Ten Pieces of Advice for Parents of Children with Dyslexia
"What should I be doing at home?"
This is one of the most common and pressing questions I get asked when beginning conversations with families of individuals with dyslexia. Here's the gist of my answer.
1. Be their loudest cheerleader.
Let teachers and tutors say the really tough stuff and push them the hardest. Your child needs to know consistently that you are in their corner, no matter what. That you think they are amazing. That their struggle with reading and writing doesn't define who they are or accurately represent their intelligence and capability. That you aren't always comparing them to their peers but instead, to their own full potential. That they aren't defined by a test score (trust me, tests are already going to haunt them more than you will ever know).
2. Affirm their strengths much more often than discussing their weaknesses.
Individuals with dyslexia, dysgraphia or other literacy-based learning struggles are often incredibly gifted in other areas that don't get as much natural attention in an academic setting. For instance, research shows that the right side of a dyslexic brain is up to 10% larger than a non-dyslexic brain. Individuals with dyslexia are often fast and creative thinkers, excellent oral communicators, gifted artists & musicians, and often advanced in reading social cues and interacting with others across diverse contexts. In my experience, they have been some of the hardest working individuals I've ever met, even when they are frequently misunderstood as lazy or unmotivated because tasks can take them a longer time than those around them. For every time you find yourself addressing something they need to work on, make sure you've initiated complimenting and highlighting the things they are better at than most people. You want the validation to outweigh the challenge.
3. Be honest with yourself & them And Get The Right Kind of HeLp.
Don't ignore that there is a significant struggle and that they do need help in order to reach their full potential. Undiagnosed or ignored dyslexia can be crippling for a young learner. They need specific intervention and strategies in order to learn how to navigate the fast-paced, highly-competitive academic environment successfully. Listen well and long to their frustration and anxiety. Help give them language for the struggle they are feeling. Acknowledge and help them understand that reading and writing are going to be harder for them than most of their peers and that while it may not seem fair, it is the reality and just one part of their identity. Speak hope when they feel overwhelmed. Speak truth that hard work will pay off and that the struggle will lessen over time. And again, remind them of their natural areas of giftedness where others may have to work harder to match them.
4. Keep reading As positive as possible.
Reading is going to feel really hard for your child for awhile. Don't make it feel any harder than it has to at home. Once you have gotten them the right kind of help, your primary job is to keep all things literacy as positive as possible. If reading aloud is frustrating for your child, take turns alternating pages to give them small breaks. Take them to the library and let them pick out books that look interesting to them, even if they are too hard for them to read independently, and use them as a family read aloud or audio book station at night before bedtime. If you start to sense reading time turning into a consistent battle, seek help from a professional who knows your child. The most important thing you can do is to keep your child exposed to a variety of texts while reducing resistance and extra frustration as much as possible. Simple incentive systems can also be really helpful and a good way to keep them interacting with text while acknowledging how much energy reading and writing take them.
5. Don't be afraid of using assistive technology.
We live in a day and age where assistive technology is accessible to almost anybody who is willing to put the time into figuring it out. If poor spelling causes anxiety around writing for your child, let them use Google Dictation to write thank you notes, create stories or complete class essays. If reading aloud takes too much energy for your learner, install the free version of Read & Write for Google Chrome to read through online articles and PDF's. When beginning a new book or topic at school, help build your child's background knowledge by watching short video clips on the topic. When studying for a test, utilize picture note-taking, flashcards and student-created video study guides. If note-taking during class exhausts your learner, talk to their teacher about letting them record portions of lectures to listen back to later. These are just a few ideas. Model to your child how to try new things to find tools and strategies that work.
6. Vent and fret elsewhere.
It's going to be exhausting for you at times. And it's okay to worry. You need to acknowledge your own struggle around your child's struggle. However, in front of your child or to your child is not the right place. They carry enough anxiety as is. Instead, find a safe place where you can vent and fret, when they cannot hear you or feel your concern. And if you slip up and they overhear something or you lose it in front of them, give yourself grace, apologize, and move on.
7. Do your research.
Educate yourself on what dyslexia is and help educate your child's educators if they are unaware. Talk to other parents who have walked this journey. Learn from their mistakes and successes. Be kind to your child and yourself in the process and recognize there will be consistent ups and downs. Find the right kind of intervention. Look for options that are research-based, evidence-based, have a systematic focus on phonics, and are administered by trained professionals. Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz is a great resource for anyone to start with on their journey of understanding dyslexia.
8. Pace yourself.
It's going to be a long haul. The earlier the intervention, the better. The more systematic and united the intervention, the better. Given the right tools and strategies, individuals with dyslexia can absolutely grow up to be successful innovators and leaders in their chosen career fields. However, since there is no cure for dyslexia, it's a life-long journey for you and your child. Pace yourself. Financially, emotionally, time-wise. Help them learn how to pace themselves.
9. Build their vocabularies like nobody's business.
Since reading will often be extra tough for your child, they are going to naturally be limited in the amount of vocabulary they are exposed to in their independent reading. In order to prevent any gaps in vocabulary acquisition between them and their peers, expose them to lots of new words. Use new vocabulary in conversations with them and pause to talk through the meaning of unknown words. If they are in a rut with using simple words in their writing just because they are self-conscious about their spelling, let them use "Hey Siri" to look up the spelling of more interesting word choices. Help them learn to love audio books and documentaries that will expose them to unknown words and unfamiliar topics. The more words they know, the easier it will be for them to recognize or spell challenging words.
10. Slowly build audiobooks into your family's routine.
I've already mentioned audiobooks a handful of times, but I can't recommend them enough. They are vital for your child's successful learning and sanity in conserving their energy around reading. Audiobooks build background knowledge and help your child access the chapter book everybody else is talking about that they can't quite access on their own yet. Audible by Amazon has a paid monthly subscription option and Chicago Public Library has many free audiobooks to choose from. If you can build regular listening time into your child's routine, you will be giving them a huge gift.