Living Differently

Living with a learning difference can present many challenges, as well as great opportunities. Children who are living with a learning difference need the support of their families, educators, and peers. Providing this support is not always easy. We are often asked how families and teachers can help support a child with learning differences. Below you will find helpful hints for the home, as well as the classroom.

Tips For Supporting Students At Home

1.   Try reading to your child every night for about 20 minutes. Listening and following along help children develop a sense of language patterns.  Your child will offer to read to you when he or she is comfortable.

2.   Make a schedule for your child that includes pictures and words to help him or her remember responsibilities and to be more independent.

3.   Model your own enjoyment of reading.

4.   Read “environmental print” – words on signs, menus, food packages, and buildings – with your child.  You can even make it into a game!

5.   Be patient when your child is trying to think of a word when speaking.

6.   Set up regular routines and follow them – children with dyslexia work best with predictable schedules.

7.   Play board games and similar activities to build memory and social skills.

8.   Make sure your child eats well and gets enough rest – all learning difficulties are worse when a person is hungry, sick, or tired.

9.   Remember that students with dyslexia don’t generalize well.  Coach younger children before play dates, and all children before any appointments, social situations or family gatherings.  Describe the situation, persons  likely to be there, what to expect, and any particular behavioral or social expectations appropriate for the situation.  Find activities to share where your child can show you his or her strengths – like watching a Discovery Science show together and talking about it, building Legos, art, history, sports, participating in other hobbies, etc.

10. Set a homework timer and have a quiet place for your student to work.  Your student will know when it is time to stop, and you are less likely to have a conflict.

11. Practice “buying” items at home and at the store to work with counting money and making change.

12. Practice sequencing – what comes next in a story or situation?

13. Remember to show your child how to do something new – don’t just tell them about it.  They will understand it more clearly, and are likely to remember it better.  Children with dyslexia need a context for learning so their brains can build better neural networks.


Tips For Supporting Students In The Classroom

Most students with dyslexia and related processing differences need appropriate and targeted interventions by knowledgeable professionals to help develop their underlying difficulties.  At the same time it is critical to remember that these are bright children who often feel frustrated and marginalized.  They are often perceived as less capable, indifferent, or “just not trying.”  Most are able to understand concepts at a much higher level than their reading skills, and struggle to gain access to information unless it is presented visually, auditory, or both.  They can be highly creative and excel at problem solving strategies, but often do not have the chance to develop these talents because they spend time that would have been devoted to science, arts, or similar areas of interest in language arts remediation programs.  Unfortunately many of these programs, while well-intentioned, are not designed for students with dyslexia.  There is usually a focus on fluency at the expense of comprehension, and a repetition of content presented in way that is not “dyslexia friendly” that fails to build a core understanding of language structures and patterns.  Dyslexia can also impact many other areas of information processing, including sequencing, working with numbers and other symbols, mathematical calculations, and even interpreting social cues.

While every student is different, and would benefit from a tailored approach, here are some typical areas of challenge in the classroom:


Potential Challenge:  Fluency, accuracy, and “automaticity” in reading require the development of stronger phonological awareness and spelling.  Students may have been exposed to a word or information previously, but may not be able to recall the knowledge.

What can help:  Structured and multi-sensory language instruction that is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach can help students develop stronger phonological awareness.   This provides a firm foundation in spelling rules and patterns.  This approach teaches the 44 distinct phonemes in the English language, along with the rules for their use.  The student should also read with an adult on a daily basis, and have in independent reading program that is appropriate for their skill level, age, and interests.

Potential Challenge:  Material that is presented in only one format is harder for the brain to reliably store and retrieve consistently.

What can help:  A combination of visual and auditory learning, preferably with a hands-on component, is the most effective approach.  Students should be provided with opportunities for practice and repetition of new concepts and directions.  Material should be presented in sequence and in a conceptual context – not isolated facts like dates and names to memorize.  Material should be presented in visual and auditory form together whenever possible – using written and oral directions.  Directions in the classroom may need to be repeated, and broken down into smaller segments.  The teacher should check for understanding before the student begins a test or other activity. Visuals, including maps, videos, computer web sites, and pictures are very important and help provide context and background.

Potential Challenge:  Many students with dyslexia are functioning at a much higher cognitive level than their writing skills would suggest.  When they try to get ideas on paper, they often get frustrated and resort to simple sentence structure.  This is not a true reflection of what they know.

What can help:  Computers might be a useful tool for writing.  Developing keyboarding skills could improve writing; many students find they are able to word process more easily.   (This is not always true for students with dysgraphia, who can struggle to find the right keys.)  Some students find greater success using cursive writing, since the letters flow better and are more distinct than printing.  Computer applications like “Dragon Naturally Speaking” or similar programs on many tablets and devices can be trained to type as a student dictates.  The student can then play back the passage for editing.

Potential Challenge:  Students with dyslexia often receive lower grades on their work in subject-specific classes not because of their grasp of the content, but because of their spelling errors.

What can help:  Avoid penalizing for spelling errors made in subjects other than spelling.  It is difficult for students with processing difficulties to formulate their thoughts and recall spelling patterns at the same time until they master the patterns.   Alternate forms of assessment, like oral tests and quizzes, will give a teacher a more accurate understanding of a student’s knowledge.

Potential Challenge:  About 50 – 60% of students with dyslexia have a co-existing difficulty with ADD or ADHD.  Even those who do not often struggle to keep their materials and work organized.  They often lose credit in classes because they complete assignments but forget to turn them in.

What can help:  Students should develop good organization systems for their work.  At a minimum, they should have a pocket folder with one side for daily homework to be completed and one for homework to be submitted.  Color-coded folders for different subject areas can be helpful.  Establish routines.  Some students may find it helpful to use a personal tablet to visually track their schedule and assignments.

Potential Challenge:  Copying from the board can be very tedious and tiring for students with processing differences.

What can help:  More time should be allowed.  Alternately, provide students with copies of notes, word banks, or printed material so they can listen and work with the class instead of expending mental energy transcribing.  (Students are also more prone to making copying errors, and solving the wrong problem or reading incorrect page numbers, which adds to their frustration.)

Potential Challenge:  Completing standardized or other testing on time.

What can help:   Allow students to have more time on tests, including standardized tests.  Additional accommodations that should be provided include having directions read to the student, and sometimes having test items and choices read to the student if allowed for that assessment.  A quiet environment and the opportunity for breaks is essential, as allowed.

Potential Challenge:  While dyslexia is primarily a language-based learning difference, some areas of math can be impacted.  Many students will have difficulty with computation symbols, negative numbers, fractions, order of operations, place value, specific mathematics vocabulary, estimating, and rounding.  Some students with dyslexia struggle with learning their multiplication tables.

What can help:  Math needs to be taught with hands-on manipulatives to provide a visual for each concept.  Students should learn to “read” word problems for cue words that suggest specific operations or problem solving strategies.  Additional practice in areas of difficulty, along with re-teaching, can be useful approaches.  It is advisable to keep teaching the student new concepts while continuing to practice areas of difficulty for reinforcement.  Too often students who are strong in math conceptually are held back because they can’t multiply.

Potential Challenge:  Students with dyslexia may have difficulty with other symbols, including analog clocks, rulers, thermometers, music notes, dollar and cents signs, etc.

What can help:  Repeated practice using the real items instead of pictures can be helpful.  Teach students to estimate before measuring to have a sense of the accuracy of their answer.

Potential Challenge:  Research has shown that many students with dyslexia have difficulty with social skills and social situations, often preferring the company of younger children or adults to their peer group.  Many also have a keen sense of fairness.  The child with dyslexia may not always pick up on body language or other social cues, and can be seen as awkward or different by other children.  This, together with poor class performance, can make them a target for bullying behaviors.

What can help:  Teach desirable social skills like eye contact and listening in a conversation.  Apply and practice skills and appropriate choices in social settings.  If something does not go as well as it could, try to quietly provide immediate feedback on a better alternative.  Analyzing videos or photos of social situations can be helpful.  Ensure that the school environment is safe for all students, and enforce a zero tolerance stance on bullying.

Potential Challenge:  To find time to engage in reading remediation, students may miss science, math, art, physical education, music, or other more hands-on, project-based classes.  For many students with dyslexia, these are often the only classes in which they feel comfortable and which cater to their learning approach.

What can help:  Avoid pulling students with dyslexia from these subject areas.  Many of them have gifts in spatial and visual ability, creativity, and problem solving, and are drawn to these fields for careers.  Encourage students to engage in extracurricular activities in areas of interests or strengths.  This provides a chance to bond with peers in a non-learning setting while developing skills.