Dyslexia can be challenging to diagnose—there isn’t a specific test for it, even though it can be seen in an MRI. Young children may naturally write the letters “b” and “d” backward—sometimes outgrowing this as late as age 8. Early childhood educators can look for children who have trouble rhyming, reciting the alphabet, sequencing (such as listing days of the week, or months of the year), and consistently substituting noncontextual words, such as “a” and “the,” to help diagnose younger children.
But what about older children who get through elementary and middle level education undetected? What about the kids who memorized every single word and learned to fill in the blanks for words they didn’t know when they were reading; the kids who could fool their teachers into thinking that everything was OK, when really that child was pouring more time and effort into every assignment than the teacher could even imagine?
Late Diagnosis Challenges
In high school, dyslexia can be very challenging to overcome. Studies show that early intervention is best, and that in order to close the reading gap that takes place between “learning to read” and “reading to learn,” intervention should occur by third grade or sooner. With older students who are diagnosed, it is nearly impossible to be on the same level as peers, despite intense therapy. It’s difficult to find age-appropriate controlled texts to help the high schooler who needs extra help with short vowels and multisyllabic words. To most high school students, reading these books feels insulting, as if they are reading “baby books” while they learn to master short vowel sounds and divide syllables.
Text at the high school level is complex. Words are frequently five to six syllables long and much more difficult to simply memorize. Vocabulary is significantly more advanced. Imagine trying to read a passage in which you must guess at every fifth word—trying to guess what the word is based on the first letter and part of speech. You try to determine the meaning of the word through context clues, and you do this over and over again with several words in each sentence, and then several sentences in each paragraph. You spend so much time reading and rereading the same sentences just to get all the words to make sense that by the time you’ve finished the paragraph and made sense of it all, your peers have already finished the page or, possibly, the chapter.
The greatest gift you can give to any child with a reading disability is time. The child has to spend time deciphering each word in each sentence, then reread the sentence to make sense of it, and then begin the entire process over on the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page. It’s tedious and exhausting, not to mention frustrating when peers seem to breeze through the same content with little effort.
In high school, it’s not just reading that is frustrating. Think back to your high school days—you probably had to take a lot of notes. Were these consistently given to you as handouts, written on the board, or just given orally? Many children with dyslexia have poor auditory memory skills and can’t hold onto all the information a teacher says to get sufficient notes on paper. Likewise, children with dyslexia have poor spelling and may not be able to decipher what they were trying to write. In addition, many people with dyslexia have poor handwriting and may struggle to read back the notes they were so frantically trying to take.
High schoolers with dyslexia are bound to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Reading for them can take more than twice as long as it does for peers, and note taking can seem an impossible task. Organizing thoughts onto paper for essay writing is yet another challenge. It’s both mentally and physically exhausting, and far too many students are apt to drop out when it seems they can’t tackle what seems impossible.
In high school, kids are growing into young adults and discovering themselves. They want to feel accepted by peers; they want to fit in. Joining a sports team or the school play are excellent opportunities for teens to be around peers and feel successful rather than frustrated. Yet these activities take time away from schoolwork, and poor grades often affect eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities. While schoolwork is important, so is building a confident individual who can excel in at least one aspect of their life. That sense of belonging alone can be enough to encourage a child to stick with four years of high school.
How to Help
There are many things a teacher can do to help struggling learners. The easiest one is simple—give them more time. Some kids will need a quiet place to work where there are no distractions. Another is to acknowledge that each child learns differently. Some children will learn just by listening to the lecture, others will learn by taking notes, and others will learn by doing. Perhaps for a high schooler with dyslexia, the teacher provides a written copy of the notes. The student can follow along, highlight, take shorthand notes when something seems important, and recopy the handout for homework. This method engages three of the five senses, making it multisensory. Teaching older children metacognition—learning about how they learn—should be considered by all teachers so that students can learn to self-advocate and utilize their strengths.
At the high school level, students introduced to morphology can boost their vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension skills exponentially. Morphology is the study of word parts, a letter or letters that hold meaning. For example, adding -s to any base word makes it plural, or more than one. We can use suffixes -ed and -ing to convey the tense: present or past. Teaching students the meanings of the most common prefixes and suffixes will aid immensely in their ability to help figure out text.
Teens especially will benefit from learning Latin roots and Greek combining forms. By learning just a handful of common morphemes, students can analyze the known parts within a word, making it possible to both read and spell more advanced words with accuracy. Students can also use the meanings of these parts to determine what the word means—a prefix will give you a clue as to the meaning of the word, the root will tell you the gist of what the word will be about, and the suffix will tell you the part of speech. For example, the word “atheist” may not be familiar to a ninth grader, but one can examine the prefix “a-” meaning “away,” the root “the[o]” meaning god, and the suffix “-ist” meaning “one who.” Therefore, a student can conclude that an atheist means “one who is away from God” even if it’s a word that’s new to their vocabulary.
In science- and technology-based subjects, learning common combining forms such as “phon” and “meter” can assist all students with deciphering complex science texts. Think about all the words that contain the root word “phon”—telephone (distant sound), homophone (sounds the same), phonogram (sound represented by symbols), microphone (small sound), and phonograph (a record player, or literally “a writer of sounds”). The word “meter” means “measure,” therefore all words that end with “meter” will tell you the measure of something.
This is significant because a student cannot memorize the thousands of new words they will encounter throughout middle level and high school. While Anglo-Saxon words are the most frequently used words in the English language, they make up only about 20 percent of English words. Latin words, however, make up close to 60 percent of English words, so learning between 10 and 50 common roots, prefixes, and suffixes can expand one’s vocabulary exponentially. Having a solid foundation of parts of speech and vocabulary are also significant factors in comprehension, which is the point of reading—to learn and understand.
While it is unfortunate that many students who struggle with reading and spelling will never receive intervention, it is possible to teach simple strategies to help a high schooler succeed. Introducing students to the SQ3R reading strategy can also help a teen overcome challenging material, such as science text. Students should be taught to Survey—examine titles, headings, charts and graphs, and check the summary questions at the end of the chapter; Question—think about what was just surveyed, and turn them into questions; Read—read the chapter with your questions in mind; Recite—once you’ve read, revisit the questions you asked, and clarify if necessary; and Review—review questions you had from previous chapters to stay up to date with studying.
Of course, this takes more time, but with good planning and time management, a high schooler with dyslexia can learn to be successful at school. By pairing good study skills with morphological awareness and extra time, most students will be set up for success, despite their academic struggles.
Heather Brown is the director of the Children’s Dyslexia Center in Lancaster, PA.