Dyslexia in the Time of Virtual School – Teacher Edition

Having a child with dyslexia in your classroom can be challenging in a normal year. In the virtual setting, it can feel overwhelming to give them the accommodations they need. As a parent of an 8th grader with dyslexia who is beginning her second semester of virtual learning, I have identified our main challenges and some tips with how teachers can address them in a virtual setting.

The first step to helping a child with dyslexia in any setting is to dive in and learn about what dyslexia is and what it isn’t. Visit websites like the understood.org for more information or look to see if your state has a Dyslexia Guide. Dyslexia is a difficultly processing written language and can impact spelling, reading and writing. It has nothing to do with intelligence and many students who struggling with manipulating written language can also excel at oral language tasks. Students with dyslexia will not “get it” if you tell them to do it again or try harder. They are not lazy or careless. They need a teacher who understands their weaknesses and their strengths who knows how to accommodate them so that they can thrive.

Once you have an understanding of what dyslexia is, you can began to address the needs of your students with dyslexia in a virtual setting. Below I outline specific difficulties and provide tips with how to address each one.

Dyslexia Difficultly #1: Lots of reading with no built-in read aloud feature. Across school districts, there is a wide variety of which students are able to use built-in read aloud features.  Some districts have it turned on for all children while others only allow access for younger students or students with disabilities. If your district or grade band does not give students with dyslexia access to read aloud technology, it can be very hard to them to keep up. These students can read very slowly and inaccurately. They can easily miss or misunderstand information that they would have understood had the information been read aloud to them.

Teacher Tip #1: Help your students access Snap and Read. Snap and Read can be installed as an app on a tablet or as an extension to Google Chrome.  It enables kids to easily click on the text they need read aloud so that they can access information through listening to increase the accuracy and speed at which they can complete work.

Dyslexia Difficulty #2: Lots of writing with no built in speech-to-text or word prediction built in. While some virtual platforms do have a spellcheck option, for students with dyslexia, spelling is often so far off that spellcheck simply cannot recognize the intended word. In a virtual setting where almost all of the writing is done on the computer, this can make children frustrated and can make word very hard to read for teachers.  Also, poor spellcheck eats up a lot of time for students who really want all the red squiggly lines under their words to go away.

Teacher Tip #2: If you have a student with dyslexia, encourage them to get Co:Writer.  It can be found as an app and as a Chrome extension. Not only does it have spellcheck, but it has a suite of capabilities that empower the writing of students with dyslexia. Co:writer offers word prediction and reads the words to students to help them pick the right word. For example, if a student wants to write the word “soup,” and then types “s-o-“ she will be given options including “soup” and “soap.” Those words are visually similar and can be tricky for kids with dyslexia to know which is the word they mean. Co:Writer solves this by allowing students to click on the two words to hear which one they want. So, if the child clicks “soap” they will hear that is wrong and can move to pick the correct word “soup” instead.  Another important capability of Co:writer is that it will also read back what the student has written so they can hear any incorrect words or skipped words.  For example, if the child wanted to write “I know my dog will like his bone,” but instead writes “I now my bog will lick done,” he will be able to hear the errors and skipped words. This is so important because in both examples, all the words are spelled correctly but you can see how letting the child hear the words help them catch errors they would have missed visually. 

Dyslexia Difficulty #3: Kids with dyslexia need tests read aloud. That is really hard in a virtual setting. Oftentimes students are left to muddle through tests on their own.  Since we know they struggle with accuracy and fatigue, the failure to read a test aloud to a child with dyslexia can deeply impact their grade.  Imagine a math word problem that says “Which of the following shapes IS NOT a quadrilateral?” A child with dyslexia reading on his own may skip a work and read the question as “Which of the following shapes IS a quadrilateral?” He will get the wrong answer even though he knew what a quadrilateral is. Instead of a math test, the failure to read it aloud to him will turn it into a reading test.

Teacher Tip #3: Reading tests aloud to students with dyslexia can be difficult in both the classroom and the virtual setting. Teachers have a lot of children to manage and finding the time can be tough. I do not recommend relying on text-to-speech technology for tests, because the robotic voice does not read things like multiple choice answers, word boxes, letter matches or word problems in a way that makes sense.  In fact, it can be down right confusing for children to muddle through. Have tests read by humans is always the best option. There are several strategies to accommodate this need in the virtual setting.  First, if the child has a caregiver or older sibling at home who is willing to read the test, that is a great option, so send an email home to ask the caregiver what would be easiest for the family. Another option is that you can ask the child to come to a Zoom or Teams call with you during your office hours or during an asynchronous time when you can spend time reading that test aloud. If you simply do not have the time, try to engage a special education teacher or another educator to support you in reading the test aloud to the student.  Please avoid asking students with dyslexia to “give it a try to see how they do.” Taking a test is especially taxing for these students, so asking them to try the test and then retake is demoralizing. If you don’t see the harm in asking them to retake it, remember that you would not ask a kid with a walker in PE to “give the lap a try” and if they don’t do it fast enough to ask them to do it again.  That would be unkind and exhausting for the child. Dyslexia is a disability and should be understood and treated with compassion.

Dyslexia Difficulty #4: Some online quizzes pop up with a large ticking timer that shuts down the quiz if time is exceeded. This is stress inducing and unfair to kids with dyslexia who need extra time. 

Teacher Tip #4: As a preface to this tip, remember that many students with dyslexia need tests read aloud, and some students will need quizzes read out loud too.  Double check what your students accommodations are. Some timers are built in to online platforms and can be very hard to turn off to grant extended time to students who need it. If you are faced with this technical difficulty, think outside the box.  Tell the child to ignore the timer and print the test and email you a picture when she completes it.  For children that do not have a printer at home, teach them how to take a screenshot of the quiz and to just send you an email with the answers if possible. Some teachers balk at having online tests emailed them and prefer for students so use the online format to made grading easier, but remember that the goal is to let kids show what they know. If a child can only do that by giving you work in a different format, be open to that even if it creates an extra step for you.

Dyslexia Difficulty #5: Online worksheets that only accept correctly spelled answers. In many formats, if you type in “Pocahanas” on a worksheet about Jamestown, instead of the correct spelling, you will get a zero on that item. Students with dyslexia should not be counted off for spelling. This can be deeply frustrating to children who know the material perfectly, but still get a failing grade in the online worksheet.

Teacher Tip #5: Again, this requires teachers to think outside the box and communicate with children and families of children with dyslexia to find something that works. One simple option here is to have children print the worksheet and complete it by hand and send you a picture. Again, if the child does not have a printer, the can always send you answers in an email.  However, this can be cumbersome because students with dyslexia can really struggle copying information from the scree to paper or when moving between screens.  A simple bit of assistive technology you can also use here is Easy Spelling Aide that can quickly provide students with access to the correct spelling of a word with the touch of a button.

Dyslexia Difficulty #6: Many teachers ask students to post answers to discussion questions publicly on a classroom message board. This can cause a lot of shame in kids who spell or write poorly since errors are there for all to see and spellcheck is not usually enabled in the chat room.  A simple answer to the question can turn into a seriously embarrassing moment.  A true life example of this when a math teacher posted the question “What is the probability a face card will be next in the deck? (Respond in a full sentence.)” When a very earnest boy answered “Ther is a 3/13 chance a faccard will be next in the dick,” he was ridiculed and felt so much shame even though his answer of “3/13” was the correct answer and he did not mean to write an inappropriate word. It may seem funny to some, but to those with dyslexia, it feels like more proof that we are stupid.

Teacher Tip #6: Give students with dyslexia the option to send you an email with their answer instead of making them post answers publicly.  Please do not make them write publicly if they do not want to. If you are not sure what the child wants, remember that communication is key. Just ask them. They know they have dyslexia.  Don’t be afraid to talk to them about it.

Dyslexia Difficulty #7: Some teachers in virtual school say “I’ll give you two minutes to text me your response.” Students with dyslexia may take 5 minutes to even write an answer and will miss class instruction while focused on typing. Additionally, they may be counted off for not turning items in. They also may be seen as not participating in class when the truth is, they just cannot keep up. (If answers are to be posted in a public forum, see tip #5 above.) 

Teacher Tip #7: If you are using this trick to encourage participation in class, make sure to let students know they can just give part of an answer if that is all they can get to.  Also, make sure kids know that these responses can be causal and do not need to be spelled perfectly or that they can be one word or one number.  Lastly, make sure to end the response period.  Say “if you did not get to the answer, that is okay, stay with me as we move on.” Then, if students have their camera on, check to see that the child with dyslexia has eyes on you and is not still working.  If cameras are off, ask kids to do a verbal check in that they are all ready to move on. You want to make sure that the students with dyslexia is still following along and is not lost still trying to write the answer.

Dyslexia Difficulty #8: By the end of a long day of looking at the screen, all kids are tired. For students with dyslexia, fatigue can be severe and cause mood issues, acting out and more. After virtual school has ended, having extensive homework can be close to impossible to complete. A simple worksheet for a tired child with dyslexia can take hours.

Teacher Tip #8: Make sure that you are not loading students with dyslexia up with hours of homework. Communicate with families to let them know your expectations.  Say, “I am expecting you do 30 minutes of this work each night.  If it takes longer than that, please just stop after 30 minutes and send me an email.” You do not want to unknowingly give a child hours of homework you did not intend.

This has been an unprecedented year that has been so challenging for students and teachers.  This is hard so we all need to give each other grace. If you are struggling to meet the needs of a student in your class with dyslexia, I hope that these tips and technologies help you in your journey.  If all else fails, remember that communication, compassion and flexibility go a long way. 

Published by

Anna Thorsen

I am a parent, attorney and advocate. I and my middle school daughter both have dyslexia. During the 2015 legislative session I was a tireless advocate to help pass the much needed Dyslexia Legislation in Tennessee and am proud to participate in the 2016 Bill Signing. I now serve on the Decoding Dyslexia TN Leadership Team and serves on the TN Department of Education’s Dyslexia Advisory Council. I have been a presenter for the past two years at the Tennessee Association for Assistive Technology annual conferences. I also does frequent speaking engagements around Middle Tennessee on the topic of dyslexia. My family's dyslexia story has been featured in several articles, including Mindshift's October 15, 2015 article "Why Recognizing Dyslexia at School Can be Difficult."

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