Dyslexia expert Kelly Steinke, founder of READ Learning Educational Services, talks about raising dyslexia awareness in schools and why it matters.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ is generally used in context of spectrum disorders like autism or mental health issues such as ADHD. Neurodiversity means that people don’t come with ‘one-size-fits-all’ brains. People are more complicated, and science has shown that different brains are wired in different ways. These differences are part of what gives us our unique abilities, interests, fears, strengths, and weaknesses.
I began my career as a special education teacher and taught for almost 20 years in the Midwest, East Coast, and Pacific Northwest. During this time I became a National Board Certified Teacher in Exceptional Needs, earned a Master of Arts Degree in Education, and founded my company, READ Learning Educational Services. For the past seven years, I have served the community as a dyslexia specialist.
My interest in dyslexia was spurred out of necessity. Throughout my teaching career, the majority of my students were diagnosed as reading disabled. Though dyslexia was never directly stated on student documents or evaluations, I learned through professional reading that dyslexia was (and still is) the most common type of reading disability. In taking this knowledge back to my classroom, I realized most of my students showed the tell tale signs of dyslexia.
Needless to say, after many frustrating years of teaching without any knowledge of dyslexia, or alternate reading approaches, I experienced a ‘teaching epiphany’. I realized my students made little to no gains in reading because I was using reading interventions that were not in line with what medical research had proven about dyslexia and the brain. My instructional approach (how I was teaching and what I was teaching) was not effective for the majority of my dyslexic readers.
This was a life changing realization for my students and my family. I completely changed how and what I taught when working with students who showed the signs of dyslexia, and on a personal level I identified dyslexia in both of my daughters at only 5 years old. This answered a lot of questions for our family and is why I’ve dedicated my career to the helping families and schools with dyslexia diagnosis, intervention and academic supports.
Communities become stronger, more compassionate and more accepting of differences when they are educated to recognize and understand each other’s unique traits – diversity.
One of my favorites was always the ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ campaign. T-shirts were sold in March and worn on a specified day. Students gave a school-wide presentation that educated peers about treating everyone, despite differences, with respect and compassion. This created an overall positive ‘buzz’ within the school climate. Another positive initiative happens during the month of April when it’s common for schools to celebrate autism awareness month. This is important because it raises awareness. It reinforces acceptance, support, and builds understanding around autism. The goal is to make life easier and happier for those who have autism. At the same time it aims to build understanding for those who don’t, so they are able to interact, work, and be friends with folks who have autism. It’s mutually beneficial. These initiatives are examples of neurodiversity awareness.
They are beneficial to our communities. As a dyslexia specialist, this makes me pause to think. Over half of our country has some kind of dyslexia legislation in place, yet I’ve never heard of a school celebrating dyslexia awareness month. Come to think of it, I’ve never worked in a school that has recognized October as being significant to dyslexia. Do schools in your area celebrate dyslexia awareness month? I’m sure there are districts that do, and I’d love to hear where they are and what kind of events are planned for dyslexia awareness. Please share!
Autism is generally easy to spot because of how a person interacts or doesn’t interact socially. On the contrary, dyslexia is not visible from the outside. You can’t tell someone has dyslexia by looking at their outward behavior. This makes dyslexia awareness all the more important. Dyslexia comprises 80% of all learning disabilities and is visible through FMRI imaging in neurological research. Yet, the term is still taboo in many of our schools. Neurological imaging has proven that dyslexics have different brain wiring in the language processing center of their brains and have shown different activation patterns within the brain while they are reading. This sounds like neurodiversity to me.
This is where neurodiversity comes into play and where more awareness and education is needed. Different approaches get different results. As a dyslexia specialist and the founder of a specialized learning center, READ Learning Educational Services, I help students, young and old, learn to read and spell when traditional approaches have failed. There are no “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching reading and many (not all, but many) in the education world are unaware of two very important principles.
Please note, the term ‘approach’ is not synonymous with the term ‘program’. There are hundreds and maybe thousands of reading programs available to educators. ‘Approach’ refers to the actual teaching method/style in which a student is taught. This includes but is not limited to the sequence of content taught, how content is presented, the type of text that is used for students to read, specific strategies that are taught to support reading and spelling skills, and strategies to support memory and generalization of concepts.
At my reading center we only use Orton Gillingham-based approaches. Orton Gillingham is a very different way of teaching reading (when compared to balanced literacy approaches) and is steeped in medical research as opposed to educational philosophy / theory. It’s intense, explicit, sequential, multisensory, rule-based and focuses on spelling just as much as it does reading. Reading and spelling are taught in tandem. Orton-based interventions focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, fluency, accuracy, and spelling. If you’d like more information on how to teach spelling systematically, check out the Silver Moon Spelling Rules program.
Students we work with at READ Learning generally enter our doors with five things in common.
We’d likely see less students with these five characteristics in common if there were increased awareness and education surrounding dyslexia in our schools. If you’d like to learn more about dyslexia, request our ‘Characteristics of Dyslexia’ or ‘Dyslexia Testing’ resources.
Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Last year, I spoke with a special education teacher who shared a frustrating conversation she had while at work. She was in a meeting with her school’s psychologist discussing student literacy needs. She shared that a few of her students were showing signs of dyslexia. She went on to share that most of these students had shown little to no progress in reading even with ongoing tiered intervention and classroom instruction over the past year. The school psychologist responded by saying that it didn’t really matter if her students were dyslexic or not because it wouldn’t change the way they would teach reading to them anyway.
‘It wouldn’t change the way they would teach reading anyway.’
This statement is worth repeating because of its transparency. It shows that this professional is working in a district that’s missing some key information. In other words, ‘he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.’ This district has not trained their key players to understand the neurological / medical research surrounding dyslexia. If they had, the psychologist would know there are different courses of action (approaches), recommended when working with students who show symptoms of or are diagnosed with dyslexia. When students are not making enough progress to close the achievement gap between themselves and benchmark reading levels, it should, at the very least, spur a conversation about other possible approaches that could be used for the child’s reading instruction and why the current approach is not working.
I felt the need to share this story because it’s not an uncommon experience. I hear versions of this quite often, except with different players. In the other versions there have been principals, special education directors, reading specialists, literacy coordinators and other teachers as the persons who aren’t knowledgeable about dyslexia or alternate reading approaches.
Unfortunately, I can relate to this experience. When I was still teaching in the classroom, I listened to my special education director tell our department not to use the word, ‘dyslexia’ when talking to parents, but instead to refer to the cluster of symptoms as being a reading disability. Yikes! This perspective is comparable to going to the doctor with pneumonia and the doctor telling you that all you have is a cold. The prescribed solution for pneumonia is very different from that of a general cold. With a cold you would simply rest up and drink lots of fluids. With the latter, you’d be given medication with specific directions on how to take the medication and for how long. This is a relevant analogy considering dyslexics have different wiring within their brains. They acquire reading differently from the majority of readers.
Because they learn to read differently, it’s important to identify them as early as possible and have alternate, more prescriptive approaches readily available. It’s a common myth that dyslexia is rare. Dyslexia is not rare; the prevalence in the general population is 15-20%. Instead, what tends to be rare is a school’s ability to accurately identify and intervene.
You could sponsor events for dyslexia awareness month. Maybe you could reach out to bring in an expert that is able to speak about dyslexia. If you or someone you know would like to learn more about the science behind teaching those with dyslexia, I would suggest reading the book, Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz. A few years back, I shared this book with a reading specialist who, after reading it, came to me in tears. Had she only known sooner…were some of the feelings she shared. These are just a few ideas that will open up the lines of communication and start those important conversations.
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” – William Wilberforce
Kelly Steinke is a mother, wife, teacher and business owner. Kelly began her career as a special education teacher and had goals of becoming a special education director. After completing her Master’s Degree in Administration and Leadership, Kelly became licensable as a director of pupil services & special education. It was about this time that she became interested in the field of dyslexia. Instead of pursuing administrative goals, Kelly pursued certifications as a dyslexia specialist and founded her company, READ Learning Educational Services, LLC. READ Learning is a full time reading center specializing in Orton Gillingham-based reading interventions (online and in person) and dyslexia diagnosis. Kelly is also a speaker, adjunct instructor and the creator of Silver Moon® Spelling Rules curriculum and professional development trainings. For more information visit www.ReadLearningServices.com
Slow fluency and poor accuracy can make reading unbearable and will negatively affect comprehension. There are research-based guidelines for how many correct words per minute a student should be able to read by the end of their grade level. If your student is extremely slow and/or very inaccurate when reading, you should consider reading instruction steeped in Orton Gillingham based methods. It is never too late to learn reading and spelling methods that will improve student reading fluency, resulting in better comprehension. If these skills are in place and fluency continues to be an issue, then targeted fluency practice may be in order.
Make sure your student has the skills necessary to break words into meaningful parts in order to sound them out and read them. If these skills are in place then you can work on fluency using repeated reading and fluency drills. One way to do this is to use oral reading fluency recordings. Voice-record your student as he/she reads a passage. Afterwards, have the student listen to the recording while they follow along with the text. This draws their attention to what they are doing well and what they need to improve upon. They can hear their prosody, mark reading errors and make goals for their second and third reading of the text. Repeat this process two or three times until you are both happy with the level of fluency attained. These readings can also be timed. With each reading, you should push the student to beat their time yet maintain accurate word reading.
Sometimes students have received all the right instruction, yet when reading they skip small words (of, but, as, if, etc.), skip or change suffixes or substitute similar looking words for the actual word on the page. You can draw attention to these types of errors with a highlighter, a word/sentence window or simply by telling them what their errors are and asking them to slow down and read exactly what is on the page.
Memory & Attention
This article would be amiss if it didn’t mention memory and attention. Memory can also cause trouble with reading comprehension. Often dyslexics have trouble remembering what they read, just moments after reading something. This might be due to a lack of attention/focus. It could also be due to memory retrieval issues or slow processing. Many people can relate to having a wandering mind while reading material that is not interesting or emotionally engaging. These problems may occur alongside dyslexia. Forty percent of dyslexics also have attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity.
There are other reasons individuals may struggle with reading comprehension, but when you are dealing with dyslexia the struggles are often found in the details. This article is part of a larger article that was published for Home Educators Resource Directory (HERD). It briefly describes some of the most commonly used strategies for improving comprehension when it is a result of having dyslexia.
Less Reading, Less Comprehension
Difficulty reading leads to less reading, which in turn can lead to reading comprehension trouble. This is one reason comprehension may suffer for dyslexic readers.
This makes a lot of sense. When reading is hard it becomes a chore. When reading is a chore, reading for pleasure doesn’t happen. The more a student experiences difficulty reading, the less they are motivated to read. This cycle only gets worse if the student is not given reading instruction that works to improve reading. Dyslexic readers are weak in phonological processing skills, which are necessary for sounding out unknown words. Without being taught the right skills to sound out words, students will not become better readers, they will read less and this can affect comprehension.
On the flip side, it’s important to note that more reading does not always beget better reading. Just like more phonics instruction does not help a dyslexic reader become better readers if they don’t have phonemic awareness skills and the auditory discrimination necessary to make sense of phonics. Current neurological research is very prescriptive when it comes to reading methodology for dyslexic students. A structured literacy or Orton Gillingham approach is the best approach and will improve student progress the quickest. When decoding and fluency improves, often so does comprehension.
There are three main areas that are negatively impacted by a lack of reading. These areas are background knowledge, vocabulary, and reading fluency.
Difficulty Reading Can Lead to Difficulty Comprehending
This statement may seem like common sense, but is often something that is misunderstood. It’s always important to consider why someone is having difficulty with comprehension. There are students who can read beautifully with very smooth fluency, yet not comprehend anything they’ve read. This is often the case with someone who has autism. This is not a characteristic of dyslexia.
Recently, I’ve received more questions about reading comprehension. I work with children and adults who have dyslexia. The three main characteristics of dyslexia are difficulty when reading words in isolation, poor spelling ability and poor reading fluency. There are many other signs and symptoms of dyslexia, but these are the big three. If you would like a more comprehensive list of the characteristics of dyslexia, please request the, “Characteristics of Dyslexia Resource Guide” through my website.
If you look at a list of dyslexic characteristics, you will notice reading comprehension further down the list. Characteristics are generally grouped by age/grade level, so further down the list would mean the symptom is more likely to show up during later elementary, middle, or high school years as opposed to early elementary years. Why is this?
Dyslexia doesn’t inherently cause reading comprehension problems. In fact, one way to tease out a true comprehension problem versus a decoding problem, with a young child, is to test the student’s listening comprehension and compare this to their silent reading comprehension. Parents and educators are often surprised at the discrepancy between these two skills when working with dyslexic students. Listening comprehension is typically very strong because, at this point, there is nothing wrong with a child’s understanding of language. Silent reading comprehension is often below grade level because the student is struggling to read words accurately and fluently enough to understand what they have read. As you can see, what appears to be a reading comprehension issue is not always a true reading comprehension issue. Instead, it is a decoding problem – the inability to read words on the page with enough fluency to comprehend what was read. Reading fluency is an important indicator of comprehension. This is important to know because text can’t be understood if a child takes too long to read the words on the page. This is compounded if the words read are mostly inaccurate. As a child matures and reaches upper elementary grades and beyond, a true comprehension problem may develop as a secondary issue because of the effect of the dyslexia on their inability to read at the same pace as their peers. Let’s take a look at what this means.
This is an excerpt form an article posted in HERD publications. Check back next Friday for more!
Why is my child struggling with reading comprehension and what will help?
Here’s a scenario. Kim is an 8th grade student who has just been diagnosed with dyslexia. Kim has always been very bright and curious. She asks great questions and has always really excelled in science because of the hands on projects and experiments. Kim is a natural leader and enjoys being actively engaged in many activities. Though Kim loves learning, she has never enjoyed reading for pleasure because it takes her a long time to read. Kim spends a lot of time on schoolwork and tries her best but can’t help feeling frustrated at how long it takes her to complete tasks. She often has to read things two or three times over again just to remember and make sense of what she’s read. Kim doesn’t remember having this problem in elementary school. Why is she having this problem now?
Recently, it seems I’m receiving more questions about reading comprehension. I work with children and young adults who have dyslexia. The three main characteristics of dyslexia are having difficulty reading words in isolation, poor spelling ability and poor reading fluency. There are many other signs and symptoms of dyslexia, but these are the big three. If you look at a more comprehensive list of dyslexic characteristics, you may see reading comprehension further down the list. If the characteristics are grouped by age/grade level, then further down the list would be later elementary, middle, high school and beyond. What does this mean?
Dyslexia makes it difficult to read fluently which can make reading a chore. Often when this is the case, dyslexics decide they are only going to read what they absolutely have to read. This can present problems with reading comprehension, as a child gets older for several reasons. The first reason being limited vocabulary and lack of background knowledge...
To be continued next Friday.
It’s important to note that APD is not the only type of language and/or communication deficit. If you are looking for answers, a good place to start is your family pediatrician. From there, the pediatrician should be able to guide and direct you to the appropriate specialist. They may suggest having an evaluation or screening done by a speech and language pathologist or they may refer you directly to an audiologist. Audiologists are the only professionals that can diagnose APD.
There are many symptoms of APD that are also symptoms of other disorders. Because of this, it can be confusing to determine what the actual problem is without getting help from a trained professional. Though symptoms may overlap, the root cause of the problem is what needs to be determined in order to get an accurate diagnosis of the issue.
For instance, APD is often confused with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) because many of the symptoms are similar. Current research suggests that some individuals are diagnosed incorrectly with ADD when they really have APD because both cause attention issues. So, what’s the main difference? APD’s underlying issue is the inability to process correctly what is being spoken. ADD’s main issue is the inability to focus and maintain attention, which in turn affects processing and understanding. You can see how these two disorders can have quite a bit of overlap. Treatment for ADD would be different from treatment for APD.
There is also overlap between APD and dyslexia. In fact, research has suggested that auditory processing issues are a contributing factor in people with dyslexia. These two disorders have several symptoms in common. In both disorders reading, spelling, and writing can be affected. Phonemic awareness is affected, speech, auditory discrimination, and more.
Persons with APD will likely show some of the following symptoms. Remember a person with APD has normal hearing. They will pass a hearing test; yet, will have problems with certain aspects of how hearing is processed.
Can a person have normal hearing, pass a hearing test and still be diagnosed with auditory processing disorder? What are the symptoms of auditory processing disorder? Are there other conditions similar to auditory processing disorder?
Auditory processing disorder (APD) is also known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder. This is a neurological disorder that makes it difficult for children to process and interpret sounds that they hear. APD has nothing to do with not being able to hear. In fact, if you suspect APD one of the first things you should do is talk to your child’s pediatrician and rule out hearing problems by asking for a hearing test.
When someone has APD there is a breakdown in receiving, remembering, and understanding spoken language. This can create different symptoms depending on the individual. Check back next week for a list of common symptoms that children and adults with APD might display.