Dyslexia is a common disability, affecting about 5-15% of the population. Dyslexia makes learning to read and spell difficult. Kids with reading difficulties need explicit, systematic phonics instruction (also called structured literacy).
What does systematic, explicit phonics mean?
Systematic phonics involves teaching one phonics sound at a time with built in review. Usually, in phonics programs, this is known as the phonics scope and sequence. In the Reading Elephant phonics scope and sequence, kids learn short vowels (a_, i_, o_, u_, o_), consonant digraphs (sh, th, _tch, ch, _ck, _ng, _ang, _ing, _ng, wh_, _ink, _ank, qu_), consonant blends, silent e… etc. This gradual, step-by-step phonics approach is the cornerstone of an effective dyslexia intervention.
Reading Elephant offers 120+ step-by-step printable phonics books in our shop.
In addition to systematic phonics, dyslexic kids need explicit instruction. Thus, teachers always introduce new phonics sounds explicitly. For example, a teacher might introduce ee/ea by writing “The bee sat on the tree next to the green sea” on the board. Then, he’ll read the sentence and explicitly tell the kids: “ee says /ee/ as in bee, tree and green. ea says /ea/ as in sea.” Next, the teacher will create a “ee” and “ea” phonics flashcard for the kids to review daily. This is called explicit intstruction.
Dyslexic kids need both systematic and explicit phonics instruction.
Dyslexia is a spectrum.
Not all kids with dyslexia progress the same. Some kids with dyslexia progress faster than others. This makes dyslexia more of a spectrum. It’s not simply a condition that you have or don’t have. Some kids have mild dyslexia while others have more severe dyslexia.
What does severe dyslexia look like?
Kids with severe dyslexia progress at a slower rate than even the typical dyslexic child. Here are some signs that the child might have severe dyslexia:
- The child struggles with blending. Let’s say you’ve introduced the most common phonics sounds with research-based explicit, systematic phonics instruction or structured literacy. Some kids with severe dyslexia, at this point, may be able to decode all the sounds, but they may still struggle to put them together (also called blending the word). In this case, for example, a child might correctly decode “Meanwhile” as “m-ea-n-wh-i_e-l” but then look at you and say what is it the word? The child with severe dyslexia needs a lot of blending practice.
- The child struggles with fluency (reading speed and intonation). Kids with severe dyslexia struggle with fluency A LOT. A child with mild dyslexia might receive an effective structured literacy intervention and then later perform very well in reading. A child with severe dyslexia will often struggle with fluency for long durations, perhaps years. This is likely to hold back his reading level quite a bit.
- The child needs to relearn phonics sounds that the teacher thought he’d mastered. Let’s say the teacher introduced “ai” as in train with a thorough, explicit phonics lesson. Then, the child reviewed the ai sound across many lessons. Perhaps the teacher thought the child had mastered the ai sound. The student did well in reading ai in both books and lessons. However, a month later, the child is struggling with the ai sound again. What is going on? The child has severe dyslexia. Sometimes kids with severe dyslexia need to relearn phonics sounds the teacher thought they had mastered.
- The child struggles to learn to read and spell sight words. Educators and parents should not spend a lot of time on sight words. However, kids should learn that sight words require a sound tweak. With sight words, kids should sound them out, make the sound tweak and discover the correct pronunciation. However, kids with severe dyslexia really struggle with this process. They might sound out the sight word “build” and then make the sound tweak to arrive at “ball” or “body.”
- The child chronically struggles with spelling. Learning to spell takes time for all kids. Many argue that spelling is harder than reading. Kids with severe dyslexia will have to relearn phonics sounds in spelling lessons. They will often forget the spelling patterns. For example, the teacher may have introduced and extensively across many lessons reviewed the ee/ea phonics sounds. Yet, when the child has to spell the word “seek” he might not remember the long e spelling patterns. Kids with severe dyslexia often have atrocious spelling. They need to work on spelling a lot more than their peers.
There is hope for kids with severe dyslexia. They need explicit, systematic phonics instruction (also called structured literacy). They need to work on phonics sounds longer than most kids. However, if educators offer research-based programs, kids with severe dyslexia can eventually read well.