Best practices in reading instruction for students with dyslexia

Advocates for students with dyslexia are finally gaining more attention, in both the media and legislation. Dyslexia, they note, is more prevalent than many realize, and students with dyslexia are too often experiencing reading instruction that just isn’t working, as my colleague Elizabeth Barker noted in a recent blog post.

So here’s a critical question: How can we provide good reading instruction that better helps students with dyslexia?

Let’s start by remembering that young students with dyslexia are learning in regular primary-grade classrooms, where the job of teaching kids to read is central. The job is not teaching only the kids who don’t struggle; the job is teaching all kids to read, and that includes children with dyslexia. While many students with reading disabilities will need more instructional intensity, that baseline of class-wide instruction matters. Regular classrooms—tier 1, in the language of RTI or MTSS—need to provide effective, research-based reading instruction to all.

Class-wide instruction in learning to read

Eons ago, I was trained as a teacher in a joint elementary and special education teacher preparation program. As I moved from elementary education methods classes to one taught by a faculty member focused on learning disabilities, it was easy for me to see that two paradigms were at work. But how could there be two truths about what worked in teaching reading?

[S]econd-guess that you were taught everything you should know.

One beloved professor offered an insight that I hang onto to this day: for the most part, good teaching is good teaching. If something works with kids who struggle more to learn to read, it is likely to work with all students. If something doesn’t work for the kids who struggle more, it’s worth asking why it belongs in our whole-class instruction.

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) has been clear on this front. They concisely lay out what effective reading instruction for students with dyslexia looks like. In their discussion of a best practice, they also note something worth reading twice: “This approach not only helps students with dyslexia, but there is substantial evidence that it is more effective for all readers.”

Two critical elements of effective reading instruction

When we want to review what’s effective for all readers, we have several good places to turn. One is something our tax dollars built: the federally run clearinghouse dedicated to vetting and summarizing research on effective instructional practices. As it happens, one What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) practice guide details what we know about effective instruction in foundational reading skills in primary-grade classrooms.

Looking at the WWC practice guide and the IDA fact sheet on teaching students with dyslexia side by side is useful. There is huge overlap in their recommendations, with the two clear IDA emphases corresponding to the two WWC recommendations with strongest research evidence. IDA and WWC encourage us to focus on two critical elements:

  1. Phonological awareness: Both documents note this is an essential early instructional focus. The sounds of spoken language are the focus here, with the smallest sound unit being the phoneme (like the “f” sound in “fish”). Learners need to be able to distinguish and segment just that “f” sound so that they know what this letter F we are teaching them is for.
  2. Phonics and word decoding: Both the IDA and WWC also call out the fundamental importance of phonics instruction, where the patterns of letters that make sounds go beyond the single letter sound level. There’s a “sh” sound in “fish,” but there’s also a pattern-following “sh” sound in “motion.” The IDA and WWC point to phonics for teaching multi-syllable words, including analysis of word parts, like prefixes and suffixes.

Teachers aren’t prepared to teach all young readers

Unfortunately, phonological awareness and phonics and word decoding are getting short shrift in many elementary teacher preparation programs, despite ample research evidence of their value. That’s not just my grumpy pessimism; that’s the finding of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ)’s 2020 report, which describes and rates US teacher preparation programs’ early reading instruction. Using a science-of-reading framework, they review all courses and requirements against five research-based core components of good early literacy instruction. NCTQ found that both phonological awareness and phonics are left out of all coursework in far too many teacher training programs. In graduate level licensure programs, only 36% are training teachers in phonological awareness and only 49% are training in phonics. Undergraduate programs are doing better in the last several years, but they, too, are very weak in phonological awareness. Alternative training programs are doing a dismal job, with half earning an F in early reading instruction overall.

Keep learning all you can about phonological awareness and phonics, and make sure to focus on how to teach them well.

That sounds to many of us like a crisis. Those of us who can, need to be pulling on those more systemic teacher preparation levers. But in the meantime, what does this mean for a classroom teacher, whose leverage point is twenty-some actual little learners? It means this: second-guess that you were taught everything you should know. Keep learning all you can about phonological awareness and phonics, and make sure to focus on how to teach them well.

How to teach those critical elements

The IDA’s research-based guidance goes beyond what to teach; it also includes how to teach. It offers three principles that benefit students with dyslexia: instruction should be systematic, explicit, and diagnostic. But remember, the IDA also asserts that much of this is effective for all students. Which parts? The effectiveness of two of these principles for all early readers becomes clear by looking to the foremost professional organization for literacy educators. In 2019, an International Literacy Association (ILA) brief on phonics instruction was crystal clear about its support for two key how-to-teach principles. While the ILA is writing about class-wide instructional practices, their guidance echoes two of the IDA’s recommendations on how teaching should look to best benefit students with dyslexia.

  • Systematic: A planful sequence of phonics instruction deliberately moves through building-block skills with consonants, easy vowel sounds, harder spellings of vowel sounds, and word parts. This is the opposite of a fully incidental approach, where today’s fun picture book might have some long vowel teams to talk about, or maybe a PH digraph (who can say, until we open it up?). That’s not systematic; that’s willy-nilly. Systematic instruction can still be full of fun and games, but it is about following a methodical sequence of decoding skills.
  • Explicit: Instead of waiting for kids to discover patterns in words, explicit instruction includes directly stating patterns and rules and designing opportunities to try them. “The TION letters in this word work together to say SHUN,” a teacher says and shows explicitly, following up with chances to read and build words containing the TION pattern of letters. Kids aren’t left to discover these patterns on their own, which is very hard for some kids to do.

Why screening for dyslexia still matters—and what to do with results

If teaching phonological awareness and phonics in systematic and explicit ways benefits all students, not just those with dyslexia, why do we screen for dyslexia at all? Because while students with dyslexia benefit from what my professor called “good teaching,” they are also likely to need additional support.

When a student is flagged as possibly having characteristics of dyslexia, follow-up by schools and families should increase their communication and their collaboration. Next steps should be characterized by a push toward additional assessment, both informal and possibly more formal, and by more individualization of instruction based on those observations or data. Recall that the IDA guidance on how to teach includes a third principle, one not shared by guidance on what to do with all students. The final emphasis is more specific to students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities: our teaching should be diagnostic. That means informing instruction with ongoing skills diagnostics.

Our students need us

Fighting for research-backed reading instruction to become more pervasive is a good fight. Improving class-wide instruction in systematic and explicit phonics needs to happen. But even when it has, there will be students for whom this instruction will not be enough. While not all students with dyslexia will need specially designed instruction, ensuring the capacity to deliver that is our responsibility in protecting every student’s right to learn to read.

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