Tips from Dyslexic Students for Dyslexic Students
by Nancy Hall
Nobody can fully appreciate what it’s like to be a student with dyslexia in the way that another student with dyslexia can. Tutors, teachers and parents have their advice, but here are some strategies from the real experts—kids with papers due, tests next week, and a project due on Friday. How do they do it when they are struggling readers themselves?
Abbie, 14, says her best homework strategy is a simple one. "Nothing high-tech here,” she laughs. “The most important tool for me is a big wall calendar I can write on so I know how much time I have to do what was needed. I mean, because I’m dyslexic, I get extra time to spend on tests, right? I finally realized that I should also use all the time available to me to work on regular homework assignments, too. One thing I do is to mark not just the date when something has to be finished, but the date when I need to start on it, and break the project down into smaller steps in between.”
For dyslexics who read more slowly and who sometimes can’t even read their own handwriting, allowing enough time to do homework is a must. Here are some tips:
- Break a big project up into smaller, less intimidating pieces. Have a three page paper due in a month? Let a parent or a teacher help you to set dates for working on little tasks related to the paper, like picking a topic, doing research, and writing a first draft.
- Do what’s due first. If you’re faced with a long list of short assignments, it’s easy just to grab them and do them in random order, but that’s not the most beneficial. Take a minute to prioritze your work, not only by what’s due, but by what you need more or less time with. Study tonight for the French test you have tomorrow, not the vocabulary test that’s coming up next week.
- Don’t fall into the “no homework tonight” trap. Calendar clear for tonight? Look ahead to see what’s coming up (an earth science quiz at the end of the week or a math worksheet due Thursday?) and use this free time to make a start on the work that’s due later.
- Outline a task before you start. For a science project on plant growth, what materials will you need to gather? How many days will you have to allow for the beans to sprout? How long will it take you to write up your results? Think it through in your head and figure out what steps you’ll have to take so you know what you’ll need—and how much time to allow—to get it done.
Thirteen-year-old Eli, for instance, has a friend who studies by making a Power Point presentation on her computer of the material she’ll be tested on. She listens to it several times and takes notes. “And if I did this on a Mac, I could even use the computer’s voice feature to read the material to me. I’m already doing this to read material along with me while I study,” Eli says. Eli also composes written work on his computer to save time, improve accuracy, and add interest to his written assignments when he’s typing them up. “I use the voice-recognition program Dragon to dictate what I want to say,” he explains. “It’s faster and my papers are neater, but best of all I’ve found I probably add over 50% more detail when I’m doing it this way. It lets me be a lot more creative.” It also allows him to capture crucial details that he might gloss over if he were doing it by handwriting the points on index cards and then arduously transferring them to the computer.
Here are some other high-tech tips from Eli and other kids:
- After you complete a writing assignment, whether it’s a paragraph or a longer paper, record yourself or someone in your family reading it aloud. Being able to listen to it as you read it over several times can help you to spot errors and things you’d like to change, and to understand and remember what you’ve learned.
- Listen to assigned books on CD, reading along in your written copy. Bonus? You’ll feel much better prepared if you know you’re going to be called upon to read out loud in class the next day.
- Ask your parents or a teacher to help you sign up for access to recorded books and other written materials. An organization called Learning Ally (formerly Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic or RFB&D) makes tens of thousands of audio recordings of literature, textbooks, reference materials, magazines, and newspapers available on CD or by audio download to anyone who has trouble reading print. Check their website for more information: www.learningally.org.
- Do written work at home and take notes in class on a laptop computer or a word processing keyboard like an Alphasmart.
- Find a computer that can read to you—Macs do this, but there’s lots of software available for both Macs and PCs that read along with you.
James gives himself plenty of breaks when he’s working on a tough assignment. At 16 and in tenth grade, he has longer, more complicated assignments than he used to. “If I have 20 pages of reading to do one night, I just can’t focus on it all at once,” he says. “I concentrate better and remember more if I break it into two 10-page assignments or even four 5-page assignments, and take a break after completing each one. I also give myself enough time so that I can work slowly and carefully, not hurrying or skipping any part of a task. It takes longer, but I do a better job and comprehend the material better.”
- Don’t do more than you have to. For instance, you don’t have to research everything on the Civil War to write a few paragraphs on "The Battle of Bull Run."
- For many people, studying the most important material right before bed makes it easier to remember.
- Work in a quiet place with few distractions. Ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones can help to block out noises that compete for your attention.
- Some students found that chewing gum while taking a test helped them to focus on their work. Ask your teacher whether you can try this. No popping bubbles!
- Try to get enough sleep and eat a nutritious diet. When you’re well rested and in good health, you’ll be able to focus better on your work.
Abbie told us, “Dyslexia teaches you to budget your time and work hard, and these are things that will help me no matter what I go on to do.” Twelve-year-old Molly found inspiration in talking with dyslexic adults: “Talking to some of my teachers who are dyslexic themselves has been really helpful,” she said. "They had to work even harder than I do because there were no computers or books on CDs when they were my age. If they could succeed, I can, too.”
We heard similar things from other kids and teens we spoke with:
- I’ve never felt like there was something I had to do that I couldn’t. It might take me longer, but I can do it.
- It’s important to look back and see how far you’ve come. In fourth grade there were things I couldn’t do as well as other kids, but now, as a seventh grader, I can do most of them just as well as everyone else—sometimes even better.
- I used to feel embarrassed about having to work with reading specialists and a speech teacher, but I wouldn’t be where I am now without them.
- Dyslexia is something that will always be with me, but I don’t think it will ever keep me from doing what I want to do.
- The things that support you while you’re learning to master reading and related skills can be as high tech as the latest ultra-sleek notebook computer or as down to earth as chewing gum and taking good care of yourself. You’ll find that you’ll get other helpful ideas from friends, parents, and teachers, and some you’ll figure out for yourself.