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Dyslexia Diagnosis

Severe Reading Problems–Don’t Teach More of the Same Thing

Recently I was reading an article from a well-known educator’s website that promotes reading. Though the organization is not a research-based one, it claimed that NO special interventions should be needed for dyslexic children. They just simply need more of the same thing their peers are getting, but in a different format.

Oh … is that so? I was aghast needless to say. After working independently (Startup Business: Reading Innovations Center) for almost a year now with mostly learning disabled readers, I can attest to the fact that they need different interventions and not more of the same thing. If it didn’t work the first time; it probably won’t work the second time and so on.

Unfortunately, these assertions are being fed to the general teaching populous and embraced as the golden truth. I wish it was so easy. I really do. But it isn’t.

In all fairness, the reality is that most schools would not have the time to provide the kind of assistance most dyslexic or struggling readers need. Time, costs, and staff are huge factors playing a role in this. After being hit with budget cuts every year, schools are slammed with reorganizing and reducing staff to the bare minimum.

Yet, some very easy interventions can be used with struggling readers.

For example, the majority of students I see have both decoding and comprehension issues. Their decoding issues stem from not grasping phonics or not being taught phonics (and phonemic awareness) at an early age. If a child struggles at the word level, the overall meaning (comprehension) is not easily understood. Some students have the amazing ability to be poor decoders and average to above average comprehenders. This shows us that we still don’t know everything we claim to know about reading.

The other category of students are those who are excellent decoders and spellers, but can’t comprehend what they have just read. It’s like they have an instinctive knowledge of how words work, but can’t connect the words, sentences, and paragraphs together to figure out what is going on. Out of the two–I assure you, this group, is harder to remediate.

But teachers will say, “We don’t have enough time to teach all the sounds!!” I KNOW :-). For your students who are struggling decoders, I suggest using the Developmental Spelling Analysis by Kathy Ganske to pinpoint exactly where students are lacking knowledge in phonics and spelling features. Yes, it requires a quick screener and places the child at a developmental spelling level. Then it requires you to test the child at one level below what they were screened at to see what they can do developmentally. It’s a 25 word spelling test that breaks down the features it is targeting to determine student’s spelling and phonics knowledge. You will need to address those areas in which the child is weak, or concentrate on the next level if the child has mastered the previous levels. Very explicit and easy to administer. It’s an EASY intervention.

Afterwards, I use a week-long teaching cycle to for 30 minutes to teach the sound feature. I also use combinations of phonics/spelling feature as well, but not more than three at the time and depending on the developmental level of the child. For example, I would not teach a student more than 3 different ways to spell the long A sound. It’s too much info. You can always go back to the other long A combinations.

A simple push in or pull out intervention involves teaching phonics. And I don’t mean working with isolated sounds and words without providing some contextual reference.

  1. My Simple Program: A week-long sequence can involve a half hour of Introduction of sounds using real words. It’s important to show the target sound at the beginning, middle. and end of words. ** If you are ever baffled why students read just the first few letters of a word and then guess the rest of the word–that’s because most K-3 teachers concentrate on just initial sounds. Go to a local teacher book store, check out Ipad apps, or review your workbooks and take note of the quality of the resources. The emphasis is on initial sounds.**
  2. Word Production/Identification. Afterward have students produce words (if they can) with these sound features. If not, make sure you have lots of words to read to students/or have students read. Then have students sort the words according to beginning/middle/end sound features.
  3. Decodable Text. Provide students with plenty of contextual practice reading the words in a real book. Have them highlight the words featuring the target sound. Have students write the target words on a word sorting chart. Believe it or not, there are many decodable readers out there.These fell out of favor with the whole language movement, but a recent resurgence of emphasis on teaching explicit, systematic phonics has brough them back. You can find them through book publishers such as the High Noon Series etc. Reading A-Z, and EdHelper also have decodable books to print out.
  4. Word Manipulations. This is a great way to create a logical sequence of how words change into other words by moving letters around a sound feature. When I say “moving letters around”, I mean that I’m teaching basic phonemic awareness skills such as, blending, segmenting, substitution, deletion, and insertion. These skills are the building blocks for later reading competency. And, in particular I use the target sound at various parts in words to show students how to create and later pronounce words with the these sound features. I started using Patricia Cunningham’s Making Words  series, but found that it was too abstract for my Title 1 students. There was no transfer of skills, and it presupposed that students would implicitly “get” how new words were made. Not so. So instead I took Cunningham’s word building idea and concentrated only on one sound (or several similar sounds) to create words in a direct, explicit way. Much more effective for struggling readers.
  5. Dictated Sentences or Words. It’s important for students to practice writing the target sound in small sentences. If students are not at that level, then simply use words. Review each sentence upon completion. Waiting until the end of the list of sentences is complete, is banking on the student’s short-term memory to remember what he or she has written and why. Address issues immediately.
  6. Reinforcement/Games.Games are universally motivating and I have used many like word bingo, tic tac toe words, etc. As long as students are practicing the target sound then it doesn’t matter what you do.

This simple intervention will produce maximum results for struggling students. Don’t use every sound known to mankind–concentrate on the ones students don’t know–then it will be an easy intervention. Whatever you do, don’t do more of the same thing. It didn’t work the first time, and it won’t the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time either!

Happy Reading


About Ann Gavazzi

Reading specialist and English teacher with a particular interest in treatment of dyslexia. Also interested in education and education policy at large and current reading research. Owner of the Reading Innovations Center, a tutoring center that specializes in one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers and math students.


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