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Teaching Students with Dyslexia in the Regular Classroom.

Sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Cervantes had carefully planned the new year's curriculum, put up fresh bulletin boards, arranged desks and equipment, and posted classroom rules. She had reviewed her class roster and carefully studied each child's cumulative folder. Everything was ready. Then the unexpected happened. The school counselor asked Mrs. Cervantes to meet with a new student and his parents before school started. The parents explained that their child was dyslexic and would need special accommodations and modifications. Smiling at the parents and student, Mrs. Cervantes desperately tried to remember any college training that would have prepared her to teach this student. She racked her brain for information that she might have picked up during inservice workshops or conferences. She realized that her knowledge of dyslexia was limited to vague references in journal articles and obscure comments made by colleagues. What was she to do?

In recent years, many effective teachers have found themselves in similar situations. Although an estimated 10-15 percent of the general population has dyslexia (Ryan, 1994), dyslexia is a confusing term for most educators. Teachers and reading specialists frequently are unsure of both the exact definition and their legal and ethical responsibilities. Since many students with dyslexia are in regular classrooms, their teachers are often overwhelmed trying to help these students without neglecting others.

This article will seek to end the confusion by answering the following questions: What is dyslexia and what characterizes individuals with dyslexia? How can the needs of students with dyslexia be met in the regular classroom?


Dyslexia is "a disorder of constitutional origin manifested by difficulty in learning to read, write or spell despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence, and socio-cultural opportunity" (Orton Dyslexia Society, 1988, p. 2). Kamhi (1992) further defines dyslexia as a lifelong problem with processing phonological information, which involves encoding, retrieving and using phonological codes, and deficiencies in speech production and phonological awareness. Simply put, dyslexia is a difficulty with language, not intelligence (Wilkins, Garside & Enfield, 1993).

Experts make a distinction between developmental dyslexia (whose origin is suspected to be congenital or hereditary) and acquired dyslexia (a disability that occurs as the result of brain injury after learning to read) (Frith, 1986). Most students with dyslexia in regular classrooms have developmental dyslexia, which is thought to be connected to brain and chromosome differences (Lyon, 1995). While dyslexia persists in spite of age and maturity, its effects may be lessened by remediation and compensatory techniques (Clark, 1988).

Individuals with dyslexia frequently display outstanding strengths; many dyslexics are creative, visual thinkers. Their unique abilities often make them successful in art, science and technical fields. Some famous and talented people who are suspected to have had dyslexia include Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, George Patton and William Butler Yeats (West, 1991).


Dyslexia affects each person in different ways (Wilkins, Garside & Enfield, 1993). Early signs of dyslexia may include difficulty in: learning to speak, remembering, pronouncing words clearly, expressing ideas meaningfully, listening or following directions. Lower elementary children may exhibit difficulty with the following (singly or in combination): learning the alphabet, sequencing, rhyming, word memory, reading, writing and spelling. Other signs that may or may not accompany dyslexia include a poor sense of time or space, an inability to finish work on time, extremely messy handwriting (dysgraphia), inadequate organizational skills, an inability to pay attention or complete tasks, a weak understanding of concepts such as "before," "after," "right" and "left," poor study habits, problems keeping up with possessions, and, sometimes, difficulty with mathematics. Individuals with dyslexia may also be literal-minded or inflexible. It should be emphasized that a person with dyslexia may have only a few of these characteristics or may have many of them.

Educators frequently find it difficult to differentiate between students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, and slow learners. Students with learning disabilities often do significantly well in some areas but very poorly in others; slow learners, on the other hand, consistently perform at below-average levels in most areas. Students with dyslexia also exhibit specific learning deficits in information processing (i.e., organization of thinking skills, memory, learning efficacy), but slow learners usually exhibit general limited ability (Brinckerhoff, Shaw & McGuire, 1993).

Dyslexia may be accompanied by social, emotional and psychological problems (Ryan, 1994). Parents and teachers often mistakenly view children with dyslexia as bright students who just need to try harder. This attitude puts undue pressure on these students, because they are likely already trying their hardest. Also, individuals with dyslexia often perform erratically. They may be able to accomplish a task easily one day but be unable to do it the next. Furthermore, they may be able to do a very complex task yet flounder when attempting something very simple. Or they may make the same mistake in several different ways (e.g., misspelling a word five different ways in an assignment).

This fluctuation in dyslexia's intensity makes it difficult for students to compensate. In addition, individuals with dyslexia often misread social cues, have a poor self image, are socially immature and have trouble communicating orally. When they fail to meet others' expectations or are unable to achieve their own goals, they may feel frustrated, anxious, inadequate, depressed and angry.

Meeting the Needs of Students with Dyslexia

Federal law protects students with dyslexia under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94142) (1975), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (1990), which amends P.L. 94-142, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Brinckerhoff, Shaw & McGuire, 1993). In order to meet federal guidelines, public schools must meet these students' needs in appropriate ways.

To help schools meet students' needs, the National Teacher Education Initiative Task Force examined the delivery and content of programs designed to teach students with dyslexia. The task force concluded that effective programs directly teach systematic language concepts/skills (both sequential and cumulative) by using simultaneous, multisensory methods (Greene, 1993; Wilkins, Garside & Enfield, 1993). Individuals with dyslexia need to have learning tasks broken down into their simplest components, after which they can learn them step by step. They also need a predictable, structured, consistent learning environment (Wilkins, Garside & Enfield, 1993).

Does this mean that teachers must throw out the textbook or abandon proven theories and approaches to teach these special children? That would be impractical, costly and even impossible in many situations. It is possible, however, for regular classroom teachers to accommodate students and modify the environment and tasks to help dyslexics learn.

When teaching students with dyslexia, teachers must often keep in mind the terms "accommodation" and "modification." In general "accommodation" refers to a strategy that changes the academic environment and, therefore, enables students to demonstrate what they know. An accommodation usually does not alter the information or amount of information that the student must learn. Examples of common accommodations may include untimed tests or extra time on assignments. On the other hand, a "modification" strategy changes the work itself, making it different from other students' and encouraging success. Asking a child with dyslexia to give an oral report when other students are required to do a written report is an example of a modification. Accommodations and modifications often overlap, and many people use the terms interchangeably (Louisiana State Department of Education, 1992). Rather than distinguishing between the two terms, the authors will refer to both as interventions.

Keeping these facts about dyslexia and appropriate teaching strategies in mind, the authors experimented with various interventions in the areas of general instruction, study and organizational skills, language arts and test-taking. Teachers should try these strategies and alter them as needed to meet their own students' needs. Many of these interventions also work very well with children who are not dyslexic.

General Instruction

Teachers need to be aware of the dyslexic students' needs during instruction time. Teachers should clearly state each lesson's objective and present it visually on the board or overhead projector. Directions should be explicit, explained orally and visually posted. Information should be paraphrased with numerous concrete examples. An organized, structured presentation using a variety of teaching methods (e.g., direction instruction, cooperative groups, discussion) is appropriate. Since students with dyslexia have trouble with sequencing, it is imperative that the alphabet, numerals, a calendar, classroom procedures and other sequencing aides be posted in the classroom. Step-by-step instructional sheets for projects and other assignments are also very helpful.

Students with dyslexia should sit close to the instructional focal point. They may need increased response time to formulate answers. They should be informed about oral reading assignments and questions ahead of time so they have time to practice their reading and responses. Because coping with dyslexia is very tiring, students with dyslexia may require more rest time than other students. Above all, students should not be embarrassed or made to feel stupid by their teachers or peers. Instead, they should be praised for their strengths.

These students may need fewer and shorter assignments, especially reading and writing assignments. Oral and visual presentations can be used to document learning if writing is particularly troublesome. Photocopying a peer's or the teacher's notes and transparencies allows these students to devote their energies to listening, rather than to laborious notetaking or copying.

Lessons should incorporate multisensory techniques. Multisensory instruction (i.e., involving some or all of the senses, and movement) sends information along multiple pathways in the brain and accommodates a variety of learning styles. As examples, students with dyslexia can write words in a sand tray or on a carpet square with two fingers while saying them out loud, clap syllables as they hear them during reading instruction, or act out action verbs and prepositions with body movements and props. All students find such multisensory instruction fun and motivating.

Organizational and Study Skills

Individuals with dyslexia need help with organization. Parents and teachers should help them keep a daily and long-range calendar marked with due dates and events. Projects should be broken down into elements with steps and due dates for each part. Students should ask the teacher for feedback when each component is completed, rather than waiting until the end of a project.

It often helps students to tapeclasses. They also should have access to taped textbooks. Parents and volunteers can tape passages from the books, and students should be encouraged to join an organization called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, which loans out taped books.

Schools should adopt well-organized textbooks with bold main headings and clear illustrations. Students with dyslexia should be able to write in textbooks and highlight passages. When this is not possible, they may use Post-it[TM] notes to organize and emphasize information within texts. Using book covers to color-code textbooks and notebooks helps students quickly select the appropriate books for classes and homework.

Teachers may find that students benefit from receiving outlines of lectures and activities before class begins. Frequent reviews, especially before tests, are a necessity. Review sheets and study guides are very helpful. Students with dyslexia do need, however, to be taught note-taking skills. It is sometimes necessary to pair a student with dyslexia with another student for notetaking and review.

These students need special help learning how to study in a multisensory manner. Study techniques can be similar to the teaching techniques used in class. When studying a content area passage, for example, students may read the selection aloud and highlight important parts. They then might tape-record the highlighted parts to listen to as they continue to study. They could also tape-record vocabulary words/definitions or formulas/explanations and finger write them on a rough surface as they listen to the tape. In addition, students with dyslexia benefit from using mnemonic devices, integrating learning with music and rhymes, and being part of study groups.

Language Arts

Teachers should remember that many individuals with dyslexia expend a great deal of energy decoding information. Consequently, they have little strength left for comprehension. Or the reverse may be true: students may comprehend very well through the use of context and prior experiences, yet may be unable to pronounce the words. As with all students, these students should be encouraged to build upon their strengths and learn to improve or compensate for their weaknesses.

Direct, sequential multisensory instruction for language arts should be used. The Bowman Gray Program Project sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Lyon, 1995) indicates that dyslexic readers need highly structured, explicit and intensive instruction in phonics rules and their application to print. They profit from building a base of phonetically regular words before learning nonphonetic sight words (Greene, 1993). This does not mean, however, that these students will not benefit as well from holistic methods based on a whole language philosophy - balance is the key (Vail, 1993).

Students with dyslexia often read very slowly; therefore, they need advance notice of outside reading assignments and more time for in-class ones. As mentioned earlier, the assignment lengths might have to be adjusted. Taped texts and peer reading that allow students to follow along as others read are helpful. Prereading questions help students organize information and discern what is important. Read-alouds from interesting, language-rich literature help students build vocabulary and concepts that are far beyond their own reading levels.

Because many of these students also write very slowly, they require advance notice of tasks and more time in class. Some students find that a word processor helps them compose more quickly and more meaningfully. Others find it beneficial if they first compose into a tape player and later transcribe and edit. Teachers and peers may be needed to help with editing.

Spelling is especially difficult for most individuals with dyslexia. Students should not be penalized for misspellings in content area subjects. The use of spellcheckers and personal spelling "demon charts" should be allowed when writing. Students with dyslexia may have to be tested on fewer spelling words each week, with only the most important words included for memorization. Because spelling is so perplexing for most of these students, they need special encouragement.

Teachers should lower their expectations for students' handwriting if dysgraphia is a problem. Handwriting that is legible, if not perfect, should be accepted and praised. Using a typewriter or word processor can circumvent this problem. In some cases, students may have to read their work aloud to the teacher if their handwriting is indecipherable.


Students with dyslexia may require assistance with test instructions and procedures. Teachers can read directions to students and have them highlight important words, such as "underline" and "choose two examples." Students should be given the option of taping oral directions to replay as needed.

Tests should have large-print text and be easy to read. Items should be grouped according to type (e.g., multiple choice, alternate response, essay). A variety of item types should be utilized and lengthy test sections should be avoided. It is beneficial, for example, to group 10 short answer items into two sections of only five items each.

Testing time for students with dyslexia may need to be lengthened and, in some cases, the number of test items should be reduced. Students may need to write directly on the test, rather than using an answer sheet. Students should not be penalized for spelling or other mechanical errors. Oral tests or taping test answers should be considered as options. Some students may require a reader (e.g., parent volunteer, resource teacher, teaching assistant).

As with all students, the testing environment should be as stress-free as possible. Knowing that extra time or more explicit instructions are available can greatly ease anxiety. Occasionally, it may be necessary to allow a student to take the test in another room or at another time. Knowing that the teacher is fair and compassionate certainly helps alleviate apprehension.


An appropriate academic intervention program is necessary for students with dyslexia (Richardson, 1994). As inclusive classrooms become increasingly prevalent, more and more teachers will be called upon to meet the needs of students with dyslexia. Teachers should remember that although dyslexia is "invisible," it is a very real disability. These interventions are meant to give the student with dyslexia an equal chance, not an unfair advantage. They should serve only as a starting point. As teachers struggle with balancing the needs of students with dyslexia with those of other students, it is hoped that they will create strategies of their own that will be practical and beneficial.


Brinckerhoff, L., Shaw, S., & McGuire, J. (1993). Promoting post secondary education for students with learning disabilities. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Clark, D. (1988). Dyslexia: Theory & practice of remedial instruction. Parkton, MD: York Press.

Frith, U. (1986). Beneath the surface of developmental dyslexia. In K. E. Patterson, J. C. Marshall, & M. Coltheart (Eds.), Surface dyslexia (pp. 301-30). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Greene, J. (1993, Conference Edition). Programs that work. Perspectives. Baltimore, MD: Orton Dyslexia Society.

Kamhi, A.G. (1992). Response to historical perspective: A developmental language perspective. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25(1), 48-52.

Louisiana State Department of Education. (1992). Guidelines for the implementation of the Louisiana Law for the Education of Dyslexic Students. Baton Rouge, LA: Author.

Lyon, G. R. (1995). Research in learning disabilities: Contributions from scientists supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Journal of Child Neurology, 10, 120-126.

Orton Dyslexia Society. (1988). Definition. Perspectives. Baltimore, MD: Author.

Richardson, S. (1994). Doctors ask questions about dyslexia. Baltimore, MD: Orton Dyslexia Society.

Ryan, M. (1994). The other sixteen hours. Baltimore, MD: Orton Dyslexia Society.

Vail, P. (1993, Conference Edition). Watch out for the hole in whole language. Perspectives. Baltimore, MD: Orton Dyslexia Society.

West, T. (1991). In the mind's eye. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Wilkins, A., Garside, A., & Enfield, M. (1993). Basic facts about dyslexia. Baltimore, MD: Orton Dyslexia Society.

Elizabeth Wadlington is Associate Professor, Shirley Jacob is Assistant Professor and Sandra Bailey is Instructor, Department of Teacher Education, Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bailey, Sandra
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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