There are kids in every elementary classroom who don’t like to read. It’s easy to say they don’t like to learn or they’re lazy. But Jonathan Green, director of The Hamilton School at Wheeler, a school-within-a-school for students with language-based learning differences, says those assumptions are unlikely to be accurate.
“The idea of unmotivated kids is a myth,” Green said. “If you see a kid who doesn’t want to learn, there’s a reason for it. Let’s find out what that is.”
Oftentimes, it’s dyslexia.
According to the Dyslexia Center of Utah, as many as 80% of people with poor reading skills are dyslexic. The same portions of people of different genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds have dyslexia, the most common language-based learning disability. The International Dyslexia Association estimates as many as one in five people have some symptoms of the disability, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling or writing, and a tendency to confuse similar words.
October, National Dyslexia Awareness Month, is a good time to think about how best to serve dyslexic students. For Green, it’s part of his daily routine.
Diagnose and serve
The Wheeler School is a private day school in Rhode Island, and its school-within-a-school, Hamilton, provides an opportunity for students with learning differences to get the support they need in the subjects they need it and then join their peers for other classes and activities.
While public schools may face constraints Wheeler does not, including tight finances and low availability of qualified staff, Green doesn’t think there’s any reason why kids with dyslexia should go undiagnosed or fail to learn how to read successfully. Decades of research has identified the best strategies to help dyslexic students master reading. It may take extra training for teachers, but the knowledge base is out there. And Green, a former board member of the International Dyslexia Association, says diagnosis should happen in first or second grade at the latest.
Among the most respected approaches to reading instruction for dyslexics are those based on the work of Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham, including the Slingerland Approach and Wilson Language Training. The Hamilton School uses the Orton-Gillingham Approach in addition to Lindamood Bel.
For Green, Orton-Gillingham provides an approach to teaching children with dyslexia how to read and decode words. From there, he says schools need to focus on reading fluency. Once students connect letters with their proper sounds, they need to do so automatically to become good readers. Otherwise they’ll be stuck parsing out one letter sound at a time, losing the meaning of words and sentences as they get lost in their very smallest parts.
“Kids think it’s all about being fast, but there are many, many good readers who read very slowly,” Green said. “The end game to reading has always been understanding.”
And dyslexia isn’t just about reading. When students struggle to read because of a disability, there are consequences that follow. If they read less often or read books at lower levels than their cognitive abilities would otherwise allow for, they lose the opportunity to expand their vocabulary — a cumulative problem that gets more serious over time.
That’s one reason why every student at The Hamilton School gets a subscription to Learning Ally and gets access to its catalog of audio books. Beyond benefiting from the exposure to new vocabulary, students get the chance to get caught up in a book they might not have picked up in print. Listening, Green says, shows them the range of possibility as they develop their own reading skills.
Beyond a disability
Lee Tincher, academic dean at American College of Education, says schools could be doing a lot better when it comes to serving students with dyslexia. She designs courses for teachers, encouraging a multi-sensory approach to reading instruction that respects dyslexic students’ ability to think differently, and mostly with visual images than with words.
Too often, people think of dyslexics and assume they are cognitively slow. In reality, students with dyslexia can struggle with seemingly basic tasks of sounding out words while excelling at far more complicated tasks like analysis and synthesis of concepts. In Tincher’s experience, dyslexic thinkers are almost always gifted.
“If people see the dyslexia first and don’t see the giftedness, there’s a problem,” Tincher said.
It is difficult to serve students who are known as twice exceptional — those who are gifted and also have learning disabilities. But as schools work to make instruction increasingly personalized, better serving the many students who are dyslexic should be high on the list of priorities.