How can I support my dyslexic child?

As a primary school teacher with 17 years’ experience, I’ve worked with many dyslexic children.  School staff are used to using their experience and strategies to help pupils in their learning at school.  However, having my own dyslexic child has given me a very different insight to that of my hours in the classroom. 

This article is written as a parent, not as a teacher.  I am not claiming any expertise, but these are some of the things I’ve learnt about dyslexia and some of the ways we’ve found that can help at home.

Every dyslexic child is different

This sounds obvious, as we all know that every child is different.  But there are a wide range of challenges that can be part of dyslexia: difficulty with reading and spelling; untidy handwriting; slow processing time when asked questions; difficulty in following instructions; slower writing speed; trouble with organising tasks; letter reversal; poor working memory…

Each child has their own combination of difficulties and strengths, so it’s not possible to treat all dyslexic children in the same way.  You might be given a range of great advice, but not every tip will work for your child.

Decision making needs time

Whilst barriers to reading and spelling are an expected part of dyslexia, traits such as slow processing time can affect many areas of life.  Asking open ended questions to our children, even simple questions such as, “What would you like to drink?” causes indecision, which can feel stressful for them.

Asking limited choice questions, eg “Would you like water or juice?” gives children fixed options, so instead of having to imagine what the options might be and THEN decide, they can go straight to the decision.  (Although be prepared for this to still take several seconds.)

They may need to rehearse what they want to say

In unfamiliar situations, most children need a little scaffolding to help them use language in different ways, and this is particularly true for many dyslexic children.  It can help to prepare them for what is likely to be said: when they buy something in a shop, speak to grandparents on the phone, invite a friend over to play and so on.  Give them a chance to say their opening sentence out loud, then let them know what the other person might say back so they can think about their response.

Technology can help with speech

A great tip I was given last year was to start using Alexa at home.  If your child has difficulty with forming and pronouncing words, Alexa or other smart speakers can give them the chance to compose questions for different purposes.  Alexa won’t understand unless you speak clearly, so it also gives children the motivation to form their words carefully.  As no humans need to be present, children can have the freedom to practise their speech when no-one is listening.

Limit your spellings

Ah, the weekly spelling list.  The least favourite time of the week for dyslexics and their parents!  This can often feel like a struggle in our house, so we try to make it as pain free and useful as possible.

Decide how many spellings is a realistic number to try to learn.  If there are ten on the list, but you believe that your child can only feasibly manage five, then do five.  You can let your child’s teacher know and they will not mind.  Having a good go at five spellings is infinitely preferable to crying through ten!

Learn groups of words together

Spellings are often taught in groups according to a letter pattern, such as -ough words (eg tough/ brought) or –tion words (eg station/ portion).  This makes it easier for children to learn, as they can remember one rule which they use for all of the words. 

Learn spellings physically or in creative ways

For words with common letter patterns (eg the ough pattern), it can help to use something physical to handle, such as foam letters (the type you might stick to the bathroom wall) or magnetic letters.  This can be done in different ways:

  • Give your child the letters o, u, g and h and ask them to arrange them in the correct order.  Muddle them up and try again.
  • Some children find mnemonics help- these are little sayings to help remember the correct order, so o-u-g-h can be remembered as Oh You Good Horse.
  • Let them hold or touch the letters as they write each word which contains them.  This means they will have fewer new letters to remember, so if they are trying to learn ‘tough’, they only have to remember the first sound ‘t’ and then add the ‘ough’ pattern.
  • Look at the shape of each word- some children find it useful to draw around the outline of the word to see this.  Others ‘colour in’ the letters, for example, the spaces in ‘o’ or ‘g’.  Anything that helps your child to look closely at each word can be useful.
  • Break words of two or more syllables into chunks, and learn each bit separately.  You can do this by cutting up words on cards, writing the parts in chalk on different bricks in a wall, matching halves of words…

(Warning: After enthusiastically purchasing letter themed food like Alphabetti Spaghetti and Alpha Bites cereal to help with spellings, I realised they only contained capital letters- which for some dyslexic children is as difficult as a second alphabet!)

Aim to hear your child read little and often

Learning to read is like walking down a path: everyone gets to the end, but some children walk there more slowly.  To keep your child on their travels, they need to have the chance to read frequently, ideally every day.  Some experts recommend two or three times a day!  Whilst this sounds hard to achieve, it shouldn’t involve lengthy amounts of time.  Ten minutes of concentrated effort is plenty when your child is building their reading stamina.  However…

Prioritise ENJOYING books together

Daily reading might be academically ideal, but this does not always feel in the best interests of your child.  When reading is a struggle, it can be demoralising, upsetting- and boring. 

For several months when my child was in Reception, I decided I wasn’t going to hear him read.  At all.  It was causing such distress that I couldn’t see any benefit from it.  But we have always enjoyed books together- children love to be read to, to have time to look at the illustrations, to discuss their ideas…

Some nights, it’s better to put down the reading book and share something you both love instead.  Each child’s decoding skills will come eventually, but killing their love for books is harder to reverse.

Share reading by taking turns

It’s easy for the meaning of books to be lost in the slow, sometimes painful process of working out what the words say.  To keep up children’s interest in what they are reading, they need enough pace to keep them going.  Before children are at the stage where they can build that pace for themselves, try building it together.  You might take turns to read sentences, paragraphs or pages aloud.  If they’re flagging, pick out simpler sections for them and make sure you tackle the trickier passages yourself.  Hearing your child read is often better as a two way process.

Talk about dyslexia

Children with a barrier to their learning can feel different to their classmates and siblings.  They can feel alone in their difficulty and feel that everyone else knows what to do.  Low self-esteem can unfortunately be one of the effects of dyslexia.  But for many children, hearing that there’s a cause for their difficulty, particularly a reason that has nothing to do with intelligence, can be liberating.  Instead of feeling that they are ‘stupid’, they can begin to understand the reason for the challenges they face in some areas of learning. 

Celebrate their uniqueness

According to The Dyslexia Association, dyslexics often ‘have strong visual, creative and problem solving skills’.  The way that they view the world has led a great number of dyslexic children to become highly successful adults, from Einstein and John Lennon to Jennifer Aniston and Holly Willoughby. 

Every dyslexic child I have known has had a streak of originality or creativity.  And for each of us having the privilege to bring up a dyslexic child, we can detail the ways in which they’ve surprised us with their ideas or their outlook.  Their dyslexia may pose problems for them at times, but it is also one of the many reasons that makes each of them so special.

Useful websites:

For general information: https://www.dyslexia.uk.net/ and https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/

For child friendly examples of famous people with dyslexia: https://www.dyslexiascotland.org.uk/sites/default/files/library/famous_people_with_dyslexia.pdf

For advice and information aimed at parents: https://www.nessy.com/uk/parents/dyslexia-information/

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