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Helping high schoolers with dyslexia successfully transition to college

A dyslexia expert explains how educators can support older students as they prepare themselves for the next chapter.

6 min read

Voice of the Educator



This is part four of a five-part series about how to accommodate middle-schoolers, high-schoolers and adults with dyslexia. Part one details how to identify individuals with dyslexia; part two outlines tools and strategies for support; and part three lays out steps for preparing these students for the ACT.

A bottom-line commitment of every school should be to continue moving high schoolers along an educational path that gets them to at least grade-level reading and writing skills. Some states don’t require districts to identify and support students with dyslexia, many educators have been able to take matters into their own hands.

Older students with dyslexia may have coping strategies and habits that they have developed over time in order to manage the academic demands that come with high school and eventually college. These habits may have been useful in getting assignments completed, but they may also be barriers to getting proper help. With the appropriate support, students with dyslexia can reach their college goals. There are a few key things that educators should help their students prepare for when they’re getting ready to go from high school to college.

Losing their 504s or IEPs

Colleges do not fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and do not need to provide the same level of support and services as public schools. There are no 504s or IEPs in college, and no obligation to provide specialized instruction or tutoring. However, colleges are obligated to follow federal civil rights laws, which include Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The intent here is to provide equal access to a college education and not discriminate based on disability.  

Looking for financial assistance early

Some states offer financial and other assistance to individuals with dyslexia for work and college. In order to find out if a student can qualify for Vocational Rehabilitation services, contact your local Vocational Rehabilitation Office. There tend to be long waiting lists, so look into this as early as possible. Middle school is not too early to be investigating this service.  

Applying for accommodations in college

Students must register for accommodations separately from applying to colleges. Different colleges provide varying support and accommodations. To help students understand this process, educators should suggest that they arrange a tour of any college before applying and request to see the department of disability resources or accommodations.

Once students have decided on the college they want to attend, they’ll need to contact the office of accommodation before registering for classes. This will give them plenty of time to arrange an appointment, gather any documentation of prior services (IEP, 504, etc.) and complete any additional testing that may be required. Some colleges may offer the service of priority enrollment, where students are allowed to register early in order to receive a preference in class selection. This is one of the few accommodations that college students have available, so conscientious teachers will help their students make the most of it. Although they may no longer have IEPs, college students with dyslexia do have support available to them.

Support for students navigating the social changes of college

There are Decoding Dyslexia chapters in every state. This grass-roots organization of parents with children with dyslexia is largely responsible for some of the most important dyslexia legislation leading the movement toward State Dyslexia Handbooks, standards for reading teachers and more. The DD chapters have many contacts with support groups, and some of the DD chapters even host their own youth support groups.

I work with a group in my state that offers a college scholarship to students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Part of the scholarship involves following the students as they progress through college and offering support as they work with their colleges to receive appropriate accommodations. Many universities offer support groups for students with learning differences. 

Effective reading tutoring for college students

Finding resources on campuses to provide reading tutoring to college-age students is challenging. With the right instruction, you’re never too old to improve your reading skills. However, there does not seem to be a great deal of interest in providing reading tutoring to college-age students on campuses. Effective tutoring for college-age students begins with a thorough assessment of the student’s reading skills. It should then provide the elements of structured literacy, addressing issues with decoding that include basic sound-to-symbol knowledge as well as morphology and etymology to help students understand the origin of words and provide a foundation for understanding new and unfamiliar words.

There should also be time for practice reading silently and aloud, as both are necessary for excellent reading. Once students have the basics of decoding and begin to read with accuracy and prosody, there should be opportunities for exploring a wide variety of text. There are no shortcuts to teaching reading. Students make progress when they have the right program taught by a well-trained instructor. Part of structured literacy includes diagnostic teaching, meaning the ability to assess where a student is or where challenges with instruction are occurring and then adjust instruction to meet the student’s needs. This is particularly important for older students.

College is full of new experiences that can be exciting and challenging. Students with dyslexia can better face those challenges by networking with their peers who can provide resources. Unfortunately, some students make it to college without a good understanding of their learning differences and may never have received appropriate accommodations, but if they’re struggling, they have the right to receive support. It’s never too late. It may be challenging, and they may need to adjust their timeline, but making an appointment with the disability resource center will put them on the path to better support and accommodation.

Watch for Part Five of this series later this month, where Pons will share how adults with dyslexia can find the accommodation and support they need.

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 [email protected].

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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