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Helping students with dyslexia prepare for the ACT

A game plan for tackling the college admission exams

5 min read


Helping students with dyslexia prepare for the ACT


This is part three of a five-part series about how to support and accommodate middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and adults with dyslexia. You can read part one here and part two here.

The ACT test determines a student’s college placement and funding opportunities. Because it is a reading test, students with language-based learning difficulties need extra preparation and accommodations to do well. It may be uncomfortable to be the one who finally points out that an older student is struggling with reading, but it has to be done. As educators, we can’t allow students to take important tests that decide their futures without preparing them. 

The best preparation is having a game plan for how to take the ACT. I would recommend that schools start a conversation about the ACT in the student’s freshman year. The plan should include a timeline, test practice, and a look at appropriate accommodations. The ACT website offers an extensive list of accommodations, the most common of which is extra time.

Students can take the ACT up to 12 times, so if they’re not satisfied with their first (or 11th!) score, they can reevaluate what worked and didn’t work in order to improve the game plan for the next attempt. Here are a few ways that administrators, teachers, and parents can help students with dyslexia prepare for the ACT test.

How Administrators Can Help

Students with a language-based learning difficulty often have test anxiety, so for them, a preparation course can be enormously helpful. It’s not typical to find ACT preparation courses designed specifically for students with reading challenges, but universities, community colleges, and most high schools offer ACT preparation courses outside of regular classes.

School counselors are excellent resources about the quality and appropriateness of these courses.  I would also highly recommend finding online reviews about ACT preparation courses and consulting sites such as Green Test Prep, which has a page dedicated to learning disabilities and extra time. Most state offices of education are involved in the ACT test, so they can also be a valuable source of information, as well. 

How Educators and Parents Can Help

Professional standards dictate that students with dyslexia should have been identified in elementary school and received appropriate reading instruction with complementary accommodations. Since we know there are many students who weren’t identified until middle school or high school, educators can help these students prepare for the ACT by recommending the student for further evaluation, then discussing the need for a 504 plan. Educators will need to acknowledge the student’s language-based disability and suggest appropriate instruction and support. If a high school teacher is noticing that a student needs support and it has never been addressed, there is no time left to waste. The most inappropriate response is to ignore the skill deficits, thinking it’s too late. It’s never too late to provide appropriate support, particularly when ACT results dictate future educational placement and funding.

The most important steps to prepare for the ACT are taken before the test day. It sounds logical, but be sure to discuss the ACT with your student. Many times, schools and parents assume each is doing more to prepare the student for this important test. However, I have found the students in my classes were always full of questions. Discuss how the ACT may be the same or different from other tests the student has taken. 

Although extended time is one of the most common accommodations, be sure it’s appropriate for your student. If your student is struggling to read with fluency and accuracy, extended time alone will not be helpful. You should consider having the questions read to the student. The testing accommodations you ask for should be in line with what has been helpful for your student in the past. This is why the 504 plan and IEP are important; they are blueprints for the accommodations your student will receive on the ACT.

Parents should do everything they can to make test day as stress-free as possible. Make sure your student has read the instructions and understands what to bring to the testing center and what to leave home. There’s nothing worse than arriving to the test center and realizing you’ve forgotten your ID or brought a backpack that must be left outside.

If you’ve arranged appropriate accommodations, used free practice tests on the ACT website, and read the list of helpful preparation ideas, your student should be in good shape to take the test.

Watch for Part Four of this series later this month, where Pons will share how students with dyslexia can make a smooth transition from high school to college.

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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