Dyslexia Awareness: Preparing New Educators

Special Education

When I began working with individuals with dyslexia in 1988, I was so green. I only had three years of teaching experience under my belt, and my college classes had not prepared me to find solutions for struggling readers.

So, I took it upon myself to learn as much about dyslexia as possible. I became a Certified Academic Language Therapist (CALT). I obsessed over the intervention process, trying method after method to perfect my skills in the classroom.

Now, as Assessment Specialist for my district, I have the opportunity to better equip new dyslexia and classroom educators to work with struggling readers. Based on my experience as a teacher and administrator, here are the seven biggest challenges, along with strategies for overcoming them.

1. Recognize the Characteristics of Dyslexia

Do you work with students with dyslexia? If you are a teacher, you almost certainly do. According to the International Dyslexia Association, as many as fifteen to twenty percent of school-age children have dyslexia. [1] So, your classroom of twenty-five students may have three or more students with dyslexia.

It is characterized by deficits in decoding, sight word reading, reading fluency and spelling. These reading difficulties must be the result of problems with phonological awareness because dyslexia is caused by the way the brain processes sounds in spoken language.

Dyslexia can be identified in students as early as kindergarten and early identification leads to students who are more successful throughout school. [2]

2. Keep it Legal: State & Federal Dyslexia Law

In the U.S., we have laws that ensure students with disabilities are protected and that their individual needs are met. In some states, students with dyslexia are under the umbrella of IDEA and are served through special education. In other states, students with dyslexia are protected through general education under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Staying up to date on the many regulations designed to help educators working with children with special needs can be intense. However, there are free resources to keep you informed of your state’s regulations. And don’t be afraid to reach out to fellow educators with questions.

You may enjoy this hand-picked content:

Webinar: Learn Core Concepts of Section 504.

3. Individualize Support

Students with dyslexia struggle to learn to read and their educators often struggle as well. In some cases, student success only occurs when teachers are innovative, flexible and supportive. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to teaching individuals ― even seasoned educators need help sorting through the available options.

To avoid frustration or research fatigue, find a few reliable sources you can turn to. Campus IEP and 504 committee members are excellent sources for ideas, programs and tips about what is and isn’t working for individual students.

4. Gather the Right Data

Monitoring students at every stage will help you identify those who are struggling, gauge their progress, plan lessons that are appropriate and provide feedback to parents and learners.

Administrators can help with gathering and analyzing classroom data by:

  • Presenting teachers with clear expectations
  • Identifying district and campus norms that teachers can use to pinpoint areas of struggle
  • Providing a system for sharing data with other decision makers

Classroom teachers must have enough knowledge about dyslexia to use the available data to know which students may need additional help.

5. Encourage Self-Advocation

How do you help students learn to help themselves? This is a years-long process that begins with modeling positive attitudes about dyslexia in front of students and parents.

I provide students with information and practice, so they feel comfortable responding if teased about being dyslexic. The goal is for the student to handle difficult situations without assistance.

Teach students all about dyslexia. Talk about the characteristics, share the research about interventions, post photos of famous dyslexics in your classroom and role-play situations where students can teach others about the disability. Turn a difference into an asset.

6. Challenge Misconceptions

Educators share humorous stories with me of things that students, parents and teachers believe about dyslexia. These are often based on ideas that were disproven years ago but will not die. Here are some common misconceptions:

  • Dyslexic individuals see backwards (dyslexia is a phonological disorder)
  • Students outgrow dyslexia (it is lifelong)
  • Dyslexia is characterized by letter reversals (it is usually a visual-motor or developmental difficulty)

One parent even reported to me that her child “caught” dyslexia. As an educator, arm yourself with up-to-date, correct information and current research about this disability to share in situations like these.

7. Plan Data-based Accommodations & Progress Monitoring

Most students with dyslexia have protections under either IDEA or Section 504. This likely includes an accommodation plan to ensure the student has equal access to the school-wide curriculum. The only appropriate accommodation for a student with dyslexia is the one that meets his or her individual needs. As a result, the classroom teacher is best equipped to gather data about what the individual student needs and to systematically try interventions to see which are successful.

So, keep meticulous records to help the IEP or 504 committee find effective strategies. Once the plan is in place, consistent recordkeeping and data sharing with other teachers and committee members will gauge the success or failure of a student’s plan.

In Summary: Success Takes Perseverance

Individuals with dyslexia can have very positive experiences in school, especially with the appropriate interventions. They have learned perseverance from watching those who have tirelessly worked with and for them. Most pass state assessments, take the SAT or ACT and go on to have successful careers. Their teachers modeled steadfastness and work ethic, and the importance of an end goal. Working through the struggles that occur in school, along with access to caring advocates and a steady support system, can transform a learner with no confidence into a school and community leader.

I am not going to say teaching kids with dyslexia is an easy job. Teaching students with dyslexia is hard and requires long hours, extra steps and more data collection than seems possible. Despite these challenges, I still love my job. I live for the texts I get from students about the novels they’re reading in class. I dance on air after a 504 or IEP meeting where a student has completed the dyslexia program and is on grade level, ready to soar. I sign college and job reference letters for former students with jubilation.

When teachers advocate for students, dyslexic individuals are gathering tools to learn to self-advocate. They can speak up and educate others about dyslexia. Watching students grow and bloom and overcome disability is worth all of the challenges involved.

Whether using a 504 Plan or an IEP to support a student with dyslexia, Frontline makes it easier to plan data-driven accommodations and measure their efficacy. Learn how.

[1] International Dyslexia Association. (2017). Retrieved from https://dyslexiaida.org/dyslexia-basics.

[2] Texas Education Agency. (2014). Procedures Concerning Dyslexia and Related Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.region10.org/r10website/assets/File/DHBwithtabs10214.pdf.

Martha WaggonnerMartha Waggonner

Martha has been working with dyslexic individuals for the past 30 years as a dyslexia therapist, teacher, facilitator and specialist. She has a B.S. in Education from the University of Texas at Tyler, a M.S. in Special Education from Arkansas State University, and a M.Ed. in Curriculum from the University of Texas at Arlington. She is licensed by ALTA as a Certified Academic Language Therapist.

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