* YDCD: Cool site on dyslexia

It’s no surprise that Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz have founded one of the best sites around for info on dyslexia.  The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity (YCDC) provides terrific resources for educators, families, and kids.  As the author of “Overcoming Dyslexia” and a leading figure in ongoing research on dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz focuses on both the strengths and challenges experienced by folks with dyslexia.

school kids.jpg

This wonderful site features:

  • Research on dyslexia, including the rationale for calling dyslexia an “unexpected difficulty” in reading by individuals who have the intelligence and motivation to read.
  • A powerful section of resources for kids, parents, educators, and policy makers.  You’ll find terrific student tips and poignant stories featuring young people from a wide range of backgrounds- and all of it is printable!
  • Success stories of folks who have used used their unique learning style for good (and no, they are not all actors!).
  • Advocacy tools for parents and educators, including helpful strategies for raising awareness of dyslexia, social media suggestions, and more.
  • A news and press section with summaries of current news articles on dyslexia and newsletters from YDCD.

I highly recommend this site as a starting point for learning more about dyslexia.  YDCD is also a place where educators and families can find support in their dyslexia journey, which can be tough but oh, so rewarding!



* Writing failure, writing success

After my two-part analysis of writing failure experienced by a twice exceptional student with dyslexia, here are some effective writing strategies to consider for older elementary students.

  1.  Address writing anxiety, which alone can derail all other attempts to learn new skills.  Dealing with anxiety is different for each student, but should include a strong validation of the institutional failures that led to the writing crisis.  There were many missed opportunities by the school/teachers/specialists to address a student’s difficulties before they became crippling.
  2.  Continue to work on phonological and spelling weaknesses by tackling multisyllabic words.  Teach spelling rules and patterns.  Teach syllable types, syllabication rules, and meanings of prefixes and suffixes.  Megawords is an excellent program for addressing these skills.
  3. Teach parts of speech if these have not already been addressed.
  4.  Provide ample time for students to learn new vocabulary associated with skill practice in #2 above.  Use crossword puzzles, games, word searches, mad libs, skits, and conversation to add these words to a student’s working vocabulary.
  5.  Teach vocabulary related to character traits.  By the later elementary years and into middle school, students will be required to analyze character development and use appropriate adjectives.  Many of our dyslexic students, despite high IQ’s, are still using descriptive words such as “nice” and “happy.”
  6.  Attack the disconnect between details and main ideas from “both sides.”  Have the student generate (dictate) lists of details and dictate main ideas (topic sentences/blurbs).  Also provide main ideas and require students to generate as many details as possible.  The first approach seems to work best, in my experience.
  7.  Graph or otherwise record increments of growth.  After years of struggle, these kids need to know they are climbing out of the abyss.
  8.  Allow kids to read and write on topics of interest.
  9.  Teach prewriting organizational strategies, such as graphic organizers.  Help kids use as many consistent shortcuts as possible for recording their ideas.  I suggest symbols and simple drawings.
  10.  Keep writing to a minimum until the student is well-equipped with spelling and organizational skills.
  11. Make use of technology, such as talk-to-text features and spell check.   All these kids should be able to use a keyboard efficiently.

It IS possible for students to recover from years of dismal writing experiences.  Supportive parents and teachers are crucial in validating a student’s effort and providing the requisite skills for success.  Who knows?  They may end up writing you a thank you note!


* Explaining weirdness

Two on a Rant…  Funny business!

 WARNING: Weird Humor lurks below. DYSLEXIA:  A not-quite-right state of being that is different for every person who has it. VISUAL IMPAIRMENT:  A not-quite-right state of being that is different for every person who has it. I certainly hope that clears it up for you. People have asked me, in an unpleasant accusatory tone, “Why do […]


* Puxa story sample


Below is an example of an early decodable book for a dyslexic student, written by my ghost author, Puxa the cat.  My student was then reading single-syllable words with four syllable types (open, closed, silent e, and double vowels or ‘vowel teams’), with some use of -ing and -ed suffixes.  I was experimenting with the font and spacing to improve his fluency, so you may notice the extra gaps between words.  Eventually I dropped the additional spacing because he was more distressed by the extra pages than he was about focusing on accuracy.  As we worked on these skills, his accuracy improved anyway.

This story is the second in a series about Puxa helping her boy get money for a field trip.   The first paragraph sums up previous events.   Puxa is helpful in some stories, but other times she is a nuisance.  (Sorry, Puxa!)  Although Puxa is an outdoor cat (her family is as allergic to her as I am!), she manages to sneak in the house whenever necessary to help her boy.  Or seek revenge….

Puxa Checks

* W is for writing

mudflat-hiking-57666_640Blogging A-Z: W is for writing.  As much as I enjoy writing, there’s a giant ache in my heart when I hear that word.  Why?  Because of the anguish many of my students feel when they write at school.  To what lengths do some of these kids go to avoid writing tasks which are beyond their reach?  They get out of reach themselves, going under desks or tables, leaving the class, taking an extended vacation in the bathroom, and going to the nurse’s office after throwing up.  Or they lash out, disrupting the entire class.  Seriously.  I’ve seen all of that and more.

We must change the school landscape for these kids who live in fear of writing.  I spent much of last summer desensitizing a kid who could no longer THINK about writing without overwhelming panic.  He had to cross an emotional abyss in order to attempt writing again.  His was not an isolated problem.  For twice exceptional kids, especially, this can be the daily terrain.

We know from brain research (and common sense) that some kinds of struggles are “good.”  Persevering through certain learning challenges can improve our ability to problem solve.  Succeeding when struggles are at the right level of difficulty is vital.  But writing phobias are not an outcome of “good” struggles.  This writing distress and cycle of failure begins by tasking kids with assignments for which they are not capable, plunging them into a mire from which there seems no escape.  If I were expected to write a sentence in French, even if the teacher said kindly, “All you have to do is write TWO words,” I would be at a loss.  I don’t know the letters, sounds, words, or grammar.  I would be mortified if this happened in front of my peers.  I would feel like Alice in Wonderland if my teacher assured me that I was fully capable of writing a two-word story in French.  Does she even know me?  Where would I begin?  After a few assignments like this, my anxiety would rocket when it was time for writing.  I’d start worrying about it before I got to class.  I’d feel stupid and ashamed when the teacher’s help simply didn’t help.  I would wonder what was wrong with me.  When I looked around at my colleagues, busily at work on writing tasks, I’d feel incompetent.  Maybe I’d try to copy a colleagues’s work.  Perhaps my stomach would start hurting, so I’d end up in the nurse’s office.

Changing writing phobias to writing success starts with understanding our students’ learning differences.  The website Understood has realistic videos of kids with writing struggles.  Listen to kids talk about their struggles.  Look at this supposedly simple task from their point of view.  Effective instructional change is possible.  The writing topography can be one of success.

How many of you had writing struggles as a student?  Would you share your experiences (anonymously, if you prefer)?  

* P is for parents

parentsBlogging A-Z: P is for parents.  My career as a special educator has been deeply impacted by the parents of my special kiddos.  As a group, the parents of special needs kids tend to be exceptional as well: exceptionally passionate, exceptionally informed, and exceptionally supportive.  Here are some examples of a few families I’ve partnered with throughout the years.

Passionate:  The parent that comes to mind for this category amazed me with her passion for her special needs son, Martin.  While her husband also played an important role in Martin’s education, this mom was the beating heart behind their major decisions.  With her impetus, they moved from a different state so Martin could receive improved services.  She provided Martin’s teachers (and me) with helpful materials on his disability, along with thorough background info on his development and previous support services.  She was gentle but also strong like a mama bear.  There were times she had to leave meetings in her husband’s hands because her passionate heart was breaking.  She suffered some explosions and implosions along the way, but her passion never wavered.

Informed:  If there were a trophy for this category, I’d award it to a husband and wife team who have spent COUNTLESS hours becoming experts on their son’s disability.  I know they never imagined the course their lives would take, as they shifted from concerned mom and dad to resident experts on dyslexia, apraxia, attention disorders, and behavior management.  I can count on them to keep me informed and on track.  They also share their expertise with local school leadership in an effort to pave a better way for other families confronting difficult issues.  One remarkable aspect of this amazing couple is their humility.  They always admit when they don’t know something and are gently persuasive when they do.  They’ve been great role models for me!

Supportive:  This could describe numerous parents over the years, but I’ll pick Claire, who is a resilient survivor of her own childhood issues. Claire’s particular gift is seeing the good, calling attention to the strengths, and being her child’s loudest cheerleader.  Like other parents of special needs kids, Claire was unprepared for the struggles that began at birth.  Joshua has always lagged behind, a startling contrast to his high performing siblings.  But when you meet Claire, you know that Joshua is regarded as a leader, as a role model, as a bright light not dimmed by his struggles.  Claire’s ability to capture the essence of Joshua’s strengths is delightful.  He is blossoming into a precious young man with great hope for the future.

I would never have become an experienced educator without the passionate, informed, and supportive parents who have shaped my understanding of true education.

* J is for jawbreakers

lollipopBlogging A-Z: J is for jawbreakers.  And a wide assortment of other goodies designed to meet the needs of kids with sensory integration (SI) disorders.  I’ve had students chew on multi-flavored jawbreakers in an effort to reduce their need for greater oral stimulation.  Other kids wore special “necklaces” of rubbery items to chew as a replacement for gnawing holes in their shirts.  Some kids with attention disorders were presumed to perform better while chewing gum.  This approach to sensory integration has changed markedly over the past 20 years as research has not substantiated any efficacy with learning disabled or mentally handicapped students.

However, kids on the autism spectrum often present unique challenges with regards to sensory input.  These kids may overreact to sounds, lights, touch, and other sensory input.  They may drool, have difficulty chewing, and generally make a real mess while eating.  Clothing with tags may be unbearable, as are certain types of fabric or styles.  Loud noises, like those associated with a gym, cafeteria, or fire drill, may cause them great discomfort.  Kids with autism spectrum disorders may crave swinging or other rocking and twirling motions.  I have certainly tried to accommodate these issues with ASD students and feel confident that intervention is appropriate.

Despite the research cited above, many parents still take their kids to centers which provide sensory integration therapy.  Although it could be that maturation is just as effective (and cheaper), one size does not fit all.  We may say that as a group, learning problems are not associated with sensory integration issues, but what about individual differences?  I’ve seen kids thrive from SI treatment.  “Let them eat jawbreakers” is my motto!

* “Choose Strength Not Shame”

Choose Strength Not Shame.  That’s the title of a tremendously inspiring TEDx session presented by Ben Foss, entrepreneur, author, and yes, dyslexic. I would assume he falls into the category of twice exceptional.  I think he might say he doesn’t want to be categorized and has learned to leverage his strengths.

Foss talks candidly and humorously about his dyslexia, starting off with an MRI depicting his brain as he attempted to read.  The focus of his presentation is shame, not dyslexia, but he uses his disability to explain how dyslexia is “the perfect storm of shame.”  He quotes Gershon Kaufmann, PhD, on shame: “Reading disabilities match in intensity the level of shame associated with incest.”  No surprise there for parents and teachers of kids with dyslexia.  Foss lists three reasons that a reading disability can create a lifetime of shame.  FIrst, its diagnosis usually comes at a vulnerable age for developing children.  While their peers are successfully navigating the world of reading, dyslexic kids are failing.  Second, kids at that age are going to define themselves as lazy or stupid without sufficient explanation.  As Foss puts it, their self-view (shame) is made harsher by misunderstanding the true nature of their learning difference.  Finally, peers and the school will reinforce this shameful view by mocking and labeling, respectively.

So what’s to be done?  Foss provides one example of dealing effectively with shame in the video above.  He also writes about how to raise a shame-free dyslexic kid in his book The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing Your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning.  I have a copy and can’t wait to read it!

* Students as teachers

In a previous post, I described how our special needs kids can develop leadership by “mentoring” other students, taking advantage of our kids’ interests and skills to teach others.  I recently came across this article from The Reading Teacher (Vol. 67 Issue 8, 2014), written by Megan Kramer.  She describes her classroom as a place where students are “experts” and the powerful impact it has upon struggling learners.  From kids on the autism spectrum to those with dyslexia, all our students are experts in some area.  Let’s provide opportunities for them to shine!  If you’re a parent, suggest this idea to your child’s teacher.  As Megan notes, it is not difficult to set up and the rewards are huge.Expert classes

* Megawords

EPSMegawords is a specialized reading program published by EPS School Specialty.  EPS has long been my favorite supplier of quality materials for students with learning disabilities.  Megawords is another winner.  Created for students at a fourth grade reading level through high school, it provides systematic instruction in reading multisyllabic words.  (Click here if you want to see how this program is aligned with current research for teaching reading.)  If you are teaching a twice exceptional (2e) student with a strong vocabulary, Megawords can be effective at third grade as well.

The Megawords program is divided into 8 books, each focusing on specific skills in a logical order.  Here’s a look at what’s taught:

Megawords 3To begin with, I recommend that you purchase the Assessment of Decoding and Encoding Skills.  Although each Megawords book comes with ongoing assessment features, I like to get a really “big picture” before starting the program.  The assessments will provide a solid basis for measuring growth as you teach with this series.

Each book follows a 6-step method of instruction:

Megawords 4

Each step is designed for systematic and carefully sequenced instruction, moving from rules and word parts (syllables) to reading in context.  The progression of skills is as good as any I’ve used.  The in-book assessments are simple (reading and writing 5 words) and allow students to understand where they are and note their progress on accuracy and fluency graphs.  Students are monitored by reading words in isolation and in passages.  Based on research supporting the actual writing of words to improve retention, Megawords is heavy on writing.  For my students with graphomotor issues (most of them), I will substitute verbal responses for about a third of the activities.  I also supplement those “skipped” written lessons with activities I create on Quizlet.

Each Megawords book does take time to complete.  Ideally, you would use it daily.  I am using it with students I tutor only once a week but even at that rate, they are making good progress.  Why would I use this program under those conditions?  Because my students have not reached a level of automaticity with these skills, despite other extensive instruction in syllable types and other decoding practice.  By definition, kids with identified disabilities are intervention-resistant.  My 2e kids may memorize words and rules quickly, but forget them when we move to a new topic.  Their recall and application of skills over time tends to lag considerably when compared to their short-term progress.  Megawords ensures that they have over-learned skills, which is vital for this population.

Have you tried Megawords?  What are your impressions of the program?