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Learning Curve

Helping students with dyslexia

New York Teacher
Letters with some covered. Finger pointing to one letter.
Workbook with pictures on a page that show the sound of things

Students participating in the SPIRE reading intervention program use magnetic tiles to build and break apart words and sounds. above: Fundations, a phonics program used in the early grades in many public schools, teaches students to recognize “welded sounds” — groups of letters within words that cannot be easily separated into individual sounds.

How many of your students have dyslexia?

The answer may surprise you: Researchers estimate that dyslexia affects between 5 and 12 percent of the U.S. population — and as many as 80 percent of students who struggle with reading.

If you find that statistic startling, you’re not alone: It wasn’t until 2017 that New York State clarified that a diagnosis of dyslexia could be used in classifying students with a learning disability in order to determine eligibility for special education services and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

“School officials have been afraid to use the word ‘dyslexia,’” wrote Jo Anne Simon, a New York State Assembly member, in a New York Daily News op-ed in 2017. “[This] deterred schools from offering students the proper and legally mandated support, and education schools from preparing future teachers [in] how to recognize the problems.”

Research has found that the differences between dyslexic and typical readers are evident as early as 1st grade and the gap persists into adolescence. Some early signs of dyslexia include an inability to recognize rhyming patterns (like cat, bat and rat), failure to associate letters with sounds and difficulty recognizing letters.

“At its core, dyslexia is a problem accessing the sound of spoken language,” says Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a professor of pediatric neurology and a nationally recognized expert on dyslexia.

Direct, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics can help students with dyslexia make connections between phonemes — or the sounds of language — and graphemes, their written equivalents. But in many reading curricula in recent years, phonics instruction has become less robust.

Words on a page, some circled
In the first level of SPIRE, the reading intervention used by many IEP teachers, students learn the sound of short vowels. They practice doing “word finds” like this one by circling all the words that include the short E sound.

Research done by Dr. Shaywitz and others has concluded that implementing effective reading programs as early as kindergarten or even pre-K offers the potential to close the reading gap.

Mounting evidence shows there is a specific approach to reading intervention that helps struggling students become successful — both those who have been diagnosed with a specific reading disability like dyslexia and those who have not.

For many of the city’s centrally funded IEP teachers, who are often called upon to work with at-risk readers, that intervention is SPIRE, an evidence-based, intensive program that is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach to reading instruction.

Orton-Gillingham, which was developed collaboratively in the 1930s by a neurologist and an educator, posits that reading instruction should be direct, explicit, highly systematic and multisensory.

“The aim is to activate the parts of the brain that these students aren’t using,” says Elena Behar Lazarova, an IEP teacher who does reading intervention with at-risk students at PS 148 in East Elmhurst, Queens. “There are lots of components so that students use tactile and visual processing at the same time.”

SPIRE lessons are always 10 steps and include the same sequence of activities. In each lesson, students review phonograms, or the sounds that certain combinations of letters make; build words using letter tiles; mark the letter patterns they see in words; read for comprehension; practice writing dictated words; spell; and write sentences.

“The language is clearly scripted, which allows students to get used to the routine and know exactly what they’re being asked to do,” says Lazarova.

Teachers in the early grades of many of the city’s schools may already be familiar with the Orton-Gillingham approach thanks to Fundations, a popular phonics program. Students learn to drill individual phonemes (the smallest units of sound) by chanting: “A, apple, /a/. B, bat, /b/.” They “tap out” words by touching their thumbs to their forefingers to represent phonemes, and they use magnetic letters to build and break apart words.

But Fundations is meant to be used with young children, and it’s rare to encounter a classroom in the upper grades where phonics is part of the daily routine.

“When I meet with a struggling reader, the first thing I pick up on is difficulty decoding,” says Helen Amsterdam, a 40-year veteran teacher who now works as an IEP teacher at PS 86 in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “The advantage I have over classroom teachers is that I can teach a concept and do the activities over and over again until students get it.”

Students begin the first level of SPIRE by practicing short vowel sounds, digraphs (like sh, ch and th) and welded sounds (-nk and -ng). By the end of the program, in Level 8, they will master r-controlled vowels, prefixes and suffixes, and other unusual sounds.

Experts on dyslexia suggest that the best reading instruction for struggling readers should be explicit, be delivered in small groups and allow students to be active participants in learning.

“We’re not only teaching skills but trying to undo the emotional damage of being unsuccessful with something for a long time,” Lazarova notes. “Year after year, these children sitting in classrooms with traditional curriculum were taught, ‘Reading is not accessible to me. Reading is hard for me.’ They were taught to dislike reading. But kids experience success very fast with SPIRE. It removes that barrier and it opens them up.”