Identifying students with dyslexia in middle, high school
Donell Pons
February 28, 2019

This is part one of a five-part series about how to support and accommodate middle-schoolers, high-schoolers and adults with dyslexia.

I’ve had many older students confess to me that they would rather be thought of as defiant than stupid. Many students with undiagnosed dyslexia suffer from anxiety. Depending on the severity of their language challenges, the student may opt out of activities to avoid being put on the spot or placed under pressure to perform.

Seventy to 80% of people with poor reading skills likely have dyslexia. It’s the job of educators and administrators to find and support students who are struggling academically, no matter their age. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” speller. By accepting the “good” or “bad” speller idea, it absolves us from doing anything to improve the outcome. Think about how much damage has been done in the field of teaching mathematics by falling back on the erroneous idea that some people are simply “good” or “bad” at math. Simply put, people struggle with math or spelling for the same reasons. Many educators have not been given the training and resources to accommodate students with dyslexia, and especially older students with dyslexia who are out of the initial learning curve of reading.

The Sound-to-Symbol Relationship

English is a phonemic language, meaning the sound-to-symbol relationship is very important. When young students learn to spell, they often rely heavily on the sound-to-symbol relationship to spell words. However, when a language has a deep orthography, as is the case with English, the sound-to-symbol mapping for many words is not straightforward. As students become more competent spellers, they learn how to recognize and spell unusual or irregular sound-to-letter patterns.

Less transparent spelling patterns are a primary struggle for older students with dyslexia. For this reason, educators, parents, and administrators working with students who are struggling in the upper grades should look at an older student’s written work to assess for signs of an undiagnosed language-based learning difficulty. The spelling errors will often be consistent, with short, common words misspelled simply because they are not phonetically regular, such as “the” or “was.”

To teach older students to spell more effectively, educators should be using an etymology background to trace the origins of the words along with the morphology, or parts of the words. There are excellent books on the topic. Two of my favorites are Unlocking Literacy by Marcia K. Henry and Maryanne Wolf and Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan.

Look for “Silent Readers” and Consistent Misspellers

A strong warning sign of an older student with dyslexia is avoiding reading out loud. Students may also refer to themselves as “silent readers.” When they do read aloud, they stumble over multisyllabic words. The student may fatigue quickly or claim to be “bored” when reading or writing, and reading fluency may change based on the subject matter.  

When it comes to reviewing your student’s written work, you might notice that their placement of periods and apostrophes is incorrect. They may have poor handwriting to mask their poor spelling skills, or dysgraphia may also be an issue. Some students write in all capital letters, because upper- and lower-case letters are confusing. The student may exhibit a great deal of knowledge when speaking but struggle to complete a short-written answer on the same subject.

If the student has an unusual name or a name with numerous options for spelling the vowel sounds, such as “Michael,” spelling his/her own name correctly may be challenging for many years. Additionally, days of the week and months of the year may also be misspelled, even though the student has seen them numerous times. Remember, it’s not typical for an older student to misspell these words, and it’s not typical for an older student to need time to think about how to spell these common words.

Behaviors of Older Students with Dyslexia

Besides being aware of a student’s academic performance, educators should suspend judgement of students with high-risk behavior and be open to the possibility of them coping with a learning challenge. Older students with dyslexia often suffer from stress and anxiety, and will act out to draw attention away from their language-based challenges.

Task avoidance is one of the most common behaviors that students with undiagnosed dyslexia may exhibit in the classroom. Task avoidance is anything from consistently not turning in work while still attending class, to skipping class when a book reading or written assignment is due. Students will also go to great lengths to avoid being embarrassed in front of peers. If this means skipping class or being thought of as lazy or belligerent, so be it.

Some students with language-based reading difficulties find oral presentations in front of large groups to be anxiety-provoking, while others may find this is the only time they can shine. It’s important to understand the nature of the language-based learning difficulty to meet the individual needs of the student.

First Steps in Helping an Older Student with Dyslexia

The first step in helping a student you suspect may have dyslexia is reaching out to your administration. Dyslexia screeners that are age-specific will also help to successfully identify dyslexia characteristics in a student. Further testing will reveal the nature of the challenges and is critical to guiding implementation of appropriate instruction and intervention.

A list of basic accommodations for a student with low literacy skills may not be effective if the student hasn’t been thoroughly evaluated. For instance, simply offering a student extended time for writing or reading assignments, if they don’t have the skills to write a grade-level paper or read a grade-level text, is simply giving them more time to struggle. Such accommodations are anxiety-inducing, and often suggest that students with language-based learning difficulties simply don’t put forth enough effort.

Talking with your student’s parent about the struggles you’re seeing in class might prompt them to get their child tested and possibly diagnosed by a doctor. From there, a parent can find reading data collected by the school by visiting their state Office of Education website.

Watch for Part Two of this series later this month, where Pons will share how educators can find time during the school day to provide intervention to older students with dyslexia.

Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah. She started her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She has a master’s degree in education and teaching from Westminster College, along with a certification in special education. Connect with her at dbpons@gmail.com.

To learn how to identify young students with dyslexia, read Pons’ four-part series about supporting and accommodating students with dyslexia.

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