Imagine you are a mature, intelligent middle-school student who finds it difficult to write anything—numbers or letters—on paper in a way that makes sense. You have dyslexia and struggle because teachers don’t always understand the impact of your disability.
You experience situations in which teachers sometimes make statements such as, “You’re smart. You can do it without [insert any accommodation that isn’t convenient at the moment].” Or, “If your speech-to-text tool isn’t working, just type. You know how.”
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Picture yourself taking a multiple-choice test that identifies the choices with lowercase letters including b’s and d’s, which you struggle to visually distinguish. Think about the impact of knowing you can answer the complex, critical-thinking question being asked but also knowing your meaning will be lost in the jumbled letters of your incorrect spellings. Imagine constantly having to decide to either take notes or listen in class.
Now add a global pandemic to the mix, during which the inability to meet the needs of students with disabilities has become an excuse to do nothing for some, and parenting a child with dyslexia has become even harder.
These are just some of the constant battles that wear down students with learning disabilities. We know this because Anne, 12, has dyslexia.
Capitalize on Their Strengths
The good news is Anne has also experienced success in classrooms in the public school she attends in upstate New York. This happens in classrooms where she has a voice and more options to record her thinking and demonstrate what she knows.
Anne experienced that kind of a classroom in social studies last year. Each day, the class opened with a critical-thinking question. When students entered the room, the teacher asked that they write notes to prepare their thoughts for the discussion. Because the teacher recognized Anne’s strength in oral communication and weakness with writing, Anne was expected to mentally plan her thoughts on the question. When instruction capitalizes on students’ strengths, it changes the dynamics of the learning experience completely.
Anne’s dream classroom is one where her contributions during class discussions affect her grades as much as written assignments. A copy of the information the teacher asks students to record in their own notebooks is always provided when students are expected to take notes during class discussions. Also, technology is available for Anne to “jot down” ideas since handwritten notes are useless for her. Anne appreciates being able to create her own electronic graphic organizers that work with her train of thought and allow her to type information. She can select sources, articles, and research materials whose fonts and layouts make the content more accessible. She can use color-coded highlighters to select details and facts.
Anne wants to be celebrated for her strengths instead of isolated and left behind for her weaknesses. She is proud of her creativity, philosophical thinking, and love of learning. When her peers ask about having dyslexia, Anne explains, “I am just as smart as everyone else. My brain just works and sees things differently.”
Anne wishes all teachers would find ways to learn from those who successfully support students like her. She has shared the F.A.T. (Frustration, Anxiety and Tension) City video with many of her teachers. For educators, seeing peers in this video experience what it is like to be a student in class with a learning disability can be an easy way to start professional conversations.
Inclusive Teaching Informed by Student Voice
While specific instructional techniques and ways to teach reading can support students with dyslexia, educators can also implement many simple practices quite easily. They can focus on content and consider exactly what academic skills they want to measure. Often barriers that have nothing to do with content prevent students from succeeding. Educators can offer choices such as typing instead of handwriting, allow students to select a work location with fewer distractions, give students highlighters for color coding, let them explain their thinking process instead of writing it, or give them a checklist to make multistep tasks feel more manageable.
As a special education teacher, LauraMarie always thought of herself as having a good grasp on the struggles many students encounter daily. But having Anne as a daughter has taught her so much more.
Most students struggle not only with academics, but also their ability to communicate with the adults who support them. We have to take the time to ask students what works for them and listen carefully as they articulate it.
LauraMarie’s dream classroom starts with a teacher who knows what’s in a child’s IEP and asks her what makes a learning experience great for her. Perhaps not all students share Anne’s ability to answer this question, but the difference for every student would be that it was asked at all.