Beyond Phonics: Taking a Dyslexic Student from Adequate to Awesome Reading

Beyond Phonics: Taking a Dyslexic Student from Adequate
to Awesome Reading

by Yvonna Graham, M.Ed., author of Dyslexia Tool Kit for Tutors and Parents: What to do when phonics isn’t enough


This article responds to a question from Jennifer Plosz (MathShift), the Canadian educator doing brilliant groundbreaking work in visual math for dyslexics. She used tools like tracking, scanning, and silent reading first, from my book, Dyslexia Tool Kit for Tutors and Parents, to help her extremely dyslexic son reach a third grade reading level. His confidence soared, he started reading books for fun, and school work got easier. But he stayed at that level. He felt frustrated by lack of progress, and tired of doing the same thing. He knew he didn’t read as well as his friends. What to do next?


Most schools now offer only two ways to learn to read: phonics in the classroom, or intense multi-sensory phonics in a small group for students with dyslexia. To supplement this, many parents invest large piles of money to provide private tutoring in Orton-Gillingham based programs. These programs deliver intense multi-sensory phonics with massive amounts of repetition, often for an hour a day, 3-5 days a week. This results in an adequate ability to slowly read text at about third or fourth grade level.


Slow reading beats no reading, but has a serious drawback when students encounter longer sentences and more complex material, at about third grade. To comprehend text, the reader must read it fast enough to get the whole idea into working memory for processing. If reading is so slow that the short term working memory window (10-15 seconds) “times out” before reading the entire sentence, the meaning is lost. The reader must return to the beginning of the sentence and re-read faster to understand. The frustration and painfulness of this back-and-forth reading produces anger, hopelessness, and reading avoidance. Most students make the leap from sounding out words to recognizing words on sight, and so become faster readers. Dyslexic students generally do not make this leap. They flounder, wondering why it’s so easy for everyone else.


When a dyslexic student hits the “third grade level plateau” and sentences become too long and complex to comprehend at word-by-word speed, congratulate the student on working hard and learning phonics. Let them know their brains have stored this material and they can always go back to it whenever it’s needed to decode a new word. But since they have made outstanding progress, it’s time to reap the benefits and use their dyslexic strengths to read BETTER and FASTER than the average student! Adult dyslexics present two very different outcomes. Most read slowly, avoiding reading when possible. But some adult dyslexics read extremely fast with high comprehension — speed read, in fact. The difference is whether they’ve made the leap to reading with their dyslexic strengths of pattern recognition and context analysis, instead of sounding out one word at a time using their weakest skill; phonemic awareness.


Dyslexia opportunities improved dramatically when LearningAlly, realized it should serve not only the blind, but the dyslexic, as a source of audio text books. Audio books profoundly benefit dyslexic students. But not enough has been said about the best way for dyslexic students to make use of audio books. Most students just listen to the books. What a missed opportunity! The dyslexic student who obtains both the paper book and the audio book, and looks at the text while hearing it, links not just words, but phrases and sentences, to the meaning behind the text. With practice, the student starts reading in a way non-dyslexic peers can only dream of. This takes 10-30 minutes a day for several months, but isn’t hard. The student doesn’t need to look at each word, but just keep his or her eyes on the line or paragraph being read, and turn the page at the right time. The student allows the eyes to flow in a lazy “S” down the middle of the page, following the reader. Some readers use a card to block off the text that has already been read. Never block the upcoming text, as dyslexics need to subconsciously preview text to become fast readers. It seems way too easy. Once the student gets the idea of relaxing into the text and flowing along with the reader, it takes little effort. Now the incredible power of the dyslexic brain allows the reader to soar.


Let your dyslexic student know that oral reading and silent reading are two distinct skills. Saying the words, even in their own minds, limits how fast they read. If they stop saying the words in their heads, they can read faster. Dyslexics have two strong wings to soar above other readers in silent reading comprehension. Those wings are their dyslexic strengths in pattern recognition and context analysis (DyslexicAdvantage). By listening to audio books while scanning down the page with the reader, they link those dyslexic strengths directly to the task of pulling meaning out of text. This does NOT produce fluent oral reading, which may interfere with testing. But it does produce lightning fast silent reading after about six months of DAILY practice. Most of my students start speeding up the audio at around three months, and then in a year or two, dispense with the audio altogether. Some use an app with computer generated voice, such as VoiceDream, so they can listen even faster. (See Dr. Matthew Schneps; How One Dyslexic Speed Reads, at VoiceDream) Other students much prefer a narrator to a computer voice. During those two years of practice, “dual readers” store massive amounts of text-to-meaning information and pick up tremendous treasures in new vocabulary. During this practice they also close the dyslexic reading gap — the problem that their peers have read more books and gathered more book based language experience. Soon, the dyslexic reader, with his or her headphones, audio book, and paper copies, surpasses the average reader in silent reading speed and comprehension. Even more important — the soaring dyslexic reader now finds joy, rather than pain, in great books!