Dyslexia: How Catholic Schools Can Help


How Catholic schools can help

By Karen Stringer

Every classroom teacher has taught dyslexic students. It is the most common learning disability. It often goes undiagnosed unless it is severe because affected students usually are intelligent and hardworking and they learn to compensate or hide their disabilities. What can we do in Catholic schools to meet the needs of all dyslexic learners?

What is Dyslexia?

Dys means “poor or difficult” and lexis means “words or language.” Formally, it is defined by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Basically, it is a neurological processing disorder that is inherited (unless there is brain trauma). Dyslexia results from a neurological difference; that is, a brain difference. People with dyslexia have larger right hemispheres in their brains than those of normal readers. That may be one reason people with dyslexia often have significant strengths in areas controlled by the right side of the brain such as artistic, athletic, and mechanical gifts; 3-D visualization ability; musical talent; creative problem-solving skills; and people skills.

What is the Research?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), almost 20% of the population has some level of dyslexia. That is one out of five students in your classroom. MRI studies have shown that people with dyslexia do not use the same parts of their brains when reading as other people. Dyslexia involves a weakness in the part of the brain that decodes the sounds of written language. Researchers discovered that there are two main neural pathways for reading: one for sounding out words and the other for speedy recovery of words. The weakness in the second pathway is why many dyslexics do not read fluently.

Why Catholic Schools?

Most Catholic schools are known for being able to handle mild learning problems. When it comes to more severe difficulties, however, we are willing to pass those problems to the public school system that has a special education teachers and more programs for intervention. We need to change this mentality. This is a great opportunity for Catholic schools. With the proper training, regular classroom teachers-with the help of administration and resource teachers-can manage and help dyslexic students thrive.

What Are the Warning Signs?

Some teachers and administrators hesitate to suggest that a student might be dyslexic. However, we need to move away from thinking that we are “labeling” the students in a negative way. Unfortunately, if we as teachers do not identify affected students, others may do the identifying for us. For example, a child who has been teased as slow or dumb or lazy by others may actually be dyslexic. Parents, not knowing how to help their dyslexic child, often get frustrated with the amount of help he or she needs with homework or with poor grades. When we under-diagnose, we are allowing a great blow to the child’s self-esteem.

There are a number of clues teachers can look for to help identify students who may be dyslexic.

Clues for Preschoolers

  • Failure to learn letters and their sounds
  • Consistently mispronouncing words, such as “psgetti” for “spaghetti”
  • Baby talk
  • Failure to know the letters in their name
  • Delayed speech

Clues for Kindergartners and First-Graders

  • A family history of reading problems
  • Saying they hate reading
  • Inability to sound out words (often memorizing instead)
  • Trouble with small function words like the, in, and as and changing them to something else

Clues for Second-Graders and Older (in addition to clues listed above)

  • Don’t read fluently
  • Difficulty remembering dates, telephone numbers, addresses
  • Trouble with right and left
  • Mixing up b and d
  • Trouble reading unknown words
  • Hate to reading in front of class
  • Poor spelling
  • Messy handwriting
  • Trouble retrieving words or steps to a problem
  • Inability to finish tests on time
  • Trouble memorizing facts that they can’t relate to

How to Be a Dyslexic-Friendly School

  • Assess students who fit the profile of dyslexia.
  • Review and monitor their needs.
  • Ensure suitable equipment is in place along with strategies that are easy for teachers to implement.
  • Ensure that all staff that work with these students are aware of their individual needs. Everyone must be on the same page.
  • Provide up-to-date, research-based training for your staff on dyslexia.
  • Promote an atmosphere there students know it is OK for some students to have individual accommodations whether it is support technology or extra testing time.
  • Encourage open communication between parents and teachers.
  • Recognize the strengths the dyslexic students bring to the classroom.
  • Maintain high expectations. Differentiate, but don’t dumb it down.
  • Encourage use of multisensory approaches to teaching.
  • Promote understanding and diversity in your school.

Basically, what works for a dyslexic student works for all students. Catholic schools have the resources to meet the needs of dyslexics. Current computers with editing software, interactive whiteboards, and recorded books are just some of the supports dyslexic students can use to be successful. A school just needs a plan and leadership to become a dyslexic friendly school. We can help dyslexics reach their full potential within a caring, happy, structured, Catholic environment.

Karen Stringer has been a Catholic-school educator for 10 years. She currently teaches at St. Joseph Interparochial School in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Her interest in dyslexia extends beyond the classroom. Her husband and two of her three children have been diagnosed with dyslexia. Reach her at kstringer@stjosephschoolbg.org.

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