Children with dyslexia have significant challenges in phonological processing

It’s estimated that 20% of students have dyslexia. We know that individuals with dyslexia have significant challenges in phonological processing—the ability to perceive and manipulate the individual sounds of spoken language which is an essential step to mapping the correspondence between written letters and individual sounds. This challenge makes every subsequent step in reading more difficult—from phonics (decoding, encoding), to fluency, to comprehension.

Children with dyslexia also experience persistent difficulty with automaticity and fluency

Findings from the science of reading clearly demonstrate that learning phonics through explicit and systematic instruction is an essential starting point for early readers. Although many students with dyslexia are able to develop accurate word recognition skills, they continue to struggle to read words with fluency. They aren’t able to transition their phonics knowledge to flexible, automatic and fluent use – so they continue to have persistent difficulty in reading words quickly and effortlessly (automatically) and in spelling them. Reading fluency and comprehension of connected text are significantly impacted along with self-image as a reader, confidence as a learner, and engagement with school.

Automatic word recognition is under-estimated and under-developed

Even though automatic word recognition is a critical gateway skill to reading fluency, it is often under-estimated and under-developed in curricular offerings and its absence has an outsized impact on reading fluency and comprehension. Students with dyslexia may have received instruction or intervention for phonics development. Some students may have accurate word identification while others still have gaps. However, most continue to struggle to apply and generalize phonics well enough to automatically read words, which prevents them from transitioning to fluency and comprehension. We know that many components of language (e.g., syntax, semantics, and background knowledge) contribute to fluency while reading connected text. However, without automatic word recognition, reading remains a slow, laborious process that hampers comprehension and overall learning.

Structured literacy practices should include personalized, systematic structured practice at the word level and the level of connected text

We know that students who struggle, and especially those with dyslexia, need more targeted, systematic instruction and more structured practice opportunities to develop and use complex skills automatically. However, common practices to improve reading fluency often focus on sentence or passage fluency which may include:

  • more repetitions of the same curriculum (or simpler lessons)
  • a “double dose” of instruction or intervention
  • repeated readings which may take a variety of forms ( e.g., choral reading, paired reading, echo reading, model reading, assisted or guided reading, pre-teaching of target words).

These instructional practices do not adequately address automatic word recognition, a persistent contributor to the fluency problem, for diverse learners. These students require and deserve personalized, systematic, structured practice in order to become automatic and fluent word recognizers.

What does this mean for educators and students?

First, six decades of science from many disciplines tells us that the nature and timing of practice must be intentionally and carefully designed to build automaticity and fluency. Different students need different practice conditions in terms of content, tasks, support and numbers of repetitions. Additionally, practice should include:

  • Immediate feedback so students learn from their errors.
  • Many practice opportunities organized around specific distinctions that focus their attention, perceptions and responses as they engage with words and parts of words in many varied tasks and contexts.
  • Ongoing personalization that builds the next practice set based on an individual’s performance.

The level of intensity and precision necessary to address the practice needs of students who persistently struggle with word recognition skills requires a new approach. We have found that the only way for teachers to implement this level of personalization and support across their entire class roster is by leveraging technology. A digitally-delivered learning platform that integrates reading science with learning principles can provide an efficient and effective way to build automatic word recognition skills, opening the gateway for fluency and comprehension for students with dyslexia.