Talking dyslexia with U of M
Starting with the 2020 school year in Minnesota, all students not reading at grade level by the end of kindergarten through second grade must be screened for dyslexia. Students in third grade and above who demonstrate a reading difficulty must also be screened for dyslexia unless the reading difficulty is due to another reason.
Lori Helman, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development and director of the Minnesota Center for Reading Research, talks about dyslexia and how to increase awareness and responsiveness by educators and family members.
Q: What is dyslexia?
Prof. Helman: Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that interferes with peoples’ ability to learn to read. Dyslexia is neurological, meaning it is connected to what is going on in the brain, and is related to the way language is processed. People with dyslexia may find it difficult to pull apart the sounds in words. This can lead to trouble with spelling or reading words and making sense of written language, that is, phonics and spelling patterns. While individuals with dyslexia have unique experiences with the disorder, it often leads to feelings of confusion (e.g., questioning how others know what those words are), an avoidance of reading activities and compensating for difficulties with a variety of strategies (e.g., spending large amounts of time to get their academic work done).
Q: How is dyslexia diagnosed?
Prof. Helman: Often, it’s an educator who first notices the signs of reading difficulty. In young children, this can include having difficulty taking spoken words apart by their individual sounds. For example, a child may not be able to identify that “t” is the sound at the beginning of the word “table.” As expectations for reading skills increase, students may fall more and more behind their peers.
For teens and adults, there are related signs. Students may have difficulty understanding sound-spelling relationships, or may overrely on trying to memorize rather than decode words. Students who experience dyslexia are likely to score significantly lower than others on their grade level reading tests. Older students and adults may use strategies to cover up their reading difficulty, such as avoiding reading, relying on others to do the reading and putting in extra time to keep up with the normal workload of school.
It’s important to remember that, while there is no “cure” for dyslexia, there are many ways to provide support to students and help them develop in their reading. Identifying dyslexia and starting interventions earlier often helps young readers create a more stable knowledge base on which to strengthen their reading and writing skills.
Q: How can a parent or guardian best support their child in reading if they are diagnosed with dyslexia?
Prof. Helman: It is important for parents and guardians to realize their child needs both academic and emotional support.
From an academic perspective, remember each child is different. I encourage everyone to speak with their child’s educators about what is in place at school to identify students’ knowledge, strengths, and needs on the road to reading and writing development. Next, family members should ask how the instruction and interventions used at school support and are matched to a student's individual needs. Students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties will need focused and systematic instruction in the sounds and symbols of the writing system as well as a supportive setting and positive feedback in order to persevere through challenges.
At home, parents and guardians may be able to support their children in learning to read by reading aloud to them, modeling the benefits of reading, and keeping interactions with text (either reading or writing) low-stress and positive. Being understanding and providing concrete help to overcome specific challenges that arise are key. For example, if students become overwhelmed and frustrated with a reading or writing task, taking a brief break, hearing a word of encouragement, and highlighting successes in the learning will help a lot.
Students with dyslexia often have a range of magnificent gifts, such as creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Each person’s uniqueness can become a source of strength in overcoming the hardships that this learning difficulty presents. It’s important to remember that difficulties reading can have an emotional impact on your child. Be supportive and encouraging, while helping your child to set realistic goals.
Q: What resources are available for children, as well as adults, with dyslexia?
Prof. Helman: Many educators and community activists are currently putting a lot of effort into providing resources and support for people with dyslexia. People can learn a lot from the Minnesota Department of Education dyslexia information page and a downloadable guidebook called Navigating the School System When a Child is Struggling with Reading or Dyslexia. Other helpful organizations include Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota and the International Dyslexia Association.
It’s key to remember that troubles with academics does not mean a person with dyslexia is unable to succeed in school or in their career. What is key is that people need to gain foundational knowledge about how sounds and spelling patterns are represented in written language, as well as have opportunities to read text that allows them to practice this knowledge so they become accurate and fluent. Finding where each person is on the path to reading and writing development is the first step; then helping them move forward from that point with support and tailored instruction is critical.
Q: How is the Minnesota Center for Reading Research supporting those with dyslexia?
Prof. Helman: The University’s Minnesota Center for Reading Research (MCRR) works in partnership with researchers, educators and community activists to provide information and resources to support those who work with children and teenagers with dyslexia and other reading difficulties. For example, our outreach project in K-5 schools, Path to Reading Excellence in School Sites (PRESS), supports educators in delivering quality literacy instruction for all students by using data to inform their decision-making processes and providing interventions for students who are slipping behind their peers in reading. We hold workshops and consult with schools and districts so educators can learn more about students with reading difficulties and how to best serve them. We also collaborate with community-based organizations whose mission is to improve education for students with reading difficulties such as the Higher Education Literacy Partnership. The mission of the MCRR is to ensure that all pre-K through 12th grade students in diverse educational settings become capable and motivated readers and writers.
Lori Helman is a professor of literacy education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the director of the Minnesota Center for Reading Research at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. She teaches classes in assessment and instruction of reading difficulties and helps prepare new teachers and literacy specialists. Her research interests include the language and literacy development of students from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds and teacher professional development to become exceptional literacy instructors.
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