A confession: I get a significant thrill from reading research that confirms my personal suspicions. This happened recently when I dug into some studies about reading and achievement. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), not only does the amount of reading “for fun” outside of school directly correlate to academic achievement, but there are numerous other studies to demonstrate that there is no better way to increase vocabulary than independent reading.
The NAEP study does not distinguish whether the higher achievement scores of students who read more reflected an increased exposure to more words or the specific act of decoding, but I would argue that it is the former. It is hard to imagine that the mechanics related to reading are responsible for these academic gains. We know that good thinkers need words, and reading is a gateway into the world of words and ideas. Therefore it would follow that how one gathers words is less important than how many words one gathers.
What does this mean for dyslexics? Reading is harder and slower for dyslexic students. Consequently, they typically read less. If they are to keep up with their peers academically, then it is imperative to find additional ways to expose them to as many words and ideas as possible.
This is a challenge. Dyslexics often encounter a gap between their reading level and their intellectual level. This can turn them off of reading altogether. They don’t want to read “baby books.” Some handle this by faking engagement with thick sophisticated titles while others decide that they don’t like to read at all and avoid it completely. Both can be disastrous responses. Fortunately, there are a few tried and true tricks for building word power for elementary students with dyslexia.
We all agree that children benefit from exposure to stories for their content, structure, and new vocabularies. But reading independently is not the only way to gain access to stories.
Read Aloud: There are few things as powerful for encouraging a love of reading as a well-read story. This goes for all children. It is never too early to start reading books to children (and, surprisingly, they are rarely too old to enjoy the act of being read to). In Naked Reading: Uncovering What Tweens Need to Become Lifelong Readers, Teri Lesesne cites Becoming a Nation of Readers, a study that was commissioned to examine reading in the United States, to make her own case for why teachers should not abandon reading to their classes once their students become independent readers. According to the study, reading aloud was the single most effective activity for building to eventual success in reading.
Listening to books read aloud allows students to have access to stories that are out of their reading range but within their comprehension zone. Even the most rigorous high school English teachers understand the power and potential of reading aloud to their classes. It also gives teachers an opportunity to model oral reading skills like fluency, proper pronounciation, and oral expression. These conditions serve all students, but they are critical to dyslexics. Dyslexics particularly benefit when they visually track with the reader as much as possible. “Reading along” gives the listening student an increased exposure to the look of words and makes explicit the process of converting letter combinations to sounds. In classrooms, using an “Elmo” gives the entire class a way to follow along with the text. In one-on-one situations, something as simple as sitting next to the child serves the same purpose.
Reading aloud also helps develop the building blocks of reading comprehension. Students are able to discover new vocabulary, formulate predictions, and make outside connections. When children are read to they usually ask questions. Their questions help to clarify what they are taking in and allow them to make meaning with someone else. It’s like having their own built-in book club. Having access to a discussion partner actually gives them an advantage over their silent-reading peers. Many more able readers will rip through stacks of books without pausing for reflection or questioning, thus reducing the potential for grasping many of the ideas or cultural / literary references in the story. Students who are read to actually have a unique opportunity to discuss and question along the way.
Things to think about with read aloud: Read aloud is powerful because of the opportunity to model reading fluency and expression. Consequently, the reader should be comfortable and familiar with the text. Previewing allows the adult reader to know the overarching architecture of the story and the personalities of the individual characters so that they can employ appropriate voice and tone. This is not a time to ask your child to alternate with you while reading. That oral practice is important, but at a different time, with a book that is leveled to his reading ability. This reading time is an opportunity for your child to really engage with a story that he could not read on his own.
Recorded Books: Listening to audiobooks is a way to deliver words and ideas to a child with limited access to an adult reader. Recorded books are wonderful, particularly when authors or professional actors read them. Listening to stories being read aloud by master storytellers goes a long way to cultivate a love of literature. The drawbacks are that the child cannot ask questions or engage with the recorded storyteller and it is more difficult to follow along with the words. Additionally, recorded books also make it more difficult to maneuver around the pages (relocating a passage or a reference requires skill and patience). Despite these drawbacks, recorded books remain a great supplemental way to keep a dyslexic reader well supplied with rich stories.
Being included in adult conversations at the dinner table, in the car, or while the family is discussing an important issue benefits all children. It is particularly valuable, however, to dyslexics. They are the hunters and gatherers of the oral world. Because it is harder for them to access knowledge by reading written information, they typically develop strong listening skills. Engaging in sophisticated discussions helps them build their knowledge and word banks while developing transferrable conversational skills. Talking with adults challenges children to use higher-level critical thinking skills and vocabulary. Dyslexics crave context. Conversations with adults offer children a context for ideas and words, two currencies that they will trade in throughout the remainder of their lives.
There are certain lines of questioning that are more likely to lead to rich conversations. Asking for a retelling of events, or a summary of a day or an event, can help children practice two things that are challenging for dyslexics: their word retrieval (remembering the best word to describe things) and sequencing (ordering events). But in order to teach critical thinking skills, children need to be also asked for their opinions. When children are asked how they feel about an issue, why they thought a problem occurred, or why they did or did not like something, they start to think differently. Formulating reasons for their opinions requires children to make connections between their life experience and the experience of others, make predictions, and organize their thoughts. Curiosity is another wonderful outcome. When children become accustomed to being included in adult conversations, they realize they need content in order to engage productively. That leads to questioning, increased awareness of their world, and an ambition to collect and absorb more information. Most importantly, talking with adults offers children an opportunity to practice their oral expression, clarify application of new vocabulary words, and ask questions in a safe environment. Teachers can always tell which of their students are included in family conversations. They have an oral agility, comfort and confidence that distinguish them.
The world of public radio is an amazing wealth of information about politics, culture, and current events. Aside from the periodic story with a mature theme, children can start listening to public radio early on…and it helps. Listening to radio news stories allows children to build knowledge and oral vocabulary by offering up complex words in a meaningful context. Dyslexic children love being experts on content. Through listening, the same child who struggles with mechanical skills during a school day is also capable of strutting his knowledge about an election or a cultural debate during discussion time. NPR can be wonderful in this regard because it takes the listener deep into the subject and usually assumes very little working knowledge about most topics, making it a perfect introduction to many complex subjects for curious young people. Programs like Talk of the Nation, Science Friday, Morning Edition, or Fresh Air (depending on the interview subject) can provide children access to thoughtful content and current debate connected to real world issues and cultural events. Older children will be enriched by programs like All Things Considered, Wait, Wait; Don’t Tell Me, This American Life, and World News Reports from Public Radio International (PRI). Radio is also wonderful because it is a shared experience. Children who are listening at the kitchen table or, much more likely, in the car can engage with other listeners about the subject and ask questions or practice expressing their opinion. Like most things that are good for dyslexics, listening to public radio is something that would benefit all students, young and old, solid reader or struggler, but it particularly enriches a student who craves real world content but lacks easy access through independent reading.
Standardized tests, humanities teachers, and the culture at large reward those with a strong vocabulary. On a subtle level, vocabulary is often used as an unconscious gauge to determine someone’s level of intelligence. But much less subtly, having a strong working vocabulary helps one make meaning from the oral and written word.
It should be no surprise that dyslexic students struggle with written vocabulary. Often complex words are challenging because of difficult pronunciations. Dyslexic students may even know the written word when used in a context or read aloud, but on a written word list it means nothing. Teachers often deliver vocabulary in unimaginative and problematic ways, but the good news is that there are many ways to supplement vocabulary instruction that will help every dyslexic child get more out of word studies.
Illustrating New words: Vocabulary instruction is best when it involves having students draw a symbolic or realistic representation of the word. It requires them to make meaning from a word in a way that memorization of a definition does not. One can’t fake a picture. The first step in generating an illustration involves grasping the meaning or the context of the word. It doesn’t require artistic skill, but it does require thinking deeply. Creating the image also stores the word’s meaning in a different part of the brain, generating a visual association. Having students make pictorial flashcards can be a helpful strategy. Making a little drawing next to the word and its definition is another good practice.
Standardized Test Preparation: Publishers of test prep books are starting to catch on to the power of imagery to create additional associations for memorizing words. There are many vocabulary book/flashcards available now that are organized around images and cartoons. These tools can be helpful for dyslexic students preparing for standardized tests.
Acting Out a Word: Dyslexics also benefit from acting out words. Having to bring a word to life is a little like a game of charades. The beauty of the game is that is requires the actor to understand the word in a deep way. Acting out the meaning of a word is particularly helpful to a child who is a tactile learner (one who learns through using his body), but everyone benefits from creating additional associations for words.
Writing a story using vocabulary words: It is amazing what a random word list can do to spark a child’s creativity. When students are asked to use all the words on their vocabulary list to write a story, not only do they need to understand all the words in context, but students often come up with some very imaginative tales. Dyslexics remember things much better when the information has a context or a narrative attached.
Context, Context, Context
If there is an overall theme to building word power for dyslexics, it is this: context matters. Dyslexic students understand and remember information by relating facts to larger ideas. In order for information to be understood and remembered, it needs to be attached to an idea. It’s no wonder that studies indicate that students who read a lot do better academically and have superior vocabularies. Stories are wonderful for offering a context that supports memory and meaning for all students.
It is sobering, but not surprising, to know that how much time one spends reading influences academic achievement. However, it is also a great relief to know that there are many ways to gather words even when reading is not easy. Dyslexic children usually need additional support in their quest to find a way to gain access to the world of words, but in most cases, all that is required is an alternative path.
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