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How to help students with dyslexia navigate online college

Some students, including my son, are choosing not to enroll, but help is available for those who want to continue working towards their degree.

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

How to help students with dyslexia navigate online college


In the fall of 2019, my son, who has dyslexia, knew his last year of high school was going to be exclusively online due to the untimely closing of his charter school. It was almost immediately apparent, moving to online work, that the distance between my son and the classroom only increased his anxiety. Rather than offering a refuge from on-the-spot questions or improved access to technology supports for reading and writing, virtual learning required even more reading and writing, with multi-step written directions and vague writing assignments that offered little to no conversation to explore ideas. In short, it was much harder to be online than to be in a classroom.

Since my son was already enrolled fully online by the time March 2020 rolled around, he didn’t have a dramatic shift from the classroom. The rough online high school experience, however, had helped him decide he wouldn’t be interested in starting his first semester of college online. Besides, he needed updated dyslexia assessment data in order to receive appropriate accommodations in college.

We had arranged for an appointment with a neuropsychologist in March 2020. Due to COVID, the much-needed testing didn’t happen until December 2020. Although my son no longer had plans to attend college in the fall, he wouldn’t have been able to anyway, due to the delayed testing. What about the students with dyslexia around the world who did hope to begin university that fall?

Navigating online college with dyslexia

I started receiving messages from desperate parents and students with dyslexia in April 2020, soon after many colleges and universities had decided to go fully online. The messages were very similar: my son or daughter had figured out a “system” that seemed to be working for in-person college courses, but just weeks into an all online course, they were failing.

Navigating and registering for courses was suddenly that much harder, since guidance counselors were out of the office and many disability resource offices closed. The stories seemed to follow a pattern: the online classes required more reading and writing to “make up for the lack of in-person attendance.”

Some students were overwhelmed by the online social demands of having to figure out how to make a comment in the online classroom without any real guidelines—something that is challenging for any student, let alone a student with a learning disability. “I feel like I’m starting over again,” said Matthew Bernhardt, a student attending college in Utah and a recent Joseph James Morelli Legacy Foundation (JJMLF) scholarship awardee. “Not only is there more reading and writing in many of my classes, but I’m not sure how to advocate for myself in the online classroom.”

Bernhardt happens to be a very social person who doesn’t usually find it difficult to talk to new people. This is one of his strengths, but the online classroom doesn’t play to these strengths. There is no small talk before the professor arrives where you’re able to find people to study with and develop a comfort level for engaging in classroom discussion. There is no time right after class to quickly ask the professor a question to break down barriers. In the online classroom, Bernhardt lost his bearings and found it hard to get anchored.

Resources to support ‘really exceptional students’

Moving to all online learning wasn’t anyone’s first choice for many reasons, but the stakes are higher for college students. Many of the students I work with have scholarships. If they don’t perform at a certain level, they lose their financial support. For students with learning differences who have made it to college, the impact of doing poorly in a class can be too much. Many of these students feel like they are now failures.

Dr. Barbara Wirostko, a university professor and founder of the JJMLF Scholarship for students with dyslexia, said she has seen many scholarship students, who were doing well prior to online learning, simply drop off and drop out. Once focused and engaged, these students became disengaged and disconnected. Dr. Wirostko wonders if some “really exceptional students” will ever find their way back to the classroom, adding, “This would be a shame, because many of our students have tremendous potential and they’ve already overcome so much to be in college. What a loss it would be if we can’t find a way to pick them up and support them through this difficult time.”

So what can be done to help college students with reading difficulties stay engaged in online college courses during COVID-19 and beyond? Dr. Wirostko’s scholarship program is teaming up with Jake Sussman, a young man with dyslexia who worked hard to graduate from college and has now founded SuperPower Consultants, to give back and mentor students just like himself. Sussman advocates for students with dyslexia and facilitates support networks that provide not just a much-needed friendly peer, but ideas for advocating for support, classroom survival tips, and more. Finding your online community, whether through Facebook groups or the International Dyslexia Association, can help students with dyslexia feel like they’re not alone, which is an amazing relief.

Additionally, students with learning differences may need to drop their number of college credit hours—and should not feel like this is in any way shameful. This is where a mentoring program such as the collaboration between Sussman and JJMLF students can help. Dr. Wiorstko often recommends these students consider summer courses, even at local community colleges, to lighten their load during the semester.

If a scholarship or funding is in jeopardy, students and families should reach out to the funding source and explain the situation. As Dr. Wirostko pointed out, it’s not about one specific class, but about obtaining the degree, and once a JJMLF becomes an awardee, help is always available. Oftentimes, the financial part of a grant is only the beginning of resources that may be available for students.

Many professors are figuring out how to facilitate online classes in order to provide more direction about how and when to make comments, arranging online group work, staying organized, and making connections with students. I’ve also had a few students reduce college credit hours in favor of tutoring in reading, writing, or math. Instead of viewing this challenge as a negative experience, students are trying to improve some basic skills so that they’ll be ready to return to a regular in-person schedule when conditions allow it.

Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a master’s degree in education and teaching from Westminster College, along with a certification in special education. She started her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She uses Reading Horizons in her one-on-one work with students. Connect with her at [email protected].


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