The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 132 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, Host
When I was a “regular” classroom teacher, my knowledge of specific learning disabilities was limited at best. My teacher prep program required one course in special education; it was very broad, very general, and I barely remembered anything I learned in it. This means I was woefully ill-equipped to support the students in my room with special needs—those who arrived with a formal diagnosis and those who didn’t. I mean I literally knew nothing. No special strategies. No alternative methods of instruction. My plan was to just do whatever the IEP told me to do, which mostly involved shortening assignments for those students, giving them extra time, or occasionally reading things out loud to them. I didn’t really get why these things were helpful, and I did them with limited success.
So that’s the big problem: If my experience matches those of other teachers, and a 2019 report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities says it does, then a whole lot of students are spending a whole lot of time in classrooms with teachers who have only the faintest idea of how to support them. Yes, of course every school has special ed teachers, but if students with special needs are spending more and more time in mainstream classrooms, we can’t ask the special ed teachers to be the only ones doing this work. It’s time for the rest of us have to step up our game.
And a good place to start is with dyslexia.
The International Dyslexia Association estimates that as many as 15 to 20 percent of the population as a whole has some symptoms of dyslexia. This is a much higher number than I would ever have guessed, and it means that anyone who has been teaching for any length of time has probably taught at least a few students who have dyslexia, whether we knew it or not.
In this episode, I’m going to talk with special educator Lisa Brooks, who currently serves as Principal Director of the Commonwealth Learning Center’s Professional Training Institute in Massachusetts, a nonprofit whose programs are designed to help teachers and specialists meet the needs of students who require systematic and multisensory learning approaches. Lisa is going to start by dispelling some of the most common myths about dyslexia. Then she’ll share some traits teachers can look for that might indicate dyslexia in our students. Finally, we’ll talk about some things teachers can do inside and outside of the classroom to support these students and help them be more successful.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank Pixton for sponsoring this episode. Pixton is a really fun tool you should try with your students. It’s a web app that allows you and your students to create stories and demonstrate learning through comics! There’s no need for drawing skills as Pixton provides a huge library of pre-made scenes and characters… and it works with ANY subject. Explore topics in Math, Science, Social Studies, or give your History or English classes a kick in the visual cortex. It’s so versatile. Choose images from popular content, books and movies like The Hunger Games or The Outsiders, plus other topics like the solar system, black history or the environment – all Common Core aligned. So, much, fun. This is such a great tool to get students writing on any topic, but it’s so fun, they won’t feel like they’re writing. Seriously, it’s the vegetables in the cake. As teachers, you’ll walk away the superhero as your students get SO into it. Now Cult of Pedagogy listeners get to use PixtonEDU for a special rate. Go to cultofpedagogy.com/pixton and you’ll get 15% off your first year annual subscription. Come check out PixtonEDU– a super fun tool your students won’t want to stop using.
Support also comes from ViewSonic. ViewSonic transforms classrooms into immersive learning environments. Their education solutions drive engagement, energize and motivate students, and make teaching more fun. From ViewBoard interactive displays and myViewBoard digital whiteboarding software to projectors and monitors, ViewSonic’s award-winning solutions are here to help teachers stay connected and collaborate in their classrooms. To learn more, visit viewsonic.com/education.
The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast is part of the Education Podcast Network. The EPN family is the home of dozens of different podcasts, and each one is focused on education. One you should definitely check out is the Assist Learning podcast, which explores the intersection of instructional technology and special education and is dedicated to helping teachers and families assist students with learning disabilities. Check out Assist Learning and all of the EPN’s shows at edupodcastnetwork.com.
Now, here’s the interview, where Lisa Brooks helps us understand how to recognize and support students with dyslexia.
GONZALEZ: Lisa, welcome to the podcast.
BROOKS: Thank you. Happy to be here.
GONZALEZ: We are going to be talking today about dyslexia, and we’re going to be trying to help teachers who really don’t have a lot of training in dyslexia learn how to recognize it, and then once they do, or at least recognize suspected dyslexia in a student, then what should they be doing after they think they have noticed some traits. Before we get into all of that, why don’t you tell our listeners what you do?
BROOKS: Okay. Well my position is I am principal director at Commonwealth Learning Centers Professional Training Institute. We are a nonprofit agency. We’re based out of Massachusetts, and we have two primary goals. One is that we work with students, and we have a tutorial clinic where we work with students, kindergarten through adult. And our other goal is professional training, so we train teachers throughout New England in the specialized methodologies that we use to work with students with dyslexia and other learning differences. So that’s what I do most of the day is I train teachers. My background is in special education, and I am also a fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham and I serve on their board.
GONZALEZ: Got it. And I, since you and I first made contact, I’ve done a little bit of my own research, because I know really very little about dyslexia, and that phrase, I’ve seen that phrase now a lot. It’s a, it’s a big name, I guess, in dyslexia, Orton-Gillingham?
GONZALEZ: What exactly is Orton-Gillingham?
BROOKS: Orton-Gillingham is an approach to teaching reading and spelling to students who learn differently. It’s a research-based, scientifically based intervention that, it’s not new, but perhaps new again now that we’re all talking about dyslexia finally. But it, it involves specialized training and a practicum that teachers undergo where they learn about the whole structure of the English language from its sounds all the way to its morphemes, and then they learn about dyslexia and the brain of a student with dyslexia, and then multi-sensory strategies. So really it’s, how do I teach the code of the language to a student who learns a particular way? And it’s very effective.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So what we decided ahead of time is that we’re going to start by talking about some of the most common myths about dyslexia. So, and then sort of what the actual reality is. So I’m going to just go ahead and let you get started and tell us some of the myths that people tend to believe when it comes to dyslexia in students.
BROOKS: Well I think one of the, the main myths is that dyslexia is uncommon, that there’s only a handful of kids that someone might ever run into who have dyslexia. When in fact it occurs in at least 15 percent of the population.
BROOKS: And some people, some people argue 20 percent, they say 1 in 5 children.
GONZALEZ: Oh my gosh.
BROOKS: And so I think one of my messages to teachers who are listening would be to consider that if you have 20 students in your class, that probably three of them have markers of dyslexia.
BROOKS: I think that that’s surprising to some people.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
BROOKS: And so, because I don’t think people always know that dyslexia exists or what it is, when students present with difficulties associated with dyslexia, they often explain them away as something else. And I think that in the early grades, in elementary, we often see teachers saying, well, it’s developmental. You know, he’s kind of young for his grade or boys, you know, they would rather play than read. So we hear sometimes excuses for what might be a real learning disability. I think another would be people say, oh, I’ve heard of dyslexia. Isn’t that reading backwards or writing backwards?
GONZALEZ: Right, yep.
BROOKS: And really, most children when they’re very young write letters backwards, and that is considered appropriate for 4-, 5-, 6-year-olds. But dyslexia is not writing backwards. It’s really a difficulty in the phonological component of language and that means children have difficulty with the sounds in words. So we’ll talk more about that I’m sure when we talk about what to look for. But I think that we don’t want to just say, oh, my 5-year-old is writing upside down “m” and “w.” Does that mean he has dyslexia? That there’s a lot more to it than that.
BROOKS: So I think those are the common myths that, you know, that it’s not common is a myth, and that it’s really seeing letters backwards.
GONZALEZ: Got it. Yeah, and that’s pretty much what I thought of too that it’s just, you know, writing a “p” instead of a “b” or —
GONZALEZ: Okay, so, so now we are going to talk about actual traits that teachers can look for that might indicate that a child has dyslexia.
BROOKS: I think, in though, let’s talk about young children first. I think really the kindergarten and first grade teachers are the ones who can spot things early if they know what to look for.
BROOKS: And again, it is tricky, because children come into school with such a range of abilities, you know, what should I be worried about and what is just typical variation in a group of children? But I think we really need to be attuned to the challenges that students have in relation to other strengths. I think one of the things in our field we talk about dyslexia is that it’s surprising or unexpected. So when you look at a child who’s very verbal and good at other things, say like math, and then the student is having such a hard time remembering the letters in his or her own name, we say, wow, that’s so unexpected. This student speaks in paragraphs. Has very high vocabulary —
BROOKS: — is interested in books, and then can’t remember a letter or a letter sound. And so we say it’s unexpected. So I think that’s a first clue. And really just listening to kids and thinking about the challenges they may exhibit around the sounds of language. So difficulty telling you what’s the first sound in a word. Difficulty blending. So if, even if they’re not looking at print, but you say, what’s my word? S-A-T. Can they blend this three sounds to say “sat”? Can they rhyme? Can they even repeat long words after you? That’s really indicative too of challenges with sounds is you say a word like “spaghetti” and can they say it after you? I certainly know students with dyslexia even in high school who have a hard time saying a word like “specific.” They might say “pacific” for “specific.”
BROOKS: And I think when children are young, we think, oh, that’s so cute.
BROOKS: It’s cute when you’re 3. It’s not cute when you’re in school.
BROOKS: So it’s something that we would want to, you know, just look at more carefully. Other things might be rote memory, just can the student say the days of the week, can they sing a song? You know, that’s one of the markers too. It’s just difficulty with remembering oral language. But all of this difficulty with sound and sequencing and memory really manifests in the reading and spelling, and so once a student is out of kindergarten, we start looking at can they decode words and can they represent words by spelling them, and what kinds of errors are we seeing in the spelling? And again, not so much the formation of the letters, although that can be a challenge too, more do they have all the sounds represented in their spelling? If there’s a word that has six speech sounds in it, are they only putting three letters. So those are things that we would want teachers to be, wow, let me put on my detective hat and look at this child more closely.
GONZALEZ: Okay. I want to, I want to paraphrase that back to you to make sure I understood that, because that to me feels like a big one.
GONZALEZ: When you’ve got two children, basically, are spelling a word, one of them, and say they’re both spelling it wrong, one of them actually has all the sounds in there, they’ve just not necessarily chosen the right letters all the time, another one is actually missing some letter sounds, some sounds. The one who’s missing the sounds, that could be a child who’s got dyslexia?
GONZALEZ: Got it. That’s interesting.
BROOKS: I’m less worried about a student, you know, putting a “k” instead of a “c,” because we can see that they can hear that sound and they’re representing it.
BROOKS: So when they’re beginners, which letter doesn’t matter as much. It’s, are they processing all the sounds in the word?
GONZALEZ: Okay. Is it, are there students that will do these things who have some other type of learning, are there other learning disabilities that are not similar but maybe, that could be mistaken, like where it’s, you know, you see this, you may think it may be dyslexia, and then we do some testing or diagnostics and say, oh, it’s not dyslexia, it’s this other thing. Or is dyslexia really a larger category than maybe we’ve given it credit for?
BROOKS: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I mean I think students can show difficulty with sounds for other reasons than dyslexia. One being attention, one being they may have a hearing challenge.
BROOKS: One will be, you know, just auditory processing in general.
BROOKS: But I do think it’s, you know, this difficulty with the phonemes or the sounds in the language is really a marker for being at-risk.
BROOKS: And so, you know, some students maybe just come to the table with no skills and we teach them and then they’re fine. But really I, I think we’ll see the children who struggle with phonemic awareness and it’s not remediated, it really will haunt them for a long time, because reading and spelling will just continue to be a challenge for them going through the grade.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. So I’m assuming that if a teacher notices these things, regardless of the age of the child, if you know that they are not receiving any type of special ed services, it would make a lot of sense to then refer them to a resource teacher for testing?
BROOKS: Yes, yes.
BROOKS: And that really depends on how it’s done in your school. But in our state, where I am, you refer and then, you know, paperwork goes home to the parent to sign so that we can start an assessment process for the student. In many districts, you need to do a child study first before you refer to special education, so they would look at what intervention are we putting in place as a trial to see, and what’s nice about the way that reading instruction is moving and reflecting the brain science is that a lot of Tier 2 is really working on phonemic awareness. And so many children can have early difficulties remediated outside of special education if schools provide that type of instruction.
GONZALEZ: Okay. And this, tell me if I’m, I’m suspecting this correctly. This seems to be, like so many other things, like strategies we use for English learners and strategies that we use for kids from different cultural backgrounds, that any strategy that we might apply for students with dyslexia are, these are things that are likely to help a lot of other kids anyway, sort of a universal design thing.
BROOKS: Ding, ding, ding. That’s what I would say.
GONZALEZ: Yes, okay. So let’s, let’s get into some of those things. So that’s, that was going to be the next thing we talked about is whether or not this child is then given, you know, formal services or they’re still in the process of testing, but when you get to this point where you have decided this child is going to be processing language differently, what are some strategies that a teacher can start incorporating into their instruction that would help the student be more successful?
BROOKS: Well, in terms of reading, we would say that we need a code-based approach, which really means teaching phonics. Students need direct instruction in phonics and, you know, some people don’t agree with that, but really what we see in a lot of general education classrooms with the 3-cueing system is not what a student with dyslexia needs. So strategies such as, look at the picture, see what sounds right, guess, see if it makes sense, those are all strategies that are not helpful to a student with dyslexia. So we really need to help them learn the code and this is a word we use a lot in our practice is “over learn.”
BROOKS: So one of the challenges in general ed is everything moves so lickety-split and teachers will say, well I taught him consonant blend. Well they did that for a week.
BROOKS: And so students with dyslexia need to practice and practice and practice. And I always say, you know, it’s like practicing music or practicing soccer, you know. You need to do the scales, you need to do the drills. And so a lot of times in school I hear teachers say, well this is so boring. And I say, yes, but that’s what the student needs, and they know their short vowels on Friday and they come in on Monday and they act like you’ve never taught them anything, and that’s because they didn’t have practice over the weekend. So we need to remember that they’re not trying to be difficult, it’s just they need a lot of practice.
BROOKS: And so phonics, over learning, multi-sensory delivery. One of the things, so multi-sensory is using all, you know, more than one sense but simultaneously.
BROOKS: So for example, when the student is writing or completing a dictation, we have them repeat the word, segment it into sounds, and they might use some kind of manipulatives to represent the sounds in the word, name the letters, and then they write the letters while saying the letter out loud. And so in that way they’re using their motor kinesthetic but also their auditory and visual at the same time. I think in classrooms we need to make sure that students aren’t just listening all the time, because —
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
BROOKS: — we won’t get good results from that. But practicing by touching it, you know, we have them trace the letters, they use [INAUDIBLE] tray, sometimes they’re making the letters on a whiteboard with big muscles, so standing up and forming the letters with their shoulder involved and naming the letter as they write it. So these are more strategies for our younger students, but really this multi-sensory practice is going to help it stick.
GONZALEZ: Right. Huh. This is interesting, because I’m remembering my kids coming home with homework, spelling homework, and they would have to, they were supposed to be getting like a tray out, put shaving cream in it, and trace it, and my kids didn’t have any problem with spelling, so to me that was just, ugh, it was just, thought, you know, can they do something else? Because that’s going to take a really long time, and they already know how to spell the word. So I guess, I’m, now I’m sort of now stepping back from my earlier position that you should do this with all of your students, because really for students that don’t need it, it could start to feel tedious to have to be tracing letters in big movements and it’s sort of like, I got this, all right. Can I do something else? But for a kid that really needs it, you know, this would just be a great way to differentiate. What about, what about with older students? So what about if you have a sixth-grader and they’ve just slipped through, you know, all the cracks?
GONZALEZ: You know, I’m thinking there’s a lot more social stigma doing things sort of like you just described.
BROOKS: Right, right.
GONZALEZ: Are there, are there activities that are maybe a little bit more subtle that they could be doing?
BROOKS: Yes. So instead of maybe color blocks or color cubes to represent the sound, they might be using their fingers under the desk to segment the words. So, you know, you may hear people say, oh he’s tapping the word, meaning he’s segmenting the sound under the table with his fingers.
GONZALEZ: Oh, okay.
BROOKS: And that’s hidden, so nobody sees. But I think with, with older students who haven’t had remediation, they want to quickly write down and hurry up and get it over with.
BROOKS: And what we want to say is take the time to think about the sounds in the word, and then you say, oh, well I have six sounds, so now we’ll see how to represent that. I think maybe students haven’t had that type of instruction and slowing down and representing every sound. Another strategy we use with older students and particularly to help with this emotional component is to use nonsense words.
GONZALEZ: Is to use nonsense words?
BROOKS: Nonsense words, yes. Or, also known as detached syllables.
BROOKS: So they might be one syllable in a real word, but when you take that syllable by itself, it may not have any meaning. So what that does is, let’s take the sixth-grader you described is really still working on short vowels, and yes that occurs everywhere. I see it every day.
BROOKS: So you don’t want to give that sixth-grader words like “cat” and “mat,” because they’re going to say, hey, this chick thinks I can’t read, and I’m not [INAUDIBLE].
GONZALEZ: Oh, got it.
BROOKS: So if I say, hey, let’s look at this word “V-I-C.” Let’s do the sounds. V-ICK, Vic. It’s not a real word, but it’s part of a word like “victim.” So then we’re talking about hey, if I learn these little parts, I can make the bigger word.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
BROOKS: And have increased vocabulary.
BROOKS: And so we get to the same end by using nonsense words or detached syllables, but you’re really protecting them from making it feel babyish.
GONZALEZ: Right. Right. That is fantastic. So I guess then the last question is what are teachers required to do, you know, in order to comply with the laws surrounding students with dyslexia. If I’m a, I’m a regular classroom teacher —
GONZALEZ: — what, what’s expected of me, I’m saying “legally” but that’s also kind of a gray area, I know. But, you know, if there’s anything that sort of teachers nationwide should know, this would definitely be the time to share it.
BROOKS: Well, dyslexia is having a moment, and those of us who have been in the field a long time are saying, finally. But dyslexia is having a moment, meaning we’re talking about it more. You’re hearing about it in the media, and we’re seeing legislation happening in most states right now. In the last five years, at least 40 states have added legislation around dyslexia. And so for your listeners to know what should I do, it really depends on what state you live in. So you’ll have to look at the law in your state, but I will say that most are requiring some type of either teacher training and/or screening. So for example, in Massachusetts we have a law that’s going to be enacted this school year, and that will involve screening kindergarten and first grade children for dyslexia. And it will be done by someone in Tier 1. So regular education will do quick screens, and every child needs to have a record that they’ve been screened, and then if children move into the district, then they have to be screened as well. And we’re looking for these challenges around phonemic awareness, so we’re trying to catch it early in kindergarten or first grade and not have the sixth-grader who can’t sound out consonant-vowel-consonant words.
BROOKS: In other states, it’s mandated professional development, and so it’s on the district to provide professional development. In others it’s that they have to have a dyslexia resource guide for each school and for families and actually as I say, use the word “dyslexia,” the D-word as we call it. And so I think it really just depends on where you live, but it’s exciting that people are actually learning that dyslexia exists, that there’s something you can do about it, and how do we prevent children from getting to adulthood and not being able to read or read well.
BROOKS: We certainly hear it. Our center has had many students, adult students come here to learn how to read, and unfortunately, some of them have high school diplomas.
BROOKS: So I think that now that we have a lot of state tests in place and screening now for dyslexia, the hope is that we won’t have students graduating from high school and really not reading.
BROOKS: So, you know, I think teachers can really educate themselves. One is to look up what the law is in your state.
BROOKS: But, and what resources their district will provide, but there are webinars and podcasts and online courses, PD sessions, and very active parent groups like Decoding Dyslexia that have a lot of information, and the International Dyslexia Association has many fact sheets that are free for people to download and distribute.
GONZALEZ: Great. That’s, I was going to ask you about that, if you had any recommendations. Is there, is there a podcast off the top of your head that you, that you’re familiar with that would also be a good resource?
BROOKS: I would look at, well this one will be — no, I hope you stay and listen. International Dyslexia Association has lists of resources.
BROOKS: And this is all very timely, because today is the first day of Dyslexia Awareness Month.
GONZALEZ: Hey, perfect.
BROOKS: I think there will be a lot of things out there in social media that teachers can look at.
GONZALEZ: Okay, great. If listeners wanted to learn more from you specifically where could they find you online?
BROOKS: Well our website is commlearntraining.com.
GONZALEZ: Okay, great.
BROOKS: And on there, there’s more information about tutoring, about teacher training and about, you know, online courses.
GONZALEZ: Okay. Lisa, thank you very much for sharing this.
BROOKS: Thank you.
For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 132. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.