Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension for learners with dyslexia

By Michelle Casey

19 Oct 2022

A child writing and doing work with a laptop

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, with 1 in 5 people being dyslexic.

It is characterised as having difficulties with language processing, such as difficulty reading aloud, inaccurate spelling and issues memorising sequences.

In this article, we will look at the effects of dyslexia on reading performance and some strategies to help learners with dyslexia improve their reading skills.

What is dyslexia?

According to the Rose Review (2009):

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia include difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor coordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not by themselves markers of dyslexia.

This definition is widely accepted and has been adopted by the British Dyslexia Association.

How dyslexia affects reading comprehension

Learners with dyslexia may display difficulty in deciphering words and understanding the meaning of written language, which slows the rate at which they read.

According to Chapple (2007), reading is a complicated process which involves the simultaneous decoding or processing of words and the integration of these words into sentences and passages in order to link incoming new information with existing knowledge.

Learners with dyslexia may struggle with reading comprehension because their reading accuracy is poor. Difficulties reading and processing words may lead to a tendency to add extra words, miss out words, misread words or conjugate verbs incorrectly. These little discrepancies have a snowball effect, resulting in the learner having a poor grasp of what they have read.

Added to this, learners with dyslexia can sometimes be hindered by a poor knowledge of vocabulary. As a result of the reading struggles they face, these learners can fail to acquire the vocabulary ‘banks’ their peers have acquired. This provides another barrier for the dyslexic learner - even if they have been able to decode the words, they may not understand what they have read.

Another potential difficulty for learners with dyslexia is that they may fail to read for content - in other words, they might be able to read a text, but the energy needed to read the text accurately means they do not absorb any of the knowledge within it. The sheer effort it takes for them to decode the words leaves them exhausted and not as aware of the actual information they are reading (as they might be if they didn’t have dyslexia).

3 phases of reading and how dyslexia affects each phase

1. Decoding simple words

Decoding is the ability to use knowledge of letter-sound relationships to pronounce written words correctly. A solid understanding of these relationships gives learners the tools to recognise familiar words quickly and decipher words they may not have seen before. Without this ability to decode, a reader cannot accurately connect a written word to the spoken word it represents.

2. Reading sight words

Sight words are words that do not fit standard phonetic patterns and can, therefore, be tricky to decode. Examples of these words could include the word “cough”, when compared to “rough” or “Loughborough”, as each has a different spoken sound to its phonetic composition. These words may appear often in a text, so it is important that readers become familiar with them. Learners with dyslexia often have difficulty learning sight words.

3. Decoding unfamiliar words

Dyslexic learners often find that decoding unfamiliar words takes a huge effort. It can take them a while to sound out a word which can adversely affect comprehension so they may miss some of the meaning or context of what they are reading.

Dyslexia, phonological processing and reading

According to Wagner and Torgesen (1987), phonological processing is the use of the sounds of one’s language (i.e., phonemes) to process spoken and written language. It includes phonemic awareness and phonological working memory.

Learners with dyslexia tend to have insufficient phonological processing skills which impairs their ability to learn foundational reading skills.

How dyslexia affects spelling

Spelling is one of the most common difficulties experienced by dyslexic learners. It tends to be a challenge they face throughout life.

As dyslexia impacts phonological processing and memory, dyslexic learners may struggle to hear the different units of sound (phonemes) in words and, therefore, might be unable to break words into smaller parts in order to spell them.

Learners with dyslexia find it hard to learn how letters and sounds are linked and may not be able to recall the right letters to be able to spell the sounds in words. The English language, in all its complexity, means that learners also have to remember irregular spelling patterns and sight words such as many, one, some.

How the working memory relates to dyslexia and reading

Working memory is the cognitive process we use to hold information in our mind while we retrieve other information.

Weak working memory is one of the characteristics of dyslexia. If a learner has a weak working memory, this can hinder their phonological learning.

Consider a common rhyming exercise for young learners:

Tell me which word rhymes with pin: box, dog, tin

To succeed, the learner must hold and then compare all the words in working memory.

As learners progress, they must try to sound out new words by using their working memory to hold the sequence of sounds long enough to blend them together and decode the word.

Comprehending sentences: what it's like for learners with dyslexia

Learners with dyslexia often have trouble with reading fluently. They sometimes move past difficult words without reading them and, as a result, they don’t have the ‘full picture’ of what they have read.

Added to this, dyslexic learners may struggle with comprehension due to word skipping, which is very common among learners with dyslexia. It can cause them to misread or misunderstand sentences even when they are decoding most of the words correctly.

Reading strategies for learners with dyslexia

1. Using a reading pen

Reading pens are pens that scan the text and translate it into spoken words. This means getting rid of the barriers holding learners with dyslexia back. They are designed to create a more level playing field for learning.

These learners no longer have to exhaust themselves with the struggle of decoding words, and instead can focus more on the content.

2. Reading aloud

Reading aloud can help the dyslexic learner focus on one word at a time. It can help with the word skipping that we mentioned earlier.

The learner can hear that the sentence does not make sense because of the word or words that have been skipped.

Reading aloud can also help to develop a natural reading rhythm.

3. Build relationships with words

In order to help learners with dyslexia build relationships with words, a multisensory approach can be fostered.

Multisensory teaching uses visual, auditory and kinaesthetic techniques to enhance memory and learning.

Some examples of this include:

  • Use different coloured pens or markers to write the same word over and over until you have a rainbow word
  • You could use shaving foam, flour or sand to the same effect
  • Use flashcards or play matching games so the learner can see new words repeatedly - the more times they see the word, the more familiar they become and the better they are able to read and spell it
  • Use cut-out or magnetic letters to build words together, then mix up the letters and rebuild the word
  • Use mnemonics - silly sentences where the first letter of each word makes up the word to be spelled

4. Take breaks

For learners with dyslexia, schoolwork and classroom activities can be overwhelming and exhausting. Allowing and encouraging students to take frequent breaks during reading can help them to cope better. Try to be mindful that learners with dyslexia need more downtime to recharge their batteries.

5. Try audiobooks

If learners with dyslexia really struggle with decoding, they can still make progress by developing their listening comprehension skills.

Stahl and Murray (1994) found that listeners can learn word meanings at the same rate as readers.

Learners should use audiobooks which are suitably challenging. The audiobook should require the learner to listen actively. This keeps them engaged and gives them responsibility for their own learning. They can then go on to discuss what they have been listening to or answer questions on its content, ensuring that knowledge has been retained.

Discover how other forms of technology can help learners.

6. Use a relevant question to remind yourself of the text's main idea

As the teacher, it can be beneficial for the dyslexic learner if you model self-monitoring skills as you read using questions such as:

  • Does what I’m reading make sense?
  • What do I think will happen next?
  • Are there any words that I don’t know?
  • Can I figure out what the words mean from the sentences around them?

7. Finding the right (decodable) books

Ensure learners with dyslexia are accessing decodable books. Texts that do not have too many words with more than three syllables and not too many words with phonetic structures not yet mastered by the reader will make decoding easier.

It’s also helpful for texts to include frequently used sight words and a few harder words. These kinds of texts challenge the dyslexic brain just the right amount.

For a more thorough round up on what to look for in a book for a dyslexic learner, see here.

8. Segment reading into short, achievable blocks

It is incredibly important to make sure that any reading dyslexic learners are expected to do is manageable, so learners don’t feel like they are being overloaded. Feeling overloaded and overwhelmed not only has a knock-on effect on learning, but also on self-esteem. Plus, having a sense of accomplishment is very motivating.

How Bedrock incorporates these strategies for reading comprehension into our teaching

Bedrock Learning’s digital literacy curricula use dual-coding to reinforce the meaning of new terms. This means supporting new terms with relevant synonyms, definitions, contextual examples and images. These types of coding, specifically the image coding, have noted benefits on dyslexic learners’ ability to learn new ambitious vocabulary.

As well as this, Bedrock’s bespoke fiction and non-fiction texts are human narrated, allowing readers to follow the voice reading the text. This helps combat issues such as word skipping, as learners can hear the sentence as it is intended to be read. The added assistance of human narration reduces the cognitive load on dyslexic learners to both decipher the sentence and comprehend its meaning, allowing them to focus on improving their reading comprehension.

Not only this, but human narration encourages learners to take their time with the reading, conveying new information at a speed that is optimal for learning. This encourages natural reading fluency, all while reinforcing new vocabulary and grammar skills.

To find out how your dyslexic learners can benefit from Bedrock Learning, both in the classroom or as a part of home learning, book your demo or arrange your free trial today.

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