By Dr. Anthony D. Mortimer, Head of School
I will be posting some thoughts here each week throughout the 2020-2021 school year, and occasionally you will hear from other members of my staff and faculty here at Greenwood School. We decided that this may be an excellent opportunity to share with our school community and our partners, friends, and hopefully future friends (i.e., prospective families and partners and sponsors) some information about our student population and why Greenwood School is the best learning environment for them.
Most of the weekly features will be information about the specific learning differences that are represented within our student body and staff, and the research-based techniques and accommodations that we use here at Greenwood to provide these students with their greatest opportunities for success and growth. Since October is recognized worldwide as Dyslexia Awareness Month, I will start with dyslexia—what it is (and what it isn’t), and how we serve our students with dyslexia.
In the United States, October has been recognized as National Dyslexia Awareness Month since 2002. The goal each year is to provide greater awareness and understanding of the unique strengths and challenges that are part of everyday life for those with dyslexia—which according to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) could be as many as 1 in 5 people. Here at Greenwood School, dyslexia is one of the most represented learning differences in our student population; typically, 25% to 35% of our students have been diagnosed with dyslexia.
What is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia can have many symptoms or expressions, but at its core is language-based. Although most people tend to think of dyslexia specifically as a difficulty with reading—where its challenges are most often present and most readily visible—dyslexia is actually at its core primarily an issue with an individual’s ability to process the individual sounds within a spoken language (IDA, 2020; The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity). When the brain of someone with dyslexia experiences difficulty or delay in its ability to separate and process those individual sounds, this develops as they age into challenges in other areas of language—speech, reading speed/fluency/comprehension, spelling, writing, and/or conducting math operations or remembering mathematical facts and principles . (IDA, 2017; Morin, 2020). For more about how the brain functions with dyslexia, www.understood.org is a great resource for the basics of most learning differences. If you really love science, check out the article “The Neurobiology of Dyslexia” (Kearns, et al, 2019) listed in the references section at the end of this post.
What dyslexia is not:
As with all learning differences, there are misconceptions about dyslexia—usually as a product of popular culture through misrepresentation in movies, television shows, or books of how dyslexia affects someone. Although these misrepresentations are not always intentional, they can sometimes influence people to view dyslexia inaccurately or in an overgeneralized, stereotypical way. Here are a few examples of things many people believe about dyslexia (thank you to the Commonwealth Learning Center, The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, and understood.org for some excellent summaries):
- People with dyslexia always see words backward, or mix up similar-looking letters like b and d.
- Fact: although these things can sometimes be expressions of dyslexia, seeing words backward or mixing up similar-looking letters are not symptoms that exist in every person with dyslexia. Remember, dyslexia is about difficulty in differentiating sounds (called “phonological processing”). Word/letter reversals most commonly occur in young readers—kindergarten, first & second grades (Dinelli, 2020; Morin, 2020).
- People with dyslexia are not intelligent.
- Fact: sadly, this misconception is common for many learning differences. In reality, people with dyslexia are diverse in intelligence levels just like any sample of the population. Many people with dyslexia are intellectually gifted, and most are of average to above average intelligence (IDA, 2020).
- Students with dyslexia are lazy.
- Fact: Absolutely not! In fact, they tend to have to work far more intensely than most other learners because their brains have to find workarounds to compensate for language decoding skills that are weakened by dyslexia. All that extra work can lead to exhaustion, headaches, frustration, and/or low self-esteem or a lack of confidence, any of which may cause a student to “give up” on an academic task or assignment (Dinelli, 2020; The Yale Center, 2020).
- Dyslexia can be cured/outgrown/corrected with medical treatments such as vision therapy.
- Dyslexia is a neurological medical condition—it is about how the individual’s brain connections are “wired.” Although the brain can be trained to make different connections through interventions and certain instructional techniques that teach compensating strategies, dyslexia does not ever “go away.” Individuals who receive appropriate supports, however, do become more skilled at overcoming the challenges presented by their dyslexia (Dinelli, 2020; IDA, 2020; Kearns, et al, 2019; Morin, 2020).
What Supports are Best for People with Dyslexia?
For younger students (primary grades through upper elementary and sometimes middle school), evidence-based reading programs like Orton-Gillingham or the Wilson Reading System have shown to be quite effective in helping students with dyslexia learn strategies to strengthen their skills and to compensate for neural pathways that have not developed in a typical manner (The Yale Center, 2020). I want to give a big shout-out to one of our incredible partners—The DePaul School of Northeast Florida, right here in Jacksonville, specializes in helping students in grades 2-8 with dyslexia to develop successful strategies to prepare them for high school learning.
For adolescents trying to navigate increasingly more complex text and spoken language—especially those trying to learn a foreign language—implementing a full-scale reading program is not feasible in high school and college. These older students, however, can greatly benefit from academic accommodations that alleviate the processing burden their brains bear during learning (Dinelli, 2020; The Yale Center, 2020). Some of those accommodations that we have found most successful for students here at Greenwood are:
- Extra Time: because dyslexia makes it challenging for a student to read fluently or rapidly, allowing the student more time than the test or assignment was designed to take is an appropriate and effective accommodation.
- Multimodal text: listening to an audible recording of a book or textbook while reading the physical text helps to relieve some of the decoding burden of reading so that the student may focus more upon comprehension of what they are reading. On a test or assignment, this accommodation may be delivered by having the teacher read questions aloud to the student while they are reading along. Electronic Reader Pens can be very useful in the delivery of this accommodation as well.
- Note-taking aids: typing notes on a laptop, using speech-to-text assistive technology, and/or a copy of the notes provided by the teacher are all appropriate and helpful accommodations for students with dyslexia. Trying to process classroom lectures or discussions and trying to handwrite notes at the same time can rapidly overwhelm the brain when dyslexia is involved.
- Outlines/study guides/ready references: a student working with dyslexia may experience significant test anxiety, especially with subjects like mathematics in which they need to rapidly recall facts and formulas. Providing an outline-format summary of main topics and their underlying ideas can help these students to focus their study efforts; providing a list of formulas in math that they are allowed to access during the test is also an appropriate accommodation.
What can I Do to Help these Students?
First and foremost—take the time to understand them as individuals! If you are their parent/guardian, you’re already well ahead of the rest of us on this one, so please use that understanding to communicate clearly and supportively with your child’s school. If you are the classroom teacher or school administration, encourage and support the student by modeling and teaching them how to advocate for what works best for them as a learner, and then consistently provide appropriate accommodations like those listed above. If you are neither the parent/guardian nor educator, consider supporting the student by becoming a partner with their School (see the “Sponsor a Student” section of our webpage at www.greenwoodjax.org/giving). No matter what role you have in the student’s life…encourage them!
Dinelli, B. (2020). Common misconceptions about dyslexia. Commonwealth Learning Center. Retrieved from http://www.commlearn.com/common-misconceptions-about-dyslexia
International Dyslexia Association (IDA). (2017). Dyslexia in the classroom: What every teacher needs to know. Baltimore, MD: IDA.
Kearns, D. M., Hancock, R., Hoeft, F., Pugh, K. R., & Frost, S. J. (2019). The neurobiology of dyslexia. Teaching Exceptional Children, 51(3), 175-188.
Morin, A. (2020). 7 common myths about dyslexia. Retrieved from http://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/dyslexia/common-myths-about-dyslexia-reading-issues
The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. (2020). Dyslexia FAQ. Retrieved from http://www.dyslexia.yale.edu/dyslexia/dyslexia-faq.