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Background Knowledge & Vocabulary

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Background Knowledge & Vocabulary

If student reading is limited because they read as little as possible, then year after year this lack of exposure compounds and can create problems with reading comprehension. After several years of minimal exposure to text, students miss out on different types of vocabulary and expanding their background knowledge on various topics.

Believe it or not, vocabulary and reading comprehension may also be negatively affected if a student solely reads fiction books. In these books, the type of vocabulary used tends to be very general. In non-fiction text, the vocabulary includes academic and technical vocabulary. This is a different type of vocabulary that is important for children to build their understanding of because it is often topic specific or supportive to a topic. This is especially true beginning in the middle school years.

The Remedy

Use Audio-books. This is considered ear reading because students are reading through listening.  Students with dyslexia should be encouraged to listen to books at their grade level and above so they are exposed to rich content and higher-level vocabulary. This is called, “ear reading”. When students get older, audio books can be set to read at a faster rate so students can hear more information in a shorter period of time. Audio books open the door to knowledge and continued learning when books are too labor intensive to read by eye (eye reading). In saying this, I’m not suggesting your student stops reading books altogether. I am suggesting that if your student is not reading at grade level or is taking too long to read, try using audio-books so their knowledge and vocabulary is not limited to text below their grade level. Two good sources for audio books are and

Students should also be encouraged to use new vocabulary when speaking and writing. You can make vocabulary cards or word journals to keep track of new words and their meaning. It will help if students hear and use higher level and technical vocabulary in conversation. In order to truly expand vocabulary, try to use all four methods of communication with the targeted words – speaking, reading, listening, and writing.


These are great quotes that reinforce the fact that intelligence is not a predictor of dyslexia.  Phonemic awareness is.

“People are often surprised to learn that it is phonemic awareness and not intelligence that best predicts ease of learning to read.” Sally Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia.

“Phonemic awareness is the core and causal factor that separates normal readers from disabled readers.” Reid Lyon, NICHHD

There are 7 types of phonemic awareness skills. These may sound like simple skills, but for a dyslexic reader these skills are difficult and are usually not learned unless they are directly taught.  By the way, phoneme means sound.

7 Essential Phonemic Awareness Skills

  1. Phoneme Segmentation: Tell me the sounds you hear in the word

           mop? What's the middle sound in the word cub?

  1. Phoneme Deletion: If you take the /t/ off the word table, what’s left?
  1. Phoneme Matching: Listen: do the words snake and sun start with

the same sounds?

  1. Phoneme Counting: How many sounds are in the word tough?
  1. Phoneme Substitution: Change the /s/ in sad to /r/. What is the

new word?

  1. Blending: What word do the sounds /h/ /u/ /g/ make when blended?
  1. Rhyme: Start with the word cat and tell me three words that rhyme

with cat.



Phonics is a big word in education. You could say it’s a “buzz” word. There are many phonics workbooks, programs, and games on the market. In its simplest form, phonics teaches letter/sound correspondences. Phonics helps children learn to read, spell, and write. Phonics is generally taught between Kindergarten and 2nd grade. Phonics is essential to teach, but phonemic awareness must be taught and mastered before students can make sense of phonics.

To say phonics and phonemic awareness is the same thing would be a mistake. Phonemic awareness is not the same as phonics. Phonemic awareness does not involve letters, only sounds. It is focused solely on spoken words. Phonemic awareness is an auditory skill and a prerequisite skill for students to become competent spellers, readers, and writers. Phonemic awareness should be taught before phonics. It will only confuse struggling readers if they are taught phonics skills before mastering phonemic awareness skills.

The majority of students will develop phonemic awareness very naturally, without direct instruction. About 20% of readers will not – they will struggle with these skills. Struggling readers have difficulty with phonemic awareness skills and will need to be explicitly taught all 7 phonemic awareness skills. Having these skills, students will realize that words can be broken into syllables, which can be broken into individual sounds.  Check back next week to read more about phonemic awareness.

When thinking about ways to help children with learning don't forget to think about WHERE they are learning and TIME MANAGEMENT.  See the ideas below for helpful tips!


  1. Provide a consistent location to work with no distractions on the workspace.
  2. Minimize noise distractions (background TV, conversations, etc.)
  3. Fidgets can enhance focus – choose a fidget that can be used to help the student focus (exercise band on chair legs, stress ball, tangle toy, koosh ball or anything that is not a distraction but a focusing fidget).


  1. Allow extra time or set time limits for projects.
  2. Define time by using a visual timer.
  3. Use an alarm.
  4. Create an AM schedule and a PM schedule that students can look at and check off.
  5. Create daily goals together.
  6. Allow for longer processing time (think time).
  7. Give brain breaks or movement breaks.

Often times dyslexia affects math - especially the ability to memorize rote facts and remember step-by-step procedures. Because dyslexia is a language based learning disability, word problems can be extremely confusing.  Here are several tips to help ease math frustration.


  1. Provide grid paper for math problems.
  2. Flip lined paper on its side to line up math problems in columns.
  3. Use a multiplication chart.
  4. Use a 100’s chart.
  5. Use a number line.
  6. Use manipulatives whenever possible – base ten blocks, fraction cubes, etc.
  7. Provide memory triggers to aid retention of math facts and order of operations.
  8. Pair words with visuals. Show the student instead of telling the student.
  9. Allow a calculator to check work.
  10. Make sure students have space to show their work. Enlarge the page or add a blank work page.
  11. Get away from worksheets and try project based learning to be more hands-on.
  12. Restate word problems in simpler terms, draw pictures, tables, or graphs.
  13. Break work into small manageable parts.
  14. Provide a resource sheet with examples to guide students with multi-step problems.
  15. Explain math vocabulary and keep a vocabulary glossary.
  16. Provide step-by-step instructions using one strategy.  Avoid introducing too many strategies at once.

Many students who have dyslexia also have dysgraphia.  Dysgraphia is a writing disability that can make writing very labor intensive and can cause lots of tears.

Writing can be one of the most difficult subjects to teach and one of the most frustrating subjects for students to learn.  Here are a few ideas to make writing more manageable.


  1. Use a dictation program instead of writing everything by hand. There are built in systems on Google Chrome and free apps that can be used.
  2. Enlarge writing space.
  3. Provide lines.
  4. Use highlighters to define writing space
  5. Provide graphic organizers.
  6. Scribe for lengthy assignments or keyboard.
  7. Copy notes from paper or book instead of the board. Near point copying is easier.
  8. Provide a copy of notes.
  9. Assist student with the writing process – provide a checklist.
  10. Provide guided outlines or writing frames so students can fill in the main points.
  11. Allow print or cursive.
  12. Give hands on options for writing projects (Power Point presentations, diagrams, posters, flyers, etc).

Here are a few ideas to make learning more accessible and less frustrating.  Check next week's post for ideas to accommodate writing.  You can also email for a complete accommodations guide that you can download.

Reading & Presenting

  1. Provide audio versions of textbooks and chapter books through Learning Ally, Audible, Play-Away or other format.
  2. Have high-low books available for independent reading.
  3. Use computer, iPad, or other technology so papers and web information can be read out-loud to the student.
  4. Allow student to pre-rehearse oral reading before giving a presentation or doing reader’s theatre.
  5. Use a voice recorder to work on fluency.
  6. Use a voice recorder to pre-record a speech to play to the audience.
  7. Provide cover sheets or EZ readers to track text while reading.
  8. Give hands on options (diorama, model, movie, etc) for presenting.

Accommodations are essential for students with learning disabilities and executive functioning deficits like those you would see with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). When children and adults have a good understanding that fair does not mean equal it becomes easier to use accommodations to support student learning.

I’ve run into situations where students have such high expectations for themselves, and how they want others to view them, that they emotionally and mentally burn out because they refuse to be treated differently (fairly) through using accommodations. The opposite can be true as well. Some students don’t push themselves hard enough and take advantage by asking for too many accommodations. As parents and educators, knowing your child’s personality and learning needs are key when considering how to support their learning. When you’ve identified an area that your child struggles with ask yourself these questions.

  1. “What is the end goal?”
  2. “What baby steps (short term objectives) can we take to get there?”
  3. “Are there extra steps we can get rid of that aren’t meaningful to the learning?”
  4. “Is there anything we can do differently to make the journey smoother?”

There are many resources on accommodations for the classroom and home settings.  I will share a few many of them in the upcoming month.

Dorothy Morrison, Ph.D.

Retired director of university reading clinic
WI Middle School Interventionist
“I LOVE Silver Moon Spelling. I have used it with my intervention students in both elementary and middle school to help them understand the spelling patterns of the English language. Unlike other spelling programs, this one has engaging pictures, catchy mnemonics, and structured practice with each spelling pattern. My students loved doing this work. An added bonus was that as their spelling improved, so did their automatic word identification. I highly recommend Silver Moon for private tutors, parents, K-3 classroom teachers, and elementary and middle school interventionists.”
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