“I don’t know how I’ll get through this. I know I must, but I am beyond exhausted.”
– a parent, APM Reports
“What did we do to deserve this torture?”
– a student about I-Ready
By now, many school children and university students around the world have had some experiences with remote learning. What were the highs and lows of the experience? How can we learn from it?
If a student’s household has appropriate devices and Internet speeds, the availability of remote learning had the potential to be a godsend as the pandemic has dragged on.
For dyslexic students, the experiences have ranged from high to low – depending a great deal on how remote learning was used and how well a match it was to students.
First, the potential positives:
POSITIVE EXPERIENCES FOR DYSLEXIC STUDENTS
Dyslexic students can have positive experiences with remote learning – but that can also be dependent on the teacher or tutor anticipating potential accessibility problems, or if homeschooling, flexibility in classes.
Remote schooling can’t replace in-person schooling, but if the alternative is nothing, it can be helpful ensuring students don’t fall a year or more behind.
Some examples of positive experiences included students who liked being able to find all their assignments and requirements online. With lectures that were video recorded, there was an opportunity to re-listen if necessary and also take more frequent breaks if assigned time in front of screens was not too great and they could move around when they desired.
Students with shorter logged-on school hours, more project-based assignments, and fewer distractions at home (for instance, not having to watch or baby sit younger siblings), may actually enjoy the switch to at home learning.
Some families were happy to learn that remote tutors or assessment professionals were available without having to commute long distances during the pandemic.
Although in-person is often preferred to remote, the benefits of having this help in the convenience of one’s home was not lost on anyone.
Some gifted dyslexic students thrive in remote or hybrid learning situations – especially if it allows them an opportunity to take above-level programs in their areas of strengths. Having to spend whole school days in instruction below their intellectual level is otherwise mind-numbing and soul-killing, whether a pandemic is going on or not.
Tech-savvy students tend to do well with distance learning to their advantages… whether it involved listening to websites and textbooks or dictating papers.
NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES FOR DYSLEXIC STUDENTS
There have been many negative experiences of dyslexic students who suddenly experienced the transition to distance learning because of the pandemic. Like all students, some teachers were caught unprepared or technical issues like poor bandwidth or other technical problems further created problems.
Nevertheless, there are reasons why many dyslexic students might particularly struggle with remote learning and those are helpful to understand when trying to make educational choices or troubleshoot students’ difficulties.
PERSONAL LEARNING AND IN-PERSON EXPERIENCES
Many dyslexic students are strong personal learners who thrive in 1:1 or small group interactions. For many, the shift to masks, plexiglass barriers, or remote learning has been difficult to say the least.
Many dyslexic students rely on social strengths to develop a rapport with classmates as well as their teachers and tutors – and the need to be isolated makes forming stronger personal relationships more difficult.
PROBLEMS WITH CERTAIN ‘ADAPTIVE’ READING PLATFORMS LIKE I-READY
Despite the promise of some “adaptive” reading programs adjusting to students’ needs, some students find it to be a nightmarish program that is poorly fitted to dyslexic students’ needs. There are several problems with the software I-Ready, for instance (currently implemented for millions of students across the US; 25% of K-8 students), students get placed into a lexile level that they cannot leave until they get a certain number of reading or math questions correct. The problem is that students who commonly misread or skip words can accidentally place into lower reading levels and find themselves trapped forced to texts below their reading level, then slowly climbing their way out, only to get dropped again if they get too many questions wrong by misreading question or skipping words. To make matters worse, the platform does not teach why an answer is right or wrong – so students may be oblivious as to why they cannot place out, yet know they are testing at a low lexile level. The similar principle applies to I-ready’s Math tests.
The additional sad thing about the I-ready program is that it purports to screen for dyslexia (and therefore accepting district money across the US that should have been designated for true dyslexia assessments and interventions). The platform checks boxes for some reading instruction, but there is no dyslexia screening and students, parents, and teachers get no report for their students. Instead, the platform assigns activities for students “like this student” and supposedly that is enough.
The result of such a program being chosen to meet new state dyslexia laws is that no student using the “diagnostic” will be identified specifically with or without dyslexia, no student is recommended for further testing for IEP or 504 or formal diagnosis, no recommendations or intervention will be given in regards to structured literacy, accommodations, or assistive technology. Adaptive online reading programs should not be accepted as a substitute for comprehensive dyslexia screening; dyslexia is much more than reading and it is misleading to believe that these programs could in any way accurately screen for dyslexia.
Some students may struggle with so much screen-based reading assigned through programs such as I ready. Not surprisingly, students may become demoralized and stress may increase. It is not difficult to find accounts of students suffering under poorly designed programs like I-ready (see Ban I-Ready at Change.org). An example: “the lessons take forever to do and cause too much stress. When you get a question wrong, it does not tell you what you did wrong which does not help me learn…” or “I’ve had so many negative experiences with I- ready it isn’t even funny anymore. Back in like third grade, I was extremely anxious of the diagnostic to the point I had nightmares over it. I also redid the same lessons over and over worried I would fail them…”
Is this what we want students to do for their reading?
Programs such as Read Naturally or Lexia are not as punishing as I-Ready.
Why these failure-oriented programs are so toxic for dyslexic students is that they weigh heavily on students who are already suffering from a lack of positive experiences at school.
What a mistake it would be to have remote learning programs that also demoralize students.
Remote programs that are strength-focused and provide a greater sense of choice and agency will empower rather than add to students’ stress and anxiety.
“There’s just nothing better than success for getting you back on track and getting your brain ready to learn again.”
DON’T FORGET DYSLEXIC STUDENTS’ INTELLIGENCE
Remember – by the definition of dyslexia, students have average or above-average intelligence so that their understanding and conceptual level is typically much higher than their reading level. Programs and approaches for dyslexic students that don’t address this or account for this will inevitably be frustrating and take their emotional toll on students.
Dyslexic students will also likely be able to progress more rapidly in 1:1 or small group instruction – especially with a well-trained teacher who can recognize what difficulties they may be having. Well structured literacy programs will have a lesson, activities, then decodable books that build on prior knowledge.
Time should also be given for students to listen to audiobooks and other materials at their intellectual level. Dyslexic students should not be denied access to interesting subject material due to their current reading level ability. It will take time for these gaps to close, but there is no reason to starve them of content before then.
Poorly designed adaptive programs do not teach students explicitly, but rather require them to repeat lessons endlessly until they manage to “pass”…even if it is by guessing. This can become a nightmarish cycle of repeated failure that causes more problems than it solves. If your student is suffering under such a program, see if you can opt-out and perhaps substitute a better program or activity.
Look for so-called Hi-Lo books which have more intellectually-interesting content, but at a lower reading level. In some cases, you may have to request that a teacher checks that your student’s responses are being registered correctly.
TROUBLESHOOTING REMOTE LEARNING PROBLEMS AND TRAINING
If a student is struggling with remote learning, try sitting through the session (or screen recording it) in order to see what students are having difficulties with.
Different platforms have different ways they employ assistive technology with controls hidden under multiple tabs or accessibility features not being activated at all. If a platform is assessing reading, it will typically not enable text-to-speech because it seeks to assess a student’s reading in the absence of assistive technology. For some students the sounds may be unclear, or for others, problems activating assistive technology may be evident. The quality of text-to-speech also varies a great deal in different platforms – and some students with auditory processing and or attentional difficulties will have trouble following oddly pronounced robotically-read text.
As a for instance, I recently tried out the Sensus Access resources that is widely used at universities around the world. I can understand the convenience – students upload any documents that they don’t have in text to-speech and then an mp3 file is given, but I personally found the audio substandard with robotic pronunciation that’s difficult to understand – certainly worse than many of the better voices through Voice Dream or ReciteMe.
If you haven’t already, take time to optimize the assistive technology for your students on the computer….and allow time for students to be able to do this. If you cannot do this yourself, see if there is someone at a school or other tech-savvy parent who may be able to help you. Sometimes the tech expert may be a family member, IT professional, SPED teacher, or private computer technology coach. Don’t be embarrassed about getting outside help. We believe technology training (that includes assistive technology training) should be a part of every LD student’s educational plan. it’s surprising that it is not.
And the initial setup can be confusing. There are so many different computers and mobile devices that it may be difficult learning which program is needed if you aren’t somewhat sophisticated about working with different devices and operating systems.
When possible, get the help of an expert who will also know about resources that dyslexic people are likely to use – like Bookshare, Learning Ally, and Voice Dream.
Larger corporations may have funds available for technology, training in technology and workplace coaching if needed. Ask if you can record sessions if you may need to review steps later.
REMOTE LEARNING AT COLLEGE
Some changes may be necessary for succeeding in remote or hybrid learning situations at college or university. Some college platforms are notoriously bad about organization and electronic notifications. Some students may struggle because they fail to realize certain assignments are due and the asynchronous learning makes it hard to get in sync with the schedule of different classes.
Sometimes required discussion or quizzes are hidden under different tabs and students may find out too late that they’ve missed critical assignments.
Use your student success center as soon as possible – even before the start of a quarter or semester. Make an effort to meet with any teachers who are available early – and visit office hours even if they are virtual so you can make a personal relationship with your teachers. Tell them that you are dyslexic. It will help tremendously later if you underestimated your need for accommodations and miss a critical assignment or fail an exam. Ask for what you need to be successful, and if you’re not certain, contact your student success center. You can ask if a tutor is available who has expertise with tutoring dyslexic students – sometimes this may be a staff professional; other times it may be an upper class student. Either way, their advice can be invaluable. They can help you with organizing your schedule, assistive technology, and talking to your professors if you aren’t getting the accommodations you need.