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How to teach kids with dyslexia to read

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CEO Cliff Weitzman was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 9 and later developed Speechify primarily to help kids who are in the same position that he was in - unable to read.

If you’ve come across this article it’s likely you’re a parent or guardian whose child has either recently been diagnosed with dyslexia or you suspect they could be dyslexic. 

Teaching any child how to read can feel like a daunting task and if your child is struggling to understand traditional teaching methods it can feel all the more difficult. But don’t fret, our founder and CEO Cliff Weitzman was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 9 and developed our Speechify app primarily to help kids who are in the same position that he was in - unable to read - so we know a thing or two about dyslexia! 

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia affects around 15% of children and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that does not affect general intelligence”.

At Speechify, however, we like to refer to dyslexia as a learning difference. We believe that although dyslexics do find traditional methods of learning difficult, it shouldn’t be seen as a disability but a difference. People with dyslexia are just as capable, if not more so than their peers with regard to intelligence, but often need to find the right learning technique for them so they can excel. 

So dyslexia is essentially a learning difference that affects language processing in children and adults.  Generally, people with dyslexia struggle with decoding, which is the process of identifying and understanding how speech sounds relate to letters and words. This is why they may be slower at reading and comprehension. While dyslexia is often detected during childhood, it can be left undiagnosed for decades with some dyslexic adults never receiving a diagnosis. 

Although dyslexia is often referred to as a reading difficulty, it can present itself in different ways for every individual. For instance, some people with dyslexia may struggle more with other language skills such as writing, spelling, and pronouncing words.

Symptoms of dyslexia in children

Sometimes signs of dyslexia can be visible as early as the ages of 1 or 2 years old when children start learning and trying to speak. Clues that your child may have dyslexia if they are under the age of 5 include language delays such as: 

  • Delayed talking;
  • Verbal difficulties in forming words and mispronunciation;
  • Reversing sounds;
  • Early stuttering;
  • Problems remembering letters, sounds, and words;
  • Difficulties with rhyming.

However, not all children with slower language development at this age go on to develop dyslexia and some children with dyslexia won’t necessarily experience any problems with speech and language development at all. Usually, it’s not until children begin to read, around the ages 5 or 6 years old that symptoms of dyslexia become more noticeable. At this stage children may display the following symptoms: 

  • Reading below expected classroom level;
  • Skips or misreads small words (at, am, to, etc.);
  • A dislike towards reading with a preference of being read to;
  • Problems processing information;
  • Difficulty with handwriting (known as dysgraphia);
  • Difficulty spelling which is usually phonetic;
  • Speech hesitance, difficulty finding the right word;
  • Struggles with sounding out words;
  • Not wanting to go to school;

If you notice three of the above symptoms in your child or their school teacher should bring these factors to your attention we would recommend getting your child assessed. 

Getting a diagnosis for dyslexia and an official educational psychologist’s report is very important for your child as it will outline any access arrangements that your child might need at school, in the classroom, and later on during exams such as the use of a laptop or extra time. It’s also worth noting that dyslexia is genetic and can often skip a generation, so if you or your parents have dyslexia, it’s likely your child will too. 

It’s important to realize that behind a lot of these symptoms lies a problem with phonemic and phonological awareness.

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate units of sound in spoken language. Children with good phonological awareness can identify and come up with verbal rhymes (e.g. cat, bat, mat, pat, etc.), clap the number of syllables in a word (e.g. Speech-i-fy), identify phonemes (meaning the smallest unit of sound in a word) and blend onset and rime (e.g. what happens when we put s and at together? It becomes the word sat). 

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the smallest unit of sound in spoken language (that means identifying a phoneme in a word). For example, children with good phonemic awareness would be able to hear and isolate the sounds /c/ and /a/ and /t/ in the word cat, or /k/and /i/ and /ck/ in the word kick. 

The difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness is that phonological awareness deals with units of sound like syllables, onset, rime, and phonemes, whereas phonemic awareness deals with the smallest unit of sound, a phoneme. Basically, phonemic awareness falls under the umbrella of phonological awareness. Both of these skills play an essential role in a child’s ability to learn, read and spell. 

Before we get on to outlining some exercises that will help your child improve their phonological and phonemic awareness and overall reading, let’s first cover some general tips that you want to think about using when it comes to teaching your child how to read. 

General tips for teaching your child with dyslexia to read

Personalize learning - Dyslexia exists on a spectrum and can range from mild to severe. This means that it’s important to work out what reading method is right for your child and personalize your teaching activities to suit their needs. 

Use right-brain techniques - Most people with dyslexia are right-side dominant which is the side of the brain that deals with emotions, creativity, and intuition. In light of this, colorful visual aids, discussion, and creative activities are often helpful in teaching your child to read. 

Take a multisensory approach - When you're teaching a child with dyslexia to read try to include as many senses as possible. Combining auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning at once is an effective method to stimulate learning in children with dyslexia.

Be direct with your teaching - Make sure you explain things to your child clearly and explicitly. Discussing the what, how, and why of reading is important so the teacher and the learner are on the same page. 

Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s get back to phonological and phonemic awareness.

Improving phonological and phonemic awareness in children

Children with dyslexia often lack phonological and phonemic awareness, making it difficult for them to sound out words and read sentences. Here are some exercises you can do with your child to help them develop stronger phonological and phonemic awareness: 

Make Consonant - Vowel - Consonant (CVC) words - Children with dyslexia often benefit from visual aids when learning to read. Help your child make a set of alphabet cards, encouraging them to be as creative as they like. Lay out a set of cards in two rows for consonants and vowels. Start with six letters (e.g. c,s,p,o,a,t). Lay out a set of pictures that are CVC words such as cat, pot, sat. Ask your child to identify the first sound and pick the matching letter and do the same for each word. Alternatively, choose the first and last consonant and ask your child to choose the correct vowel. Encourage your child to say the CVC word aloud and draw the word on the table using their finger.

Read story rhymes - Letter-sound connections can be difficult for dyslexics to identify. But using story rhymes such as ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ or ‘Humpty dumpty sat on the wall’ from colorful picture books will encourage your child’s phonological awareness. Asking them to come up with other rhymes and creating a word bank of rhymes that can be put on display is also good practice. 

Play a syllable game - As we know, children with dyslexia can struggle to identify specific sounds in words which makes it harder for them when they try to sound out a word. Using picture cards and asking your child to say the word aloud and clap the syllables is a good way of developing their phonemic awareness and reading abilities. 

Teaching sight words to children with dyslexia 

Sight words (which refer to words that can only be identified by sight as opposed to being sounding out) can also be problematic for children with dyslexia. Sight words are difficult to decode because they are not spelt how they sound. So if your child has got the hang of decoding phonemic words, sight words can seem a little new and scary. But don’t worry, we’ve got a few exercises to help.

Using photographic memory - Many dyslexic learners tend to think in pictures rather than words. This can be used to their advantage when it comes to sight words. Asking your child to take a mental picture of the word on a (preferably visually stimulating) page or card and practice visualization by looking at the word, covering it, writing it down, and then checking it.

Matching sight words with pictures - Research has found that children with dyslexia have enhanced picture recognition memory. Therefore asking your child to write a sight word on a card and draw a picture of the meaning of a word next to it is an effective way of helping them memorize sight words. 

Creating mnemonics - Mnemonics are memory aids that help us remember specific information and usually come in the form of a song, rhyme, acronym or phrase. Asking your child to come up with a rhyme or song that is easy for them to remember and includes sight words is a great way of stimulating their creativity and emphasizing their right-brain learning. 

Testing out a few of these techniques is a great way to get you started with teaching your child to read. But the golden ticket is our free app, Speechify.

Using Speechify to help children with dyslexia read

Speechify was created to help overcome the reading challenges that dyslexia can bring. 

Our founder and CEO, Cliff was diagnosed with dyslexia in 3rd grade. For him, reading a sentence takes the same amount of energy as most people use when solving a four digit math division equation. Cliff always wanted to read. But each time he tried he would fall asleep in the book. 

Then he found the power of audiobooks

But not all books have audiobook versions. So when he was at Brown University, Cliff spent 4 years perfecting a text-to-speech system that has now become Speechify! Because of Cliff sharing the antidote to his reading challenges Speechify has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to function in school and society.

What’s great about using Speechify to teach children with dyslexia to read is that it incorporates multi-sensory learning. When Speechify reads any text out loud it also highlights the words from the text it is reading. This combination of visual and audio means that your child can listen to the speech formation of the word while seeing its written format on the screen. This helps improve both phonemic awareness and sight words as they can match the sounds to the text. You can also slow the reading speed to as slow as 10wpm allowing your child to really hear the full speech formation of the words. 

You can also very easily integrate Speechify into the learning exercises above. For instance, you can take a picture from your list of CVC or syllabic words and have Speechify read the words aloud. You could also take a picture or download the PDF version of a rhyming book for Speechify to read to your child while you’re busy. Your child can also highlight any words along the way where they are unsure of the meaning and ask you what they mean later on. 

Over time, your child will start to build strong listening skills and be able to listen to books at a faster reading speed using our Automatic Speed Ramping tool, meaning they will be able to listen to books faster than they would be able to read them with an average reading speed.

Finally, if your child is struggling with reading it’s important to reassure them that, with their friend Speechify, they WILL improve. Reading anxiety can really cause children to become scared of going to school due to fears of being asked to read out loud in class or feeling incapable during lessons. But reading with their ears will ease these fears and have them caught up with their peers in no time. 

The more your child starts to enjoy listening to books the more they will want to consume more books and as a result, develop their knowledge and a love for reading. 

Cliff Weitzman

Cliff Weitzman

Cliff Weitzman is a dyslexia advocate and the CEO and founder of Speechify, the #1 text-to-speech app in the world, totaling over 100,000 5-star reviews and ranking first place in the App Store for the News & Magazines category. In 2017, Weitzman was named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list for his work making the internet more accessible to people with learning disabilities. Cliff Weitzman has been featured in EdSurge, Inc., PC Mag, Entrepreneur, Mashable, among other leading outlets.