What Makes a School Dyslexia-Friendly?

Many parents have a distinct memory of a child who was written off as “stupid” when she was little because of her dyslexia.

Maybe that child was a sibling, a neighbor, or even the parent herself. For my generation, there were few, if any, interventions or strategies to support a child with dyslexia.

Thankfully, over the past two decades, educators have learned that there are effective techniques and strategies to help a student with dyslexia thrive academically. Many schools and educators are rapidly embracing instructional approaches that diminish the weaknesses that accompany dyslexia while leveraging the strengths associated with the condition. These welcome shifts have made it possible for schools to become much more dyslexia-friendly.

So, what exactly does a dyslexia-friendly school look like?

School Culture and Philosophy

How a school understands its mission may be the most critical element of how dyslexia-friendly it is. Does the school recognize and support a variety of learning styles? Does it have strategies in place to accommodate students with learning challenges?

Elementary schools should offer evidence-based reading programs, and all schools should offer assistive services to students with identified learning issues. Dyslexia-friendly elementary schools also screen early for signs of dyslexia, and do not wait for children to fail before providing extra services. Additionally, remediation for struggling readers needs to be evidence-based.

Does the school see the potential in its students with dyslexia? If someone with dyslexia attends a school that has high academic expectations for students with her learning profile, it will positively inform her sense of potential.

Use of the Word “Dyslexia”

This is a more significant indicator than one may initially think. Using the word helps to demystify and validate the condition. If teachers and administrators use the word regularly, and without hesitation, it reassures students that there is nothing to be ashamed of and that dyslexia is not something to hide. It also sets a tone that encourages students to self-advocate in their classes.

Support for Students with Dyslexia

Most parents immediately think about sports, the arts, leadership, service, or some other non-academic pursuit as potential areas in which their dyslexic child may excel in school. Those areas are important, but it is also likely that a struggling reader may want to focus deeply in academic areas.

Dyslexia-friendly schools support a student with dyslexia to develop her creative-thinking abilities as well as her passions for math, literature, history, and science. Dyslexia-friendly schools can readily point to their high-achieving students with dyslexia.

Access to Accommodations

This is probably the most important element of all. Academic success for a dyslexic student is commonly related to access to accommodations, either via a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Extra Time

The most critical accommodation for a dyslexic student is the provision of extra time — to read books, complete assessments, and finish certain assignments. Because reading and writing take longer for students with dyslexia, they often require additional time to access content and express their understanding.

Audiobooks

There are now many ways to provide dyslexic readers with recorded books — even Shakespeare’s works are accessible via assistive technology. Some devices read text aloud with a synthetic voice; others read with a human voice. Some assistive technologies even sync audio and visual text so that a student with dyslexia can listen while tracking the words.

Dyslexia-friendly schools provide access to these transformational assistive technologies, or at least support the use of personal reading devices in and out of the classroom.

Keyboarding and Speech-to-Text Software

Students with dyslexia are typically poor spellers with labored and barely legible handwriting. Using a keyboard or another device with speech-to-text software frees students with dyslexia to focus their energies on the content, rather than the form, of their writing. It also makes their work readable.

Yes, dyslexics will still need to learn handwriting, but that will not likely be their standard mode of expression. With spell-checking and editing programs, dyslexics who compose on a keyboard are liberated from many of the challenges that often diminish the quality and volume of their written expression.

Second Language Waiver

Foreign languages are often very difficult for dyslexics. Most middle schools and high schools will provide alternative courses or ways of meeting a foreign language requirement. Generally, it is not an effective use of time to have students with dyslexia involved in foreign language study when they are struggling with deficits in English.

The 21st-Century Classroom

The 21st-century classroom celebrates student abilities to exercise big-picture ideation, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication while questioning the traditional value placed on rapid regurgitation of memorized information. Twenty-first century teaching styles employ a variety of meaningful measures to facilitate and gauge student understanding, abilities, and achievement.

These pedagogical changes profoundly benefit the dyslexic learner — but they also obviously benefit all learners. Ultimately, dyslexia-friendly schools are student-friendly schools.

Further Reading