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“I think my student has Dyslexia.” This is one of the most frequently heard comments by new and seasoned tutors alike and deserves some attention to help tutors understand a little bit more about reading difficulties and to clarify the role of the tutor at LCNV. First, the Literacy Council does not diagnose students with learning disabilities and LCNV tutors should not do so either, regardless of their background outside of their tutoring experience. Dyslexia is a specific neurological disorder falling into the category of general learning disabilities and the term ‘learning disability’ carries numerous clinical, legal and financial implications that are beyond the scope of the Literacy Council. A tutor’s role is to meet a student where he or she is in his or her reading and writing, and use the various tools available through the Literacy Council to address specific questions and concerns in order to help a student attain specific literacy-related goals
The term Dyslexia literally means word blindness and it was coined by a German ophthalmologist in the late 19th century. Today it is generally accepted to refer to a severe impairment in the ability to read, which is generally thought to be due to neurological factors. Nobody ever knows for certain what causes a person’s difficulty reading and writing, and regardless, reading difficulties are not intractable roadblocks to learning. Treating difficulties empirically can make a big difference and it is essential that a student’s educational history (i.e. no education in a native language) be considered and kept in the forefront of a tutor’s mind. Still, many tutors are surprised and frustrated by the types of errors their students make while learning to read and write. Students may confuse similar-looking letters such as b and d, p and q or u and n. Students may transpose sequences of letters, reading ‘was’ instead of ‘saw’. It may seem as if a student is incapable of remembering ‘easy’ sight words such as ‘the’, ‘here’, or ‘of’. Vowel sounds may seem particularly elusive to the adult learner. All of these may, in fact, be symptoms of a specific learning disability. Then again, all of these are almost always behaviors typical of new readers.
A new learner, which characterizes all LCNV students, will make errors and learning to read is no small task. Below are a few common errors that new readers and writers make, and some tips that can help tutors address them.
- Keep Errors in Perspective – When students make any word reading errors, note them but try not to worry about them more than necessary. Reading accurately is important but if a word reading error doesn’t interfere with a student’s comprehension then a student may be making some self-correction internally already.
- Comprehension Check-Up – We can’t always count on a student’s errors not to interfere with comprehension so it is important to be sure that they understand that they have made an error and to be sure that they can paraphrase or summarize the main points of what they have read.
- Mnemonics – If a student is having trouble discriminating (visually or auditory) between specific letters and/or sounds, teach some memory tricks such as writing the word ‘bed’ to discriminate between b and d, teaching keywords to help recall the correct sounds, or using pictures to cue the correct sound.
- Discrimination Activities – Create a stack of index cards with the two sounds that are difficult for your student to distinguish, such as short e and i. Spend the first five minutes of the lesson reading the words aloud to your student and sorting them into piles.
- Teach Syllables – Blending individual sounds in words is difficult for almost every beginning reader. Students need to know individual sounds of words but some people chunk different pieces of information together differently, and for some learners separating words into individual sounds is too many pieces of information to hold in memory at once. Numerous studies demonstrate that people with reading difficulties have weaker phonemic awareness and phonemic memory than people without reading difficulties. This means they don’t automatically see or hear similarities and differences between words and sounds so these need to be taught directly; the smaller the unit, the harder it is to discriminate and remember. Giving a larger chunk or a regularly used analogy can be very helpful. Be prepared to teach things slowly and be sure to incorporate plenty of practice – a weaker phonemic memory means it is harder for a person with reading difficulties to store phonemic (sound) information so they will need continued, intensive practice.
- Context – Teach your learner to use context while reading. Adult learners have many coping skills and context can be a lifeline for such a new reader. Many new and struggling readers come to see reading as a performance and forget that the goal of reading is understanding text, which requires active engagement with text. Have your student repeat the word they misread and ask, “Does that make sense?” Give your student a second chance to reread. It is also helpful if you can record the reader and have him/her listen to his/her own reading. Students need to learn to monitor their own understanding by continuously asking, “Does that make sense?”
- Appropriate Reading Level – Any time you notice students making many errors, be sure that the level is appropriate. If a student is struggling with something, you will often notice that skills you thought were secure are now falling apart in application. This is because the learner is attending to too many things at once. Try the following: shorten the passage length; give the learner a chance to preview the material before reading; or be sure you are reminding the learner of only one or two things to focus on while they read instead of trying to correct all aspects of reading at once. If none of these suggestions work, simply find easier material.
The Literacy Council trains volunteers to work with beginning readers and writers. We define a beginning reader as someone reading below a fifth grade level, or someone who is unable to read and understand an English newspaper independently. When a student with such limited literacy skills is faced with the task of learning to read, confusion is part of the landscape. Nobody expects tutors to be reading specialists and the initial training provided to all new tutors should only be considered a jumping off point. If you are struggling to meet your student’s learning needs, do not suffer in silence – reach out to Placement Advisors, staff, and fellow volunteers. Each learner presents unique challenges and strengths, and an outside observer can provide surprising insight, advice, and peace of mind.