Dyslexia: How Phonics Helps Overcome Learning Disabilities
Strategies and advice for educators with dyslexic students
Even if they’re very mild, learning disabilities can be a serious challenge for an educator. Whether you’re in charge of a class or just in charge of a single child, it can be extremely difficult to get students through their learning disabilities without all sorts of things going wrong: damaged self-esteem, excessive dependence on the teacher, rote memorization instead of true learning. Rigorous pedagogical approaches are important if you want to avoid those traps, but a rigorous pedagogical approach does not come up with itself.
Dyslexia is particularly thorny, for reasons we’ll get into further down the page.
Dyslexia in real life
If you think your child might have dyslexia, let us direct you to the Mayo Clinic’s page on the subject. Obviously, you won’t be able to diagnose the condition yourself, but if you do find yourself noticing some of the symptoms in an early reader—particularly if your reader has trouble writing unfamiliar words or sounding them out, or telling the differences between similar words—you should consider taking them into have a dyslexia test. The University of Michigan has a good guide about what to expect at a test like this; for our purposes, the main thing to remember is that if it ends in a dyslexia diagnosis, you’re going to
Dyslexia can be one of the most difficult learning disabilities to deal with—not only because it involves differences at such a basic level of brain function, but also because children with dyslexia need so much personalized help from their teachers. Dyslexia is determined hereditarily, which means that teaching interventions are never going to cure it, strictly speaking. With those interventions in place, though, educators can mitigate its effects, and the earlier they can do that, the better. As with any other learning disability, kids can still become strong readers if they learn to cope with it early. As the University of Michigan’s dyslexia page makes clear, “early, intensive, and systematic intervention can help a student keep up”.
The problem is that in a lot of cases classroom teachers, burdened with increasing class sizes and dwindling resources, simply don’t have the time to offer early, intensive, and systematic intervention. Homeschooling can be an excellent alternative: personal attention is the name of the game, and parents have a level of familiarity with their kids that makes it much easier for them to figure out how to help effectively. Still, homeschooling comes with its own set of problems. It can be a struggle for homeschooling parents, who usually have even fewer resources than classroom teachers, to figure out what exactly they should be doing to mitigate dyslexia. It’s easy to feel abandoned and discouraged if you don’t have an edifice of colleagues and specialists to help you out.
…in dyslexia as in so many other conditions, there’s no substitute for the fundamentals captured by good, thorough phonics instruction. Click to Tweet
So what should you do?
A good rule of thumb in situations like this is to keep phonics instruction in mind. Obviously, at YesPhonics we think that all kids need a strong grounding in phonics in order to build reading skills, but for dyslexic kids it’s especially important. Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is not just a condition in which the words “swim around on the page”. There are quite a few different types of dyslexia; an online resource called Dyslexia Reading Well has a good compendium of them if you’d like more background.
Generally speaking, if you’re an early reading educator or a homeschooling parent, you’re much more likely to encounter visual dyslexia (the classic “swimming words” form) or auditory dyslexia (which we’ll discuss in the next paragraph) than you are to encounter forms like deep dyslexia or surface dyslexia, which are usually the results of brain injuries in older people, and have to do with losing the ability to associate semantics with words. The main thing to remember is that visual dyslexia is only one of the two main subtypes you’ll see in children.
Auditory dyslexia affects the ability to recall the sounds that make up words in the first place. This is sometimes called “auditory dyslexia”, and it’s more common than laymen probably expect. If you’ve had a dyslexic student who spelled non-phonetically—writing “tebt” for “test”, for example—you’ve probably seen some symptoms of auditory dyslexia.
To combat this type of dyslexia, it’s important to spend extra time going over sounds. Child who spell non-phonetically need very careful instruction in the formation of English sounds if they are going to maintain faith in themselves as readers, and phonics instruction is a good way of doing that. So read with your child, and when you hit snarls at the stage of actually sounding out the words, stop, figure out what words are throwing you off, and go over those words using a phonetic approach. Be patient. Take your time. But keep working on phonics until you’re satisfied that your child understands why, specifically, the “s” phoneme is different from the “b”. If you can get these phonics processes down, your child should be well on their way to more productive reading in the future.
Remember that phonics instruction is not a magic bullet, though. This article from the California-based Davis Dyslexia Association, a group that offers a specialized approach to dyslexia education, notes that about 15% of dyslexic children suffer from visual dyslexia, which, importantly, doesn’t involve any difficulty with phonetic decoding. If your students have tested positive for that type of dyslexia, you’ll need to try techniques outside phonics in order for their reading to improve. The article goes on to note that two-thirds of dyslexic students suffer from multiple types of dyslexia in combination, so it’s always a good idea to vary the techniques you use—as in anything else, over-reliance on one strategy is a mistake. In a few places, the University of Michigan page notes that integrated teaching works better than simply doubling down on phonics. In the Davis article you can find techniques ranging from clay modeling of words to training that helps kids identify the sensations associated with perceptual errors, so that it’s easier to tell when words or sounds are getting jumbled. All these techniques are intended to help dyslexic readers develop what Davis educators call “compensatory” brain pathways—since dyslexics often have decreased activity in the left-brain centers that are usually responsible for processing verbal information, the David technique helps them “compensate” by using their right brain instead.
That’s the kind of approach that a student with the visual subtype of dyslexia might benefit from. However, it’s worth noting that Davis still recommends integrating phonics instruction into your teaching, and we still believe that phonics should form the core of a dyslexia education program. Techniques that are even further afield than Davis might very well benefit other learning styles—you might have a student who works very deductively, for example, and a whole-language approach to reading could have good results in a case like that. But in dyslexia as in so many other conditions, there’s no substitute for the fundamentals captured by good, thorough phonics instruction.
To get started with that kind of phonics instruction, watch this video introducing our Mnemonic Phonic Technique. The Mnemonic Phonic Technique is particularly well-suited for students with auditory dyslexia because it improves their phonetic decoding skills and fosters the independence they’ll need to enjoy reading on their own, so it’s a great place to start a dyslexia education program.
photo credit: Clearwater Public Library System Photos Primetime Family Reading at North Greenwood 2004/2005 via photopin (license)