Keeping students with dyslexia engaged in virtual learning

A look at interactive tools, sound production, assistive technology and more as related to distance learning and dyslexia.
By: | November 3, 2020
Getty Images / mixettoGetty Images / mixetto

Many components of dyslexia intervention can be replicated virtually without much difficulty, says Katy Vassar, communication and evaluations coordinator at the Dyslexia Center of Austin.

Think about the multisensory aspect and using as many senses as possible to engage in learning concepts. Interactivity is also important. “We know when talking about all learners that just sitting there having a person listen is not as effective as having them engaged in learning,” she says. “They really need that interaction.”

Consider the following pros and cons of remote instruction for teachers who work with students with dyslexia.

Interactivity. Zoom typically has annotation tools where students can underline, highlight, make symbols, or draw. “Using the basic tool of drawing, students can underline [parts of speech] you ask them to look for in words or sentences,” Vassar says. This helps a student with dyslexia break down words and teaches him a strategy for how to approach other difficult words. It allows the student to show his knowledge and involves him in multisensory learning. “That’s the most basic tool that can be utilized in so many different ways to facilitate interactivity in that virtual platform,” Vassar adds.

The ability to type interactively onto a whiteboard or a background is a good tool for those who don’t have the motor control to write a word using the mouse. A lot students use the mouse on their computer to draw, but educators might consider getting the student a pencil-type stylus to use instead. “Students with dysgraphia are not set up for success [by] having them use the mouse,” she said.

One tool that Vassar has found helpful in teaching students with dyslexia is an interactive whiteboard, such as BitPaper. “[It] allows me and the students to work on the whiteboard simultaneously and have that interaction while still being able to see each other in a Zoom meeting,” she says. “I can upload pictures and write in unlimited colors. In some ways, it’s better than an actual whiteboard in the classroom in its capabilities. That has certainly been helpful.”

Sound production. We can’t expect that students with dyslexia, a language processing disorder, are going to be able to process what’s being said on a computer as easily as in person where the sounds are more precise, Vassar says.

Teachers may need to repeat themselves, and students may get frustrated if their teachers are speaking too fast and they don’t understand. Also, look for nonverbal cues that the student doesn’t hear you or understand what you’re saying, such as their eyebrows going up, Vassar says.

Think about the environment the student is in and how you can help support them to make it better for their learning, Vassar says. Distractions such as someone walking around or the phone ringing can impact the student’s ability to hear what is happening on the computer. “Try to get the environment set up for the student to be successful,” she says. “Try to limit distractions.”

No need for masks. Dyslexia intervention becomes more complicated when teachers and students have to wear masks. A benefit of remote learning is that the virtual platform offers the opportunity for educators to be able to show how their mouths and lips are moving when producing sound, she says.

If you do have to wear a mask when teaching, take a picture of yourself producing a sound and share it with students virtually, so they can see and try to produce the sound on their own, Vassar said. Also, try to involve parents to help, she says.

“If masks are a barrier, try to engage the parent in trying to reinforce what [the student is] learning,” she says. “It’s not always able to happen in the school setting, but if it can be done … that’s the most successful or ideal situation.”

Assistive technology proficiency. Assistive technology tools such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text are easier to use in remote learning because the student is using the computer already, Vassar says. Remote learning reinforces helping students to be more proficient with these AT tools, which may be lifelong tools for them.

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.