Daniel Shanahan recently recounted his discussion with a principal about his school curriculum. His students were under-performing and he assured Daniel that students were receiving plenty of instruction in phonics and fluency.


When he looked at the teacher’s curricular plan, it looked as if plenty of reading instruction was given every day, but his impression changed once he began visiting classes.



“Much of the instructional time wasn’t used for instruction at all. The teachers spent a big chunk of time on “sustained silent reading” and they read to the children quite a bit, too. All the classrooms had multiple reading groups. That meant that the boys and girls did a lot of worksheets to keep them quiet while the others were reading with the teacher.

The small group teaching entailed little more than reading a story together out of a textbook, with quite a bit of round robin reading. I guess that was the fluency work.”


What about phonics instruction?

“The teachers would hand out a couple of phonics worksheets from the textbook program. She’d read the directions to the class and have the kids fill out the pages and then she’d score them and hand them back. Phonics assignments more than phonics instruction. I don’t know what the publisher had in mind, probably not what the students were getting.

I didn’t keep track at the time. In retrospect I’d guess those kids got about 5 minutes a day of phonics (and as for quality of instruction, please don’t get me started). The same point could be made about the “fluency work.” Round robin reading rarely gives kids more than a minute or so of practice. Across a school year, that would amount to less than 3 hours of oral reading practice if done daily!

In other words, these children weren’t getting much phonics or fluency teaching.

These boys and girls needed to learn how to read. Nevertheless, no one was teaching them very much.”


With the way that teachers are overloaded these days (not even considering the pandemic!), it’s not surprising that many students don’t get the individualized attention that many dyslexic students could really benefit from.

Even if you are a homeschooling parent, be aware of assigning more than teaching. A great deal of dyslexia remediation involves explicit teaching of things that don’t seem to come automatically to dyslexic students, whether that recognizing the sounds that make up the parts of words or something like grammar in complex sentences.

Even curricula that looks as if it its heart is in the right place (like TCI’s Science Alive!). It is one thing to listen to lectures and do activities, but spending 90% of the time filling out worksheets is an inefficient way to learn for many dyslexic students. That time would be better spent with learning something new, mental breaks, and either creating something or designing creative solutions to a problem in the real world.



I understand the need to check what students know, but there seems to be a terrible mismatch between what curriculum providers understand about the natural development of people with dyslexia. It is also true that modifications can be provided to students, but there is also a constant message to students that they are not performing to standard when they are regularly assigned paper and pencil work that they cannot possibly complete.

The overwhelming majority of dyslexic students also have dysgraphia and in the early grades, the quantity of work may be unrealistic and self-defeating.

Checking in, and spiraling curriculum – or revisiting topics to deepen knowledge, but not repeating exactly is a better way to maintain the joy of learning, but also make sure students don’t get left behind.

Developmentally, parents and teachers should be aware that in the early grades, students will know much more than they can easily express – often that applies to speaking, but even more so to writing.

I’m not alone in my distaste for worksheets; check out Sara Segar’s Experimental Learning blog post, Why I Don’t Give My Students Worksheets and What I Do Instead. Some examples: student-initiated projects, strategies like Predict-Explain-Observe (or PEO from Page Kelley, gallery walks, reciprocal learning, thought provoking discussions.

Some busywork that should absolutely be banned for dyslexic students are word searches. These are extremely difficult because of visual crowding and overload.

Better elaborative learning and self-cover-check practice for learning spelling than this painful practice.

From the wonderful Cult of Pedagogy Blog from Jennifer Gonzalez comes these worksheet alternative ideas.



When I was doing a research fellowship, a wonderful lab director (Mike Bishop, he eventually won a Nobel Prize) had an inspiring way of leading lab meetings. When it was time for a student to discuss or present research, he called it the “This is Your Life” show. It reminded everyone that no matter what level they were at – they weren’t really working for him – they were creative people with their own interests and passions – and in that hour everyone had much to learn from them.

Wouldn’t that be a great thing for students to find in school?



Dyslexia | Dyslexic Advantage