Approaches to Tutoring Dyslexic Students

In this post, we provide a detailed review of different approaches to tutoring dyslexic students, along with the strengths and limitations of different techniques.

Related articles:
Dyslexia – What it is, challenges, how to overcome it.
4 Essential Things to Look for in a Dyslexia Tutor
How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

The advice is based on our decades of experience tutoring neurodiverse students with dyslexia, ASD (Autism/Aspergers), ADD/ADHD and dyspraxia.

In this article, we will cover:

  1. The traditional approach to tutoring dyslexics (and why it often fails)
  2. A comprehensive approach to tutoring dyslexics

Let’s break those down…

The Traditional Approach to Tutoring Dyslexics

Most specialized dyslexia tutors focus on teaching reading skills.

If your child is young and has not received any specialized reading skills tutoring, this is the best place to start.

An appropriate goal is for your child to reach their standardized reading age by the time they reach age 10.

The best approaches to teaching reading skills to dyslexics are similar to the Orton–Gillingham method, sometimes referred to by the more technical term “Multisensory Structured Language Education (MSLE)”. If you’re looking for a reading tutor, find someone who has this training.

But there’s more to supporting a dyslexic child than just teaching them to read. For them to truly thrive, it takes a comprehensive approach.

A Comprehensive Approach to Tutoring Dyslexics

As we mentioned earlier, if your child is young and has not received any specialized reading skills tutoring, that is the best place to start.

If your child continues to struggle to read even with specialized reading tutoring, then it’s appropriate to explore whether they have any neurological weaknesses that need to be addressed.

And even if your child progresses well in improving their reading skills, it will also be important for your child to leverage their unique thinking style to their advantage.

So to provide your child with comprehensive support there are two additional things to consider:

  1. Identify and address any neurodevelopmental weaknesses
  2. Teach your child how to leverage their unique thinking style to their advantage

Identify and address any neurodevelopmental weaknesses

First, what is a “neurodevelopmental weakness”?

Simply put, it is some weakness in brain development. It’s not as scary as it sounds. It might be something as simple as not fully developing their ability to process what they read. And these are things that can usually be addressed once they have been identified.

Most people have some weaknesses in their neurological development. And dyslexics may have specific weaknesses that are affecting their ability to read and learn.

So, if your child is struggling to learn to read even with specialized reading tutoring, it’s appropriate to assess and address those weaknesses.

This is where the field of neurodevelopmental movement comes in.

Quite simply, neurodevelopmental movement gives your child a way to strengthen the neurodevelopmental weaknesses that they somehow missed.

Madeleine Portwood has written extensively about this approach in her book Developmental Dyspraxia: Identification and Intervention: A Manual for Parents and Professionals. [8]

HANDLE® providers are also trained to develop Neurodevelopmental Movement Programs for individual students. [9]

Neuroscientists at the Harborview Medical Center have shown that the HANDLE approach can be effective in treating issues even as severe as chronic traumatic brain injury. The neurodevelopmental issues of dyspraxics are generally much less severe than traumatic brain injury, and so it is reasonable to assume, easier to address. [10]

So, we recommend working with a specialized tutor with expertise in creating a neurodevelopmental movement plan for your child. The plan should be based on observing your child in real life situations and 100% customized to your child.

How a neurodevelopmental movement expert supports your child should depend on their age. 

Here’s how we work with children of different ages at Oxford Specialist Tutors:

For younger children

If you have a young dyslexic child, you know them better than anyone else.

You see them every day. You know what they do well. You know where they struggle. You know when they get confused. You know when they get frustrated.

You see all these things. But you may not know how to interpret them and what to do about it. That’s not your fault. You’re a good parent, but you’re just not trained in special education.

So when we work with younger children, we ask you to take short video clips of your child going about their daily lives. Video clips of them doing the things they struggle with, the things that upset them and also things they do well all provide useful information.

Then you share those clips with your specialized tutor – who knows how to analyze the video clips and knows what to do about what they see.

Then your specialized tutor will give you ‘play’ activities to do with your child. These ‘play’ activities are specifically designed to help your child learn and thrive.

You sharing video clips of your child in a variety of situations with us gives us much richer information than we used to get by coming to observe your child in-person.

For teens and adults

For teens and adults, we work directly with the student. And, of course, advise the parents as well.

Dyslexic students often have difficulty processing the information they’re reading. When a tutor is sitting beside the student in-person, it’s hard to see their eye movements, how they’re scanning the information on the page, and where they get stuck.

But online, the tutor can actually see the student’s face as they’re working with the information they’re reading. The camera is right on the computer screen that the student is reading, so the tutor gets a bird’s-eye view of how the student is processing the information.

This turns out to be a significant advantage.

Once your child has strengthened any important weaknesses in their neurological development, it will be much easier for them to learn to read, and to master other academic skills.

Teach your child how to leverage their unique thinking style to their advantage

Dyslexic students have difficulty processing written information, for sure.

But there’s so much more going on for dyslexics.

They process information differently and think differently.

If you have a dyslexic child you’ve probably already noticed this. It may be hard to put your finger on it, but somehow you’re aware that they just do things differently from other children.

A great dyslexia tutor will address this by teaching your child:

  • How to work with the limitations of their dyslexic thinking style
  • How to understand and appreciate the particular genius of their dyslexic thinking style
  • How to bridge the gap between:
    • their unique thinking style and 
    • how their teachers expect them to explain their thinking in order to get good grades

Well, that’s all very nice, but how does it work?

First, dyslexics tend to have more limited working memory than most other people, so it’s important to give them ways to break tasks down into smaller steps. This allows them to process complex information without getting lost or overwhelmed. It makes working on class assignments and tests easier for them.

Then, there’s a fundamental difference between the thinking style of most people and dyslexics:

  • Most people learn details and procedures first and then figure out the big picture later
  • Dyslexics do it the other way around. They think best when they get the big picture first, and then learn the details and procedures later.

Unfortunately for dyslexics, classroom teaching matches how most people learn and mismatches how dyslexics learn. This makes it hard for them.

So, the trick for the dyslexic student is to learn how to use these simple steps:

  1. Reframe what is taught in class into a framework that actually works for them (often using techniques to relate the new knowledge they are learning to the existing web of knowledge they already have)
  2. Think about the the problem in ‘their world’ – coming up with answers in a way that’s easy for them
  3. Translate their answers back from ‘their world’ to the linear, procedural answers that their teachers want to see to get good grades

Once your child has learned how to do this, they’ll struggle a lot less and discover that they can thrive in learning.

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

If you would like to discuss how we could work with you and your dyslexic child to not just get by, to to thrive in school and in life, book a free consultation today.

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