It’s also recommended that they have their vision and hearing tested (as this forms part of the assessment process.)
Is an official diagnosis important?
Because the path to diagnosis can be long, slow and costly, teachers and parents often ask if it’s worth it. ‘Can’t we just save ourselves the trouble and assume they have dyslexia instead?’
“Due to their frustration with reading, a great number of dyslexic children are also at increased risk of academic and social problems. These children often have higher reading anxiety, lower positive well-being, and experience negative attitudes.” (Yang et al, 2022)
While there are a small number of potential downsides to an official diagnosis -such as being viewed as their label-, there are many positives:
- Empowerment for the student- when they have a name for their problems and can learn more about it.
- Increased self-esteem- the student will know with confidence that their language issues are not a result of low intelligence or laziness.
- Accommodations on official exams and in the workplace.
- Potential to be diagnosed with common coexisting disorders such as Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia and ADHD. Note: “Roughly 60% of those with dyslexia have at least one other diagnosis” (Darweesh et al., 2020).
Dyslexia and ADHD
Interestingly, there’s a large overlap between diagnoses of dyslexia and ADHD. Research Dr. Sally Shaywitz states that half of the people who have dyslexia also have ADHD and half of the people who have ADHD also have dyslexia (Lambert, 2023).
In addition, it’s believed that “reading difficulties appear to be strongly related with the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD rather than hyperactivity or impulsivity” (Germanò et al., 2010). This has implications for the classroom; namely that dyslexic students -especially those with ADHD- may need more concentration breaks than their peers.
What accommodations can be made for dyslexic students in the classroom?
“Research suggests that students with dyslexia often need intensive intervention that includes small-group instruction with more opportunities for practice and feedback than what is provided by the core curriculum” (International Literacy Association, 2023).
Please do not wait for a formal diagnosis before you implement accommodations for dyslexia in the classroom. If you suspect a child has dyslexia, you should begin implementing accommodations immediately.
Some classroom accommodations for dyslexia include:
- Providing more time to complete work, answer questions or do tests
- Providing frequent brain breaks
- Using speech to text technology to help with writing tasks
- Avoiding situations where students are required to read or spell aloud in front of the class
- Assessing writing without penalising the student for their spelling
- Pre-teaching essential vocabulary when introducing new content
- Providing clear and concise instructions with opportunities for repetition
- Providing a quieter, less distracting environment (noise cancelling headphones may be useful for this)
- Ensuring your daily routines are predictable
Remember: every dyslexic is different. The needs, strengths and weaknesses of each dyslexic may be different and may require varying accommodations. Be sure to check in with your dyslexic student(s) and seek feedback about the helpfulness (or otherwise) of the accommodations you are providing.
If you found this post helpful, or if you have any other questions or comments about dyslexia, I’d love to hear them.
Join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.
Darweesh, A.M. et al. (2020) ‘Psychiatric comorbidity among children and adolescents with dyslexia’, Middle East Current Psychiatry, 27(1). doi:10.1186/s43045-020-00035-y.
Germanò, E., Gagliano, A. and Curatolo, P. (2010) ‘Comorbidity of ADHD and dyslexia’, Developmental Neuropsychology, 35(5), pp. 475–493. doi:10.1080/87565641.2010.494748.
International Literacy Association. (2023). Dyslexia [Research Advisory]. Author.
Lambert, S. (2023) S7 E9: Dyslexia: Where we started; where we’re going with Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Science of Reading: the Podcast. Available at: https://www.buzzsprout.com/612361/13337619-s7-e9-dyslexia-where-we-started-where-we-re-going-with-dr-sally-shaywitz.
Shaywitz, S.E. and Shaywitz, J. (2020) Overcoming Dyslexia. 2nd edn. London: Sheldon Press.
Yang, L. et al. (2022) ‘Prevalence of developmental dyslexia in primary school children: A systematic review and meta-analysis’, Brain Sciences, 12(2), p. 240. doi:10.3390/brainsci12020240.
Related Blog Posts:
Sign up to our mailing list
Join our mailing list to receive the latest news, updates and resources from Oz Lit Teacher.
We'll even give you a copy of our mentor text list to say thanks for signing up.