Understanding Dyslexia: It's Not an Effort Problem

To understand dyslexia, consider how hard school days can be for a child with this condition. Kyle Redford shares her advice on how to help your child at home.

Does it ever seem as though your child with dyslexia puts more effort into avoiding his work than completing it? The excuses, the distractions, the stalling — it is easy to perceive your child's allergy to homework as an effort or attitude problem.

If only it were that simple. When a child with dyslexia is work-avoidant, the reasons are complex and cannot be reduced to a tidy matter of effort. Since dyslexia is invisible and can often prompt academic shame, many of the struggles associated with the condition go unseen and unnamed.

If we imagine a school day from a dyslexic child’s perspective, it is not hard to understand why he doesn’t rush home to do his homework. A dyslexic child is exhausted after school, and not just a normal kind of tired: the kind of tired you feel when everything you have been asked to do all day is profoundly challenging. Drained dry.

It is also likely that a child with dyslexia has spent a good part of his day trying to hide how hard he is trying. Think about how you feel when doing things you are not very good at. Now think about how you would feel if your day were primarily made up of those tasks. Not good, right? School for a dyslexic child is not only tiring, but can be humiliating as well.

A child with dyslexia may also privately worry that he can't meet his teacher's expectations when working independently. A teacher may design an assignment as a simple reinforcement of the day's lesson, but it may amount to much more than that for a dyslexic child. There may be directions that are hard to read or understand, or writing expectations that are outside his perceived ability range. It may be more appealing simply to skip the work than to struggle with it and draw attention to one’s challenges.

To complicate matters further, teachers may misinterpret unimpressive output as a reflection of a dyslexic student not caring about his learning. When parents and teachers assume all a child needs to do is to try harder, they may neglect to develop an effective support system.

That is why it is important to shift the conversation away from evaluating how much invisible effort your dyslexic child is expending and toward addressing the various obstacles your child faces. The goal should be to partner with his teacher to explore ways that home and school can work together to make his assignments less frustrating. Children will put more effort in areas where they feel they can be successful. Here are several effective home-school supports for students with dyslexia.

Dictate

At home and at school, an adult scribe can help get a dyslexic student’s words and answers down on paper. Dictating can eliminate the complexities and frustration associated with writing, and it allows the child to share his ideas and understanding. Or if voice-to-text tech tools are available, speaking into a device may be a more practical solution. Using dictation tools usually requires practice, but it is a great investment for a child who can express knowledge better aloud than in writing. Once the initial kinks are worked out, written expression (and output volume) can improve significantly. While most teachers appreciate these kinds of supports at home, parents should explain home strategies and workarounds to provide the full context of the child’s learning process.

Read aloud

Depending on the student’s reading ability, he may need to have content read to him (at home and at school). Adult readers or audiobooks can be critical alternatives for students with significant gaps between their intellectual and reading levels. There are even audio options that sync the text and voice so the child can simultaneously read with his ears and eyes. Having content read aloud to a child with dyslexia can make the difference between engagement-investment and avoidance-retreat.

Spelling helper

Spelling is difficult for most students with dyslexia. It can also be embarrassing. Spelling hangups, as trivial as they may sound, may be keeping your child from wanting to write. One of the best ways to offer spelling assistance is for adults to stay within earshot when the child is writing something (particularly on paper) to help him spell anything he asks (without any commentary or spelling lesson attached). Regardless of whether he engages adult assistance during this process or after composition, he will usually appreciate an additional set of eyes on his paper to review his spelling and conventions before he turns it in. Teachers usually appreciate this kind of home editing support, but again, assisting adults should clarify the role they played in the writing process.

Keyboarding

Handwriting is usually more difficult for children with dyslexia. If your child has a lot of writing assignments, using a keyboard will provide a version of predictive spelling and grammar check. It will also feature a standard font that will help him produce work he can read himself and not diminish his good ideas with illegible handwriting. Inquire about whether your child has access to a keyboarding alternative for written assignments at school, and try to secure that option for home composition as well.

Time expectations

Dyslexia makes reading and writing more time-consuming. Sometimes what may appear to be minimalism or generalized laziness is simply a reflection of your child not having enough time to finish an assignment. Explaining how long things take at home can help your child’s teacher make adjustments with respect to deadlines, expectations, or volume. If homework is taking more time than the teacher intended, cutting into your child’s sleep, or triggering emotional meltdowns at home, his teacher needs to know.

Finally, it is always important to remember that dyslexia is a mechanical disability, not a thinking disability. But those mechanical challenges fundamentally alter the school experience for dyslexic children, making assignments more difficult and time-consuming. Explaining your child’s unique learning experience offers an opportunity to work with his teacher to devise strategies that will keep him engaged and interested in school, rendering conversations about his invisible effort irrelevant.

Editor's Note: Use Noodle to further your understanding of dyslexia — you can find other articles written by experts and pose questions to these professionals and the community at large.

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