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January 19, 2018

The Lowdown on Dyslexia: What Does Dyslexia Look Like in the Classroom?

Written By: Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley
X The Lowdown on Dyslexia

The Lowdown on Dyslexia

Every teacher in every classroom in every school in this country (and beyond) will come across several, if not dozens, of students who just can’t keep seem to get the ‘reading thing’ down. The students are smart, articulate, and creative, yet they omit small words, read slowly, have difficulty spelling, and stumble, guess or mumble through multisyllabic words. They are placed in reading groups for extra instruction and still don’t seem to ‘get it.’ And during his or her career, every teacher in every classroom in every school will ask themselves, “How can I help these children?” The answer is to learn as much as possible about dyslexia, because the child described above has dyslexia.


The Truth About Dyslexia

Below I have compiled a list of resources in response to questions from dozens of teachers who asked about dyslexia. I am very excited to see so much enthusiasm for the topic and on behalf of the 10-15% of students with dyslexia everywhere we thank you for taking the time to learn more.

Before we get started, it is necessary to address some frequently asked questions and dispel some popular and pervasive myths:

  • Dyslexia is not a vision problem and cannot be remediated by color overlays or vision therapy. Sure, those may help, but for true dyslexia, an intensive remediation is necessary. People with dyslexia see things the way people without dyslexia do, therefore if vision problems are suspected, they need to be ruled out or remediated before a diagnosis of dyslexia can be made.
  • Reversing letters and numbers is normal through the first grade, after that it is a red flag for dyslexia.
  • Dyslexia occurs on a continuum; one student can have mild dyslexia while his classmate can have severe to profound dyslexia. They both have dyslexia and they both require remediation; one will just need less remediation than the other.
  • Dyslexia can run in families and it is common for a parent to realize they struggled in school when they see their child struggling.
  • There is no ‘cure’ for dyslexia because it is not a disease.
  • Students with dyslexia do qualify under IDEA and dyslexia listed as an eligible condition under the definition for Specific Learning Disability (SLD) – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
  • Students with dyslexia can and should be identified as early as kindergarten.
  • Dyslexia can be diagnosed by a properly trained professional. However, it is not currently a medical condition and is not usually diagnosed by a pediatrician.
  • Finally and most importantly, dyslexia is real, it exists and it can be remediated by a correctly trained educator using an Orton-Gillngham-based approach.


What is dyslexia?

The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia the following way:

It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Adopted by the IDA Board of Directors, Nov. 12, 2002. This Definition is also used by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

To hear a student with dyslexia read, visit this A Message from Dyslexia:


How Can I help?: Develop Empathy

Before beginning the journey (and it is a journey) to help a student who is struggling with dyslexia, it is important to develop empathy. This will come in handy to ward off your own frustration of the slow progress some students make and create the patience needed to allow for extra processing time and constant repetition students with dyslexia require. Below is a list of simulations to help you get started on your path to dyslexia empathy:

Dyslexia for a Day: and

Dyslexia for a Day is also a kit that can be used by individuals or groups of experienced teachers, teacher training candidates, practitioners, immediate and extended family members, or anyone interested in learning more about dyslexia and what those with dyslexia often experience with reading, writing and processing. The kit walks participants through five different simulations: two reading, two writing and one processing simulation. It is designed to help individuals gain a better understanding of and empathy for those children and adults who struggle with dyslexia.

PBS Misunderstood Minds:

F.A.T. City: How Difficult Can This Be:

How Can I Help?: Building Background Knowledge

Unfortunately, dyslexia has been the victim of misinformation, myths and half-truths that have gone unchecked which has lead to many children and their families being denied the appropriate intervention (I will address the legalities of this later). Luckily, there are three legitimate and highly researched books that are must-reads for anyone interested in dyslexia and how to help those with dyslexia.


Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz

This is the current go-to book for anyone interested in dyslexia and should be the first book you read. Dr. Shaywitz explains the neurological basis and the appropriate interventions in a fashion that is accessible and practical for parents, teachers, paraeductors and policymakers alike.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

A little denser than Overcoming Dyslexia and does an exemplary job of explaining how the brain has adapted to the invention of reading and why that has made reading difficult for some students – hence why dyslexia exists. Also, if you get the opportunity to hear Dr. Wolf speak in person don’t miss it, she’s phenonmenal.

Reading in the Brain by Stanislaus Dehaene

If you are interested in the science behind all the claims that dyslexia has a neurological basis and want to know more about the inner workings of the brain and reading, then this is your book. It is a fascinating read that requires some serious concentration, but the effort will be handsomely rewarded with a profound understanding of the reading process and dyslexia. This is an informational text and not a book to consult for practical applications.

Dyslexia Advocate! How to Advocate for a Child with Dyslexia Within the Public Education System by Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley

This straightforward guide provides the essential information for parents and advocates to understand US law and get the right educational entitlements for a child with dyslexia. Using case studies and examples, this book demonstrates clearly how to apply the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to the unique requirements of a dyslexic child. It offers simple, intelligible help for parents on how to coordinate successfully with their child’s school and achieve the right services and support for their dyslexic child; up to and beyond getting an effective Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Professional Development about Dyslexia

Dyslexia Training Institute (DTI),

DTI offers an online course titled, What is Dyslexia? In this course you will be introduced to the signs and symptoms of dyslexia and learn about many popular myths. You will be given the opportunity to go in-depth with the scientific research and evaluate the remediations supported by research. We will also discuss current accommodations available to children and adults with dyslexia.

Bright Solutions for Dyslexia,

Susan Barton travels the country to deliver onsite free presentations about dyslexia.  You can find her schedule on her website.

International Dyslexia Association,

The International Dyslexia Association is a national organization that is comprised of local branches. Many local branches offer workshops, trainings and conferences about dyslexia.

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD),

A comprehensive website about learning disabilities with a Dyslexia Toolkit that is free to download.

How Can I Help? Instructional Techniques

So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What really works with children struggling with dyslexia? The simple (or not so simple) answer is that instruction has to be a structured, explicit, multisensory program that is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach. There are many programs that provide the structured, phonics-based part of the equation, but the multisensory piece it missing. I have seen programs that are structured, but not explicit, meaning the children are being told how to spell a word, but not why. The Orton-Gillingham approach teaches the student how the language works from the beginning. It builds upon itself and while this is occurring, the teacher is proving the answers to all the ‘why’ questions. For example, there is a rule for when to spell a word with ch versus tch. Educators that teach students to use their fingers to tap out the individual sounds of a syllable are employing a powerful multisensory tool and the techniques of an Orton-Gillingham-based program go on and on. Unfortunately, this training is not included in teaching certification programs or even graduate level education programs – which is why you have so many questions about how to help these very deserving students. The good news is that you can still get the training and below is a list of places where you can receive the training that you need to help those kids that baffle you.

Dyslexia Training Institute,

Overview of Orton-Gillingham

You will learn about multisensory teaching/learning, terminology used in the O-G method and V/A/TK strategies, phonemes of the English language, the importance of clearly isolating each phoneme, be given an overview of the seven syllable types, using real and nonsense words, syllable division, and word patterns.

Dyslexia Certificate Program

The certificate program is designed on quality evidence-based research and will teach you about dyslexia and train you in the first level of the Orton-Gillingham approach. The program consists of on-line coursework and a required practicum. Upon successful completion the participant will earn a certificate.

Barton Reading & Spelling System,

Susan Barton offers certification in her Orton-Gillingham based program, the Barton Reading & Spelling System.

Wilson Reading System,

Educators participating in Wilson Professional Development:

  • Acquire multisensory teaching strategies and a comprehensive understanding of the structure of the English language
  • Gain the confidence and experience necessary to succeed at teaching reading and spelling
  • Improve their ability to diagnostically plan and implement a lesson based on the diverse needs of their students
  • Learn to teach Wilson programs with fidelity resulting in sustainable success for their students


Dyslexia and Advocacy

Advocating for a child with dyslexia is extremely difficult. Mostly because of the lack of information and/or misinformation that has permeated school districts nationwide. To make this long story short would not do anyone any good, so below are some links to articles that explain several different facets of dyslexia and advocacy, including how to get a diagnosis.

Putting the D in to the IEP:

Suspect Dyslexia? Here are some tips to prove it:

Dyslexia: Hear us roar:

Dyslexiadr blog about advocacy:

Books about Advocacy

Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition includes the full text of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the IDEA regulations with analysis and commentary. From Emotions to Advocacy

Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd Edition – The Special Education Guide includes tips, strategies, references, and Internet resources.

In Wrightslaw: All About IEPs, you’ll find clear, concise answers to over 200 frequently asked questions about IEPs.

Special Education Law and Advocacy Online Course

Dyslexia Training Institute,

In this class, participants will learn about the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act (IDEA), IEPs, 504’s, letter-writing, receiving appropriate services and interventions, dispute process and resolution, as they all relate to a student with dyslexia.

How Can I Help? Accommodations

For students with dyslexia, the teacher that understands them and gives them accommodations could be the teacher that changes their entire outlook on school. Here is the short list and then a link to a previous article about what teachers can do to help a student in the classroom.

  • Allow time to process information
  • Do not require oral reading (without warning or practice)
  • Do not mark off for spelling
  • Toss the red pen into the trashcan
  • Give less homework
  • Allow them to shine in the subjects in which they excel
  • Do not punish (i.e. keep in for recess) for work not completed during class

For a more comprehensive list of accommodations:


You are now well on your way to a thorough and accurate understanding of what dyslexia is, how to help in the classroom, in an IEP meeting and the resource room. The time you are taking to learn about dyslexia is increasing the likelihood that you will have a profound impact on a struggling reader – and his or her family. So enjoy the ‘a-ha’ moments, the moments where you realize a student you have fits the dyslexia definition, and the feeling of joy when you realize you can get the tools to help that student. Always remember – dyslexia is real and you have the power, and now the knowledge, to help.

Updated 3/15/14:   This article has since been updated.  The updated version can be found here:



About the Author

Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-owner of the Dyslexia Training Institute and a published author and researcher of dyslexia. She received her doctorate in Literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. She is a trained Special Education Advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. Dr. Kelli is an adjunct professor of reading, literacy coordinator and a tutor trainer. Kelli is trained by a fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy and in the Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Wilson Reading Programs.Kelli is the Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, as well as a board member of the Southern California Library Literacy Network (SCLLN). She is a professional developer for California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) as well as a Literacy Consultant for the San Diego Council on Literacy. She was awarded the Jane Johnson Fellowship and the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) scholarship. Kelli has presented at numerous conferences as well as provided professional development for k-12 teachers. She created and produced Dyslexia for a Day and is currently writing Putting the D in to the IEP.  Join the Dyslexia Training Institute on Facebook.



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  • JanineBarta
    October 8, 2016

    This is for Julie Lovren….
    The color overlays help your son because he probably has Irlen Syndrome. My oldest daughter was diagnosed with both Dyslexia & Irlen syndrome when she was 8yrs old by the best school counselor I have ever had to deal with. I didnt know what Irlen was, never heard of it before, but once I did some research into it, it made sense and I understood why my 8 yr old kept saying that the letters or words kept moving. The Shriners can test your son for it, make sure he is using the right color overlay ( there are tons of colors) and he can get alot more help then just the color overlays. Ask him if the letters or words move when his teacher uses a overhead projector? My daughter had to have all her worksheets, tests, everything copied onto Light Purple paper ( school district will be required to buy and copy it for them), any work the teacher does on overhead has to be copied on colored paper for student, if your son wears glasses, certain eye glass stores can Tint the lens to the required color your student needs. And its just like Dyslexia, its classified as special education. Hope this helps your son, and anyone else that has a child or student diagnosed with Dyslexia &/or Irlen. If you have anymore questions email me

  • LauraPennix
    June 15, 2015

    MarkKelley1 @MLS  By the time your child is labeled by others, they most likely have already labeled themselves.

  • LauraPennix
    June 15, 2015

    How is it that children in Kindergarten that have dyslexia can be identified/diagnosed?  I just spent thousands on a neuro exam only to be told “something is there” but my kindergarten student is too young to be diagnosed.  I need to wait until  at least second grade.  We have a STRONG family history of dyslexia, and I know that he is affected.   When I took this test info to the school child psychologist, she said he doesn’t qualify for a 504 or IED because he wan’t diagnosed with a disability. She believes that because he is a young 5, he will “grow out of it” .  Bullshit. Just. Bullshit. (Pardon my language, but this is the frustration level I am dealing with.)

  • garybirtles14
    April 30, 2015

    I like how this article talked about having empathy when helping someone who has dyslexia. That is a great first step to take in the process. I’ve struggled with dyslexia my whole life and it is a very frustrating problem to have. In the past, I’ve received the most help from those who were patient and understood the problem. Empathy is vital in helping someone with this disability.

  • MarkKelley1
    November 25, 2014

    @MLS That is completely wrong.  Dyslexia can be identified in a 5 year old with 80% accuracy.  Waiting is the worst thing you can do.  This was very evident in kindergarten with my two sons.  The public schools are 30 years behind the research.  Remediation needs to start in September  first grade.  The longer you wait to identify the child the longer it will take to remediate the student.  An Orton-Gillingham based program is the way to go….BTW, when people say we are too quick to label students…that is a complete cop out…your child will be labeled whether they are diagnosed or not…they will be labelled dumb, stupid, slow, not trying, not into academics…As a child would you rather be identified as dumb or dyslexic?

  • Astute Hoot
    May 2, 2014

    Thank you for this very helpful post! 🙂

  • MLS
    September 1, 2013

    I think that the age for determination of this disability should be 8 or 9. Brain research has shown that developmentally some brains don’t develop appropriate letter identification does not occur in some children until 3rd grade, so I would not be concerned until after 2nd grade if a student/child is still continuing to struggle with recognizing/writing words, letters or numbers. I think that we are sometimes to quick to label students. Also the orton-gillingham method is not the only method to use. I find it very expensive. There is a new method that I find easier to use which is E.B.L.I (Evidence Based Literacy Instruction).

  • Julie Lovren
    February 26, 2013

    I really appreciate your article and look forward to some of the reading material suggested. However, I do believe you are mistaken in one aspect regarding the comment that dyslexia can not be remediated by color overlays. My son has dyslexia and he finds the color overlays very helpful in his reading. He struggles with the decoding and memory issues listed above, but he also finds that the letters tend to move and jump around on the page. The cover overlays help to correct this problem and his reading is better and more fluent when he uses them. (and we have taken him to the eye doctor to rule out vision problems.) He is not the only person I know with dyslexia who has found the overlays helpful. While they won’t remediate the entire situation they should not be disragarded as a helpful tool.

  • Penel
    February 21, 2013

    What is left out is huge…..dyslexia is a syndrome that affects a person’s ability to decode. So reading is not the only thing that causes a problem. Math (dyscalcula), and writing (dysgraphia) are also part of the dyslexic syndrome. Learning any new language can be difficult. Each individual is different and their strengths and weaknesses will vary in each of these areas.

  • Marilyn Hagle
    January 23, 2013

    This is an excellent page of information. Thanks!!

  • Kathryn Hart
    January 23, 2013

    I think you should include Parenting a Struggling Reader by Susan L. Hall & Louisa C. Moats to your booklist. It is a fantastic resource for parents. Not to be missed! You can buy it on The International Dyslexia Association’s website (

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