student's hand practicing writing letters

Dyslexia-Friendly Teaching for All Students

Most people know dyslexia as a reading disorder that makes it difficult to tell letters and words apart. But there’s more to it than that. Though people with dyslexia typically have average or higher intelligence, they lack certain mental capabilities that involve sequencing and language processing. This means difficulty not only with reading, but with:

  • Pronouncing words correctly (the word dyslexia literally means “difficult speech”)
  • Absorbing the concept of rhyming language
  • Writing
  • Recognizing numbers
  • Telling time
  • Summarizing what they’ve read or learned
  • Engaging in complicated conversations
  • Understanding and following directions

In the U.S., over 14 million children and adults have dyslexia; and the majority face both extra challenges and extra prejudices when it comes to social relationships, careers, and education. The irony is, many of the educational challenges come from pushing children with dyslexia to learn the reading methods taught to other students—when in fact it would be easiest to teach the whole class using dyslexia-friendly approaches. People with dyslexia best master a subject by becoming familiar with individual pieces before the whole picture is thrust at them—and so do the majority of people without dyslexia.

girl sitting at school desk looking frustrated

Letters, Words, Sentences, or Paragraphs?

The main reason “standard” teaching methods aren’t more “individual-pieces” focused is that, initially, “big-picture” approaches seem to result in faster learning. Assembling things piece by piece is a tedious process for all but the most naturally gifted, while most people find it easy to take a big-picture item and run with it. The problem is, that approach doesn’t achieve the underlying goal of helping them understand a topic through and through: instead, they compensate by teaching themselves to “skip over” the parts they don’t know. They get a general understanding of the topic—enough to make do for everyday use—but they never reach the heights attainable by recognizing the potential of every piece, and realizing how different pieces can be put together in ever more innovative ways.

Since reading is the topic most associated with dyslexia, let’s look at how the “individual pieces vs. big picture” principle works there. There are three widely known methods for teaching reading: “whole-word” or “look-say,” which relies on memorization of individual words; “three cueing,” which teaches students to decipher whole documents via context, sentence structure, individual letters, and complementary images; and “phonics,” which first teaches the alphabet and the various pronunciations of letters and letter combinations, then shows how words can be deciphered by “spelling” them out (“R + ea + d = READ”).

Phonics, the piece-by-piece approach, makes for a slower start but, since it works even with previously unknown words, allows students to ultimately build a larger vocabulary and guarantees they can recognize every word in a document. The first resource to argue widely for the use of phonics in education was Why Johnny Can’t Read, originally published in 1955 when the whole-word method was standard reading instruction. (Consider whole-word akin to opening a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces weren’t properly separated before packing, leaving whole “preassembled” sections of the big picture.) Three cueing, the “big picture” method, emerged in the 1960s and is the most common approach in today’s schools. That doesn’t make it the most effective: many students taught by three cueing learn only to get the overall gist of a document, never know the true meanings of many words they “read,” and often become lost without literal pictures to help guide them.

As Amy Fuchs, BridgingApps Program Manager and former teacher, puts it: “I find three cueing about as effective as trying to add, subtract, multiply, and divide without understanding the concept of numbers. Even if you understand how to take away and add, it doesn’t make sense if you don’t know what the number 4 is equal to. Effective and dyslexia-friendly teaching approaches are still those based in phonics, teaching the letter-sound relationships so that students can decode previously unknown words by sounding them out. Students also learn about words that do not follow the ‘rules’ of phonics, and get better practice recognizing tricky words that aren’t spelled the way they sound.”

What Kids with Dyslexia (and Other Kids) Really Need

Switching to the parent’s viewpoint, Fuchs continues: “My own daughter has ‘stealth dyslexia’: she flew under the radar until about third grade, using her high-level comprehension skills to listen to stories and discussions and to make advanced predictions and summaries before anyone else in the class. During ‘quiet reading time,’ she looked at the pictures in the books and made up the story as she turned the pages: she had no idea what any of the words actually said. Teachers did not suspect a learning disability, but ultimately poor reading instruction took its toll. She has struggled so much with self-confidence related to school.”

That’s not to say that everyone—including kids with dyslexia—will have an easy time learning to read if we just replace three cueing instruction with phonics. Says Fuchs: “In my experience watching my daughter and other students learn, reading will always be harder for students with dyslexia, whatever methods are used.” And “since phonics instruction requires a lot of concentration and repeated practice on very small units of sound, teachers find it difficult and time-consuming to teach.” However, the ultimate rewards are worth it: “I have seen many reluctant readers develop confidence, and learn to love reading once they begin experiencing success.”

If one goal of education is that every student who struggles with any curricula learn not only to develop a functional understanding of the topic but to love it, the instructor’s attitude is at least as important as the instructional methods used.

  • Patience, empathy, and encouragement are essential.
  • Every student deserves individual consideration regarding their environmental, cognitive, social, and emotional needs.
  • Every student needs to feel they are supported, never belittled or pushed.
  • Every student, regardless of their natural learning abilities, deserves to see their personal interests represented in the curricula.
  • Every student—and every human being—deserves to be recognized and respected for their unique skills and gifts. And everyone with any disability deserves not only to have their needs acknowledged, but to have it recognized that the disability itself is more than a “handicap”—that it comes with special abilities that are valuable in themselves.


Leave a Reply