Challenging Teaching Situation: Teachers in the Trenches, Reading and Dyslexia, 2022 ALTA Summit Part 1
I love when I get to interact with teachers—they’re the folks with boots-on-the-ground experience in education. Being an educator is one of the toughest, least well-compensated careers, and it calls for tremendous passion and persistence. This is even more true for those who choose to specialize in reading instruction, and I am always delighted to get to know these caring people.
I was recently honored to speak at the 2022 Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA) Summit Meeting. ALTA is the professional credentialing organization for educators who have qualified as multisensory academic language therapists and practitioners using evidence-based reading instruction methods. I asked the attendees this question:
What are your greatest challenges when working with children with dyslexia?
When the attendees reached out to me with their responses and questions of their own, I paid attention. This blog and the one to follow share the challenging situations (and the suggestions I provided) faced by anyone who works with struggling readers.
Challenging Teaching Situation 1: “Being able to differentiate in the classroom with children who are working on different levels. I teach in a school for the LD learner, so we already have many supports in place (audio, Learning Ally, laptops for all, Executive Function tools, etc.).”
Suggestions: Flexibility and options. Some students need a quiet corner to be able to focus, others work better in groups. Some educators have found that allowing the students to come up with their own projects (as long as the lesson requirements are fully covered) helps keep students of different levels engaged. Grouping students based on their tier of activity helps as well.
Challenging Teaching Situation 2: “Trying to explain to parents it is not an overnight ‘fix’ but rather a life-long practice of utilizing the tools that are given to the students and having the students understand their learning profiles.”
Suggestions: Parents need gentle encouragement to cope with their emotional response to the information that their child has a lifelong issue. Parents need to hear that while it is true their child has this lifelong issue, there is no reason to lower their expectations. Their child can still develop their full potential, but it will require consistent effort on the part of everyone on the team: the student, parents, and educators.
Challenging Teaching Situation 3: “Struggling with spelling issues.”
Suggestions: Using singing to spell, based on songs with a beat that matches the number of letters of the word. Music engages a different part of the brain and helps the child have an additional pathway of memory association for their spelling words.
Challenging Teaching Situation 4: “My greatest challenge is to keep the students focused during the lesson.”
Suggestions: I have heard great things from teachers who provide interest centers. Almost any class material can be presented via multiple scenarios that will be relatable to students with different cultures, home situations, and interests. Also, think in terms of incremental gains: Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a focused student. Begin with the child’s natural focus time, even if it is five minutes, and gradually increase the time the child stays on task, with lots of celebration for each added minute of focus.
Challenging Teaching Situation 5: “Understanding the lack of reading fluency in a remediated student. Is there a connection with ADHD or are there some students who don’t read fluently?”
Suggestions: In my experience, students who lack fluency after remediation may not have had a remediation style that speaks to the way their brain processes and retrieves information. (And this is not your fault!)
Not all students who struggle to read have focus issues. But even for those who do, all students can become fluent when a multisensory approach to teaching reading is utilized. Often, school-board-approved remediation focuses on sight words or other long-standing techniques that don’t incorporate science-based information on how the brain actually learns to read and develop fluency.
I’ve had the privilege to meet and work with many reading specialists, and their consensus is that even in students with late diagnoses, the most effective remediation to build fluency and comprehension is the Orton-Gillingham approach or the Wilson Method.
Challenging Teaching Situation 6: “Virtual learning due to difficulty to use hands-on materials and attention.”
Suggestions: Attention and focus issues are best addressed by making the material relatable. What is the student actually interested in? What are their passions, their dreams? Why are those topics or dreams important to them?
What items do they have at home that can be used to facilitate a learning experience? By giving students the opportunity to share things important to them personally, and then connecting those dreams to learning opportunities that will help them reach those dreams, virtual learning becomes a priority.
Challenging Teaching Situation 7: “Students with low working memory.”
Suggestions: For the kid with poor working memory, it’s so important to celebrate every effort, every victory, and every success. Every effort is a success, since giving up always seems easier. Praising the child’s efforts rather than focusing exclusively on the completion of tasks builds rapport, respect, and encourages the child to keep showing up for their hard work every day. Patience and creativity on your part keep the child engaged and prove how much you are invested in helping them succeed.
When a student has low working memory or poor phonological awareness, no matter how hard you work or how much you care for that student, if you don’t meet them where they are academically, you will both be unfulfilled. Here’s the point: sometimes we have to deal with our own disappointment or sadness about a student’s struggles to perform to reach a place of acceptance of where they are. Only then can we offer them what will fit their capabilities at this moment.
Challenging Teaching Situation 8: “Helping parents understand their child’s needs and then teaching them how to help their child unlock his or her potential through patience and support.”
Suggestions: Just like a child who develops Type 1 diabetes, a child with dyslexia or its sibling conditions requires a daily routine, emotional support, and an educated parent who is involved and knows the symptoms to watch for in their child that indicate the need for attention. At the most basic level, a dyslexic student has two primary needs: (1) extra time in which to complete tasks, and (2) social and emotional support to deal with the feelings that are a big part of facing the daily slog of dyslexia. For practical suggestions on what social and emotional support looks like, including sample conversations, see my book Raising a Child with Dyslexia, What Every Parent Needs to Know.
If the parent is reluctant or unable to provide needed support, it’s important to find a mentor in the child’s extended family or community to serve as a proxy for this important role. Ask the parent for a recommendation of a trusted friend or relative. Kids need ongoing support and encouragement beyond what teachers can give them in the classroom.
Challenging Teaching Situation 9: “So many struggle with attention as well. It is a struggle to help kids with comorbid conditions. What are some strategies that may help when going through a lesson?”
Suggestions: By starting with topics that engage the student the most, that student begins to discover the joy of being a learner. Just like starting a baby on soft food, we begin with what is sweetest: applesauce, bananas, and carrots—not turnips and brussels sprouts. Maybe students have a story they’d love to tell, an experience that they long for, or a topic that lights up their brain. Start with those, so the students will begin to see what great learners and readers they already are. When students are helped to change their identity so that they see themselves as learners, they change their approach to life and the classroom.
Challenging Teaching Situation 10: “Working in a district that uses a good curriculum and has a good program—not just something to check the box and say we service our dyslexics.”
Suggestions: Amen to that. You are not the first educator who has observed that what is being “sold” as a good program in their district does not include evidence-based learning. My friend, fellow author and reading specialist Faith Borkowsky, writes about her observations and frustrations on this subject here in her blog, Soundbites and Slogans: One District’s New Literacy Plan and A Reality Check on the Intersection of Dyslexia and the Reading Workshop
There is more to come! Don’t miss the next installment of dialog generated by the 2022 ALTA Summit and its incredible, caring educators!
For a thorough discussion of dyslexia, you may enjoy the second edition of my award-winning book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio. In addition to facts on testing and accommodation, my book gives you the tools to provide the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require. The second edition has the same great content as the first edition but now contains a very helpful bibliography and index and an exciting new cover.
And to learn more about how every student best learns to read, you may also enjoy Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist and shortlisted World Literacy Award Nominee Faith Borkowsky.
Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.