October is Dyslexia Awareness Month and October 14th signals Developmental Language Disorder Day. It is very appropriate that DLD Awareness day occurs in Dyslexia awareness month because the two conditions commonly co-occur. 

In order to raise awareness for dyslexia and DLD, we’ve decided to put together some information that we think any teacher or parent can get value from. Read on to find out more! 

Language & Learning is owned by  Kathryn Thornburn. Kathryn holds dual qualifications in Speech Pathology & Teaching (Primary and Special Education). She has been a certified practising speech pathologist and member of Speech Pathology Australia since January 1998 and a teacher since 2002.

Kathryn holds proficient teacher accreditation within NSW. In 2021, she was employed on the English Writers team for the K-2 and 3 – 6 NSW English Syllabus curriculum reform project. Kathryn is a consultant teacher with Learning Difficulties Australia and Tutor for SPELDNSW. 

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is viewed as a reading impairment (DSM 5/ICD 10), a learning ‘difficulty’ (UK) or a specific learning disability (USA). The latest edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5th edition (DSM 5) uses the terminology Specific Learning Disorder in Reading, Writing or Mathematics. These are the conditions that have also been referred to as Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia.

According to AUSPELD, it is conservatively estimated that well over 20% of Australian children are currently struggling with learning difficulties and 3% to 5% of students are known to have a developmental learning disorder. Of those students identified with a learning disorder, four out of every five are assessed as having a reading disorder (or SLD with impairment in reading), commonly known as dyslexia.

A learning disorder can co-exist with difficulties related to attention, working memory, developmental language disorder or other disabilities such as hearing impairment, autism spectrum disorders, dyspraxia or a traumatic brain injury.

The key symptoms of dyslexia are problems with decoding or single-word reading and/or poor reading fluency and poor spelling. Phonological weaknesses, specific language-based learning difficulties or difficulties with Rapid Automatic Naming, are typically the underlying cause of the literacy problems associated with dyslexia.

Students with Dyslexia may present with other co-occurring conditions (such as a language disorder, ADHD or anxiety). However even in the absence of a co-occurring diagnosis, students with dyslexia typically read less than average readers and as a result are at risk of difficulties with comprehension, vocabulary, spelling and writing which become more severe over time as the academic demands of school increase.

The problems associated with dyslexia are language-based, not visual and not related to cognitive skills or intelligence. Phonological processing problems are the principal cause of dyslexia. Phonological processing refers to the ability to analyse speech or spoken language, from identifying individual words to word parts or syllables, and then into the smallest parts called phonemes or speech sounds. Some children may experience difficulty with Rapid Automatic Naming which can compound the challenge of learning to read.

Co-occurring conditions

In addition to a diagnosis of dyslexia, students might also have a co-occurring diagnosis such as Developmental Language Disorder, ADHD or anxiety. Did you know that 50% of students with a diagnosis of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) will have a diagnosis of Dyslexia and 50% of students with a diagnosis of Dyslexia will have a Diagnosis of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)?

However, even if they don’t have a co-occurring diagnosis, students with dyslexia typically read less than their peers. As a result, they’re at risk of having difficulties with comprehension, vocabulary, spelling and writing – and these problems usually become more severe over time as school gets harder, however, there are many ways a classroom teacher can help.

8 teaching strategies for students with dyslexia

1. Create an encouraging and collaborative learning environment

Create a positive learning environment by getting to know each of your students as individuals and encouraging them to get to know one another. This will allow the children to feel at ease and will encourage them to ask questions and participate in class even when they’re unsure.

2. Use a universal screening assessment with all students to measure and monitor student progress. 

Early intervention is essential and there are many ways that teachers can help in the classroom.  Universal screening tools like Acadience Reading or DIBELS can identify students early and staff can monitor how students are responding to intervention.  Schools can also screen oral language skills using the CUBED Oral Narrative Assessment which is freely available. For more information, read my blog on using Universal Screening Assessment tools.

3. Teach all students using a structured literacy approach

A structured literacy approach incorporates the science of reading and science of learning research and focuses on teaching all core aspects of literacy in a clear, explicit and systematic way. This includes foundational skills in phonological and phonemic awareness, such as letter-sound correspondence, blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation, along with decoding for reading and encoding for spelling. Support skills with matched decodable readers to allow students to practice the skills they are learning to read and spell.

4. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your students 

Offer the children in your classroom a variety of options for engaging with activities to make learning more engaging and inclusive. For many students difficulties with reading, spelling and writing may make them feel like school is overwhelming. It is helpful to help them see that frequently, they have great knowledge of the content that is being learned in class and they simply have difficulties with reading and writing. Providing opportunities to give spoken answers,  using mind maps, colour coding and drawings can help record ideas and thoughts. 

5. Break down new language into small and manageable pieces

Don’t introduce too much new language at one time, or else the child in question might become overwhelmed. Breaking new language down into smaller chunks can help them learn it more easily. Help students to see patterns, use colour to code steps in a task or identify themes and write information down or record it so that students can refer back to it.

6. Spend time teaching children how to properly use exam methods

Spend some time teaching exam strategies, such as how to go about specific activities in an examination, and break these down into a series of easy actions. Breaking exams down into more digestible chunks will assist students to perform to their best. Talking through exam strategies can help students to read the entire task and start with the tasks they can do most easily. Many students with learning difficulties become overwhelmed if they can’t complete question one, whereas those who often perform better on exams know how to take strategic risks and educated guesses by skipping questions to do those that are easier and returning to the more challenging tasks even if it means completing tasks out of order.

7. Utilise Technology to support curriculum access and liaise closely with both the student and their families 

By the time a student reaches upper primary school or high school many with dyslexia and/ or  Developmental Language Disorder have had an extensive intervention. It is really important for the classroom teacher or KLA teachers in secondary school to understand how the student has responded to intervention and what the goals are for the student. 

In the same way that we allow a student in a wheelchair to use a ramp rather than establishing the goal that they will walk upstairs, it can be highly appropriate to allow students to utilise technology to support their independent access to the curriculum in all settings. A student who depends on technology to access learning content will not abuse the privilege if it allows them to demonstrate their full capability.  

Just like we don’t ask students with glasses to remove them in an exam setting to ‘level the playing field’, removing support from a student in exams or assessment tasks is equally inappropriate. A diagnosis of Dyslexia or Developmental language disorder is a lifelong disability and is not an indication of an intellectual disability. With the correct support in place, students can thrive and demonstrate their true potential, in the same way, a pair of glasses or a wheelchair can unlock the potential of students with vision loss or physical disabilities.

8. My Top Technology Tools for Curriculum Access across K-12:

Language & Learning can provide dyslexia teaching strategies for your school

Language & Learning is spearheaded by Kathryn Thorburn. Within the education sector, Kathryn has worked across the NSW Department of Education and Training, and Catholic and Independent school sectors in NSW for over 20 years.

Kathryn has practical experience as a classroom teacher, coordinator, member of a school leadership team/school executive and consultant for schools within a regional team. Kathryn has extensive experience managing and implementing whole school change in a K-12 setting in the areas of Literacy, Numeracy and Inclusive Education.

Kathryn has provided clinical education to Speech Pathology students (4th year & Masters programs) from both the University of Newcastle and Sydney University within a Preschool – Year 12 setting and provided a regular guest lecture to Speech Pathology students on the topic of Reading & Spelling – Assessment & Intervention. So if you’d like to learn more about dyslexia or DLD teaching strategies, contact us today.