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Distance Learning for Dyslexia

Richard McManus


Many students who struggle to learn to read are able, with appropriate instruction, to compensate for initial reading problems by becoming accurate decoders but fail to reach a level of sufficient fluency to become fast and efficient readers.

-- Pamela E. Hook & Sandra D. Jones

Close to 20 percent of our population is dyslexic. Many dyslexic readers never become fully successful readers, remaining unable to read throughout their lives. Others have decoding skills, but their skills are labored and dysfluent. Although Orton Gillingham (OG) is the gold standard of reading instruction programs available in public schools, it has limitations that make it less than perfect for that critical next step. Developing the ability to read fluently is critical but often difficult to obtain, despite effective programs that, properly delivered, can solve this problem.

Dyslexic students who have progressed through OG are rarely fluent readers. Consequently many of these students are not comfortable in reading aloud at school. Their lack of fluency makes them sound halting and slow when reading, and often embarrasses them.

Reading comprehension is also damaged by poor fluency, so that academic performances are hampered globally. Many dyslexic students must repeatedly read materials to glean the information they need. This makes their schoolwork increasingly taxing, and makes test taking extremely challenging. They may be given extra time to complete tests like the SAT or ACT, but this extra length can be counter productive, as they become exhausted.

Dysfluent reading damages productivity in both class work and homework. We frequently have worked with dyslexic students who are reading at less than 100 wpm, even in high school. That reading frequency is roughly half what is needed to be a successful student at any age, but for a high school student it makes all schoolwork almost impossible.

We have had dramatic impacts on students who are dysfluent. We employ a powerful series of exercises along with a measurement system that assures that our students become more effective and more efficient readers.

One of our tutors, Rachel Currie-Rubin, met a family whose daughters were both struggling with dysfluent reading. They lived at some distance from our location, and did not feel comfortable reading aloud even when developing new skills. In fact, another limiting factor for improving reading is that students who are struggling do not want to be reading in public. Reading is such an essential skill, and students who are struggling often also have powerful emotions and do not want to work in public.

Consequently we redesigned our well-proven program to work over Skype. One of our most experienced tutors worked to implement the program through the Skype interface. We devised materials that we could either email to the girls or hold up and show to the camera through Skype.

Working over distance turned out to be more successful than we had ever envisioned. The girls both learned to become far more efficient readers, and remain comfortable and far more effective as students. One of their parents said, “I watched your tutors work with my daughters — the tutors did a wonderful job of building rapport, and while I was a skeptic, I do not think it could have worked any more effectively if they had been present.”

Once we were able to work with the girls three times a week they made rapid progress — and after taking the summer off both girls continue to read fluently and productively. Their study is more productive and they use less time to complete more work and to study more effective. Our plan to offer fluent phonemic awareness along with building reading speeds was just as effective with them as if they had been in Cohasset at our center.

These new tools are opening a totally new pathway for our center. We are no longer limited by distance in helping students who are in need of our services. Another valuable feature of this approach is to provide privacy to students who are embarrassed by their reading disabilities. We have frequently encountered students who are reluctant to come to our center because they fear a stigma. However this issue is entirely solved by using the Skype interface and other online tools to provide a shelter from those feelings.

We are now working to create similar programs to work with younger students, but we are confident that we can bring middle and high school dyslexic students to a high level of reading fluency if they are willing to work for at least three hours per week.

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