5 steps to help students with reading-based learning differences


Key points:

Reading-based learning differences such as dyslexia can pose unique challenges for students in school. These challenges, however, aren’t indicative of a student’s intelligence or potential. With understanding and tailored approaches, educators can create a supportive environment for these learners.

Here are five critical steps to support students with reading-based learning differences:

Reduce stress levels: One major stressor for students with dyslexia is the fear of being called upon to read out loud in front of their peers. Avoid putting them in these anxiety-provoking situations. Instead, privately check in and offer opportunities to participate in ways that don’t highlight their struggle.

Set a clear agenda: Clarity is vital. When students are uncertain about when they’ll be called upon or what is expected in a reading or writing task, anxiety builds. To avoid this, always lay out a clear agenda. By ensuring students know what to expect, you can mitigate their anxieties. A predictable structure allows these students to better prepare and engage.

Introduce different modalities and tools: Tailor your teaching techniques. If the lesson’s goal is to understand content rather than to master reading, consider alternative formats like audiobooks (if available in your school). For writing, dictation software can also be invaluable. It’s about finding a pathway into the content that resonates with the student. Equally, because many students with dyslexia grapple with executive function skills, it’s helpful to offer tools that support organization. Planners that break down assignments, scaffolded note-taking templates, or even a syllabus can make all the difference in setting clear expectations.

Encourage self-advocacy: While speaking up for oneself is essential, it’s not always easy for students, especially early in the school year. It can also be difficult for younger students versus those in high school. Take the time to be proactive in understanding each student. Have open conversations, allowing learners to voice their struggles and needs. This communication empowers students to take charge of their learning, lets them know they’re not alone and most importantly, that you are rooting for them to succeed.

Support, don’t simplify: There’s a significant difference between support and simplification. Making tasks easier for students with dyslexia or other learning differences is not recommended, as this approach can negatively impact a student’s self-esteem. It’s important to remember that students with dyslexia often have an intelligence level commensurate with their peers, but their reading skills might not reflect this. Instead of simplifying tasks, offer support mechanisms that help them overcome specific obstacles.

Lastly, I also suggest conducting regular check-ins with students who have learning differences. Because dyslexia can be a source of shame for some learners, especially at the start of the academic year when they’ve yet to develop a rapport with their teacher, it’s essential to touch base with them regularly. A little kindness and asking a simple question like, “How’s it going?” can dramatically impact how they feel about school.

By embracing these strategies, educators can help pave the way for a more inclusive and supportive literacy learning environment. With understanding and consistent support, we can help every student shine.

Related: I work with struggling readers–here’s what’s standing in their way

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