Dyslexia is an issue that can evoke a mix of fear and some confusion for teachers. Every teacher can recognise the crippling damage wrought by struggling to read, but, as a label, dyslexia is too often a mystery. As a result, teachers may miss the opportunity to make a positive difference for their pupils. 

A pupil being diagnosed with dyslexia is no guarantee of a resolution if we do not understand the issue. Paradoxically, the label could even come with some damaging lowering of expectations for pupils – from both teachers and parents. Alongside with awareness of the label, support must come for all involved – including teachers.

When faced with a pupil with dyslexia – with minimal understanding of literacy barriers proving typical – a natural reaction from teachers is to expect the issue will be addressed elsewhere by colleagues with more expertise. We should turn to the experts in school, such as the SENCO, however, we must not miss vital opportunities for every teacher in the classroom. 

Beyond the label then, what can teachers do to make a positive difference for pupils with dyslexia? 

‘Dys’ = difficult/ abnormal; ‘lexia’ = words

Understanding dyslexia

The dominant scientific consensus view of dyslexia is that it is typically the result of a phonological deficit whereat the dyslexic brain struggles to match sounds to letters with accuracy. ‘Phonological awareness’ describes the ability to recognise and manipulate the spoken parts of words and sentences, As a result of this issue, pupils can struggle with word reading and spelling.

It can be visible to many teachers, as their pupils struggle to read words from the page, reading robotically and struggling through reading aloud, or lacking the confidence to read at all. A few milliseconds late recognising a word, wedded to a few milliseconds attempting to connect that word to their background knowledge, all adds up to a slow, effortful, and often fractured reading experience. 

A seminal policy paper by Sir Jim Rose to government in 2009, helpfully offered what is a widely known definition of dyslexia:

“Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.

● Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.

● Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities.

● It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut- off points.

● Co- occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co- ordination, mental calculation, concentration, and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.”

Jim Rose, ‘Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties’,

There is still considerable debate about just how many pupils have dyslexia. Estimates can range from as high as 20%, however many experts place the figure for those pupils suffering from severe dyslexia nearer 8% to 4%. The challenge with dyslexia, like many special needs it that is a complex condition, with many co-occurring issues too. Professor Mark Seidenberg appropriately calls it a “moving target”, which isn’t helpful for busy teachers looking to best support their pupils! 

When commonly held myths about dyslexia clash with unclear boundaries and rather muddy categorisation, what are teachers to think? 

We should first focus on encouraging intelligent diagnostic assessments in class, rather than jumping to diagnosing pupils with a broad label and assuming extra time in exams, specialised fonts, and coloured overlays will paper over all the cracks in their reading competency. They won’t. When an easy solution is proposed for a complex problem, we should assume it is too good to be true. 

The more we know and understand about how children learn to read, how they read to learn, and what accounts for text complexity, we can better fire at that self-same target and support our pupils. We can identify reasonable adjustments – like extra time in exams – as well as teach brilliantly to develop the knowledge and skills so that pupils can best utilise that time. 

Teaching and learning focus for pupils with dyslexia

Adaptive teaching strategies to support pupils with dyslexia are likely to include: 

  • Developing decoding skills using structured phonics approaches. Phonics helps develop pupils’ ability to blend and sound out words in a more structured, strategic way, when reading tricky words. Structured programmes can be supplemented by high quality teaching that skilfully draws upon these strategies. 
  • Developing reading fluency. The ability to read aloud fluently needs to be scaffolded and practised with reading fluency strategies. Approaches such as choral readingecho readingrepeated reading, and Reader’s Theatre can prove effective.
  • Explicit vocabulary instruction. Dyslexia can limit pupils’ motivation to read and impact upon their ability to develop their language and vocabulary through reading. Explicitly teaching high value academic words, such as using the SEEC model, or graphic organisers like the Frayer model, can help manage the academic complexity by breaking reading down into smaller, more manageable units (which can help spelling too). 
  • Reading comprehension strategies. Pupils with dyslexia may get overloaded with an extended text. As a result, explicitly teaching comprehension strategies, such as summarisingprediction, and activating prior knowledge, can offer pupils explicit tools to navigate their way through extended texts. With apt temporary scaffolding, such approaches can ensure pupils stick with tricky, extended texts.

Remember, there is no simple, singular teaching solution to this complex challenge, but more understanding and support for teachers can help them make a difference for their pupils struggling with dyslexia. 

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[Image rights reserved: Vanessa Bazzano – ‘Reading’]