Dyslexia, Part 2: Understanding Treatment


Posted in: Multimedia, Parenting Concerns, Videos, You & Your Family

Topics: Learning + Attention Issues

This blog is the second in a series on dyslexia. Topics to be addressed further in include accommodation options available, and the transition of a child to life, school, etc. following diagnosis.


Dyslexia is the most common of all the known learning disabilities, affecting one out of every five children in the United States and accounting for 80% of those diagnosed with a learning disability.  Most people who are dyslexic are born with the disorder, but the vast majority are not diagnosed until they’ve reached reading age.  The diagnosis is accomplished through standardized, individually administered tests of intelligence, academic achievement, and cognitive processing.

Let’s revisit Sharon’s story.

Sharon was a 2nd grader whose parents were relieved to find out that their daughter’s reading problems were due to dyslexia and that there were treatment programs that could help her become a stronger reader.  Once the evaluation was completed, and they had received a diagnosis and got a copy of the report, they realized that the testing process was not an end in and of itself, but only the beginning.

Sharon’s evaluator recommended that she receive a multi-sensory, phonics-based approach to learning to read.  Among the most widely studied approaches include the Orton-Gillingham, Lindamood-Bell, or Wilson methods.  Although there is some variation among the different programs in exactly how they go about teaching phonemic awareness and enhancing phonological processing, the important common factor is the multisensory approach.

What is a “multisensory approach“? Well, it’s one that uses many of a child’s senses.

For example, children with dyslexia who received one of the above-mentioned approaches will first work on learning the letters and the sounds they represent.  They will do this visually (by seeing the written letter and by watching their mouths in the mirror as they say the letter), auditorily (by listening to the sound the letter makes), kinesthetically (by paying attention to the position and shapes of the mouth when they say the letter, noticing how their mouth feels when they pronounce the letter or how their hands feel when they write the letter), and tactilely (by tracing the letter in sand or shaving cream).

The program then builds from there, as the students learn to decode, comprehend, and write using a phonologically based (focused on sounds and symbols), sequential (one skill builds on the other) method that incorporates other senses to enhance the learning process.  It is success-based in that every lesson ensures that the student will experience success; this is especially important because the typical child with dyslexia has usually had more than his or her fair share of failure and discouragement when it comes to reading.

Once it’s determined that your child has dyslexia, you should request that he or she receive special education services for reading and related skills, such as spelling and writing.  If your child attends public school, he or she may be eligible for an Individual Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Accommodation Plan.

Given what we know about the importance of using a multisensory approach for students with dyslexia, you should insist that she or he receive instruction in one of these approaches.  If your school offers you a program that you haven’t heard of, ask for information about it to determine if it is multisensory and phonologically based.  If your school system does not have a certified specialist available in any of the recommended multisensory methods, you will need to advocate for your child to obtain these services.  This may involve locating an available specialist, either privately or in a neighboring school system, and holding the school responsible for covering the costs of servicing your child outside the system.

The intensity of multisensory services is very important.  In general, it is recommended that a student receive multiple sessions a week.  Most of these programs work best individually, but usually are provided to students in small groups if needed.

In addition to tutoring, students with dyslexia often benefit from additional accommodations.  These can include:

  • Extended time on tests
  • Assistance with note taking and copying from the board
  • Allowing the child to take tests in an oral format
  • Not penalizing a child for spelling errors, when the test/assignment is not a spelling test and/or giving a child a spelling list that is appropriate for his or her reading level
  • Allowing the child to use a computer with spell-checking capabilities as much as possible and/or a hand-held spelling or word bank for in class work
  • Allowing exemption from a foreign language requirement, or when this is not possible, encourage the student to learn a foreign language that is phonetic (such as Spanish) or a language such as American Sign Language

Although some parents worry that “labeling” their child’s problems will somehow damage or make him or her feel bad about themselves, the fact is that the majority of people (kids and grownups alike) find considerable relief in knowing that what they have been struggling with or suffering from actually has a name.  Sharing information about your child’s diagnosis and letting them know that we can help them become a better reader is the first step in helping him or her become a more accomplished and resilient student.

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Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD, is executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at  Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and former co-director for the MGH Clay Cente...

To read full bio click here.