Helping Students with Dyslexia Achieve Independence
December 18, 2019
Noodle experts Kyle Redford and Jamie Martin discuss the power of assistive technology to help students with dyslexia achieve independence and academic success.
A conversation between Kyle Redford and Jamie Martin
Students with dyslexia have the same learning goals as non-dyslexic learners — to discover their passions, explore them independently, and achieve success in their pursuits. The integration of powerful new assistive technologies (AT) increasingly brings these goals into reach for students today. Hear from two Noodle experts about the lessons of introducing AT tools to children with dyslexia — and what they learned in the process.
Assistive Technology and Independence
Kyle: One of the main challenges that students with dyslexia face is building a sense of autonomy and independence as learners. As their teacher, I also struggle with the tension between proactively supporting them and unintentionally communicating to them that they need me in order to be successful. It is one of the reasons that I appreciate assistive technology because it diminishes my role in their productivity.
Jamie: The best thing about putting technology tools in the hands of students with dyslexia is that I know I’m giving them a level of independence that would not have been possible 10–15 years ago. Still, I sometimes have difficulty figuring out the right time to let go. Usually, the kids will tell me when they are ready to be on their own; not always explicitly, but they do find ways to let me know when I’ve done my job. It’s not all that different from raising our own kids. Sometimes it’s difficult to push them out of the nest, but when we do, we know we’ve done the right thing.
Persuading Reluctant Users
Kyle: I would be interested to know how often you have to “sell" students on tools. I often find myself having to convince them to try a tool, but once they take the plunge, they become thrilled by the independence it offers. Tech tools are incredibly empowering, but their use in the classroom can distinguish students in ways that can be difficult for kids who are tired of standing out in school.
Jamie: When I see students’ eyes get big, I know that they have realized the possibilities of assistive technology. I would like to say that I have students jumping up and down because dictation software spelled all of their words correctly, but it’s more of a quiet confidence that comes over them when they realize that technology can help. I’ve seen my share of resistance, too. The stigma piece is a large part of it, but there are other reasons. I think many times, dyslexic students are afraid of independence. They often get used to us giving them tons of support, and they aren’t sure if they can handle the demands of school on their own. Also, they are sometimes afraid that the expectations of their teachers and parents will increase if they can complete more of their work independently. When I am able to identify why a student is reluctant to use AT, I need to become more of a coach than a technology teacher. I’m sure you see similar things in your classroom, even when technology is not involved.
Kyle: You nailed it when you mentioned reluctance being related to increased expectations. That is a real fear. As students become more capable, our expectations do shift. Independence leads to less hand-holding. And students who are able to work independently develop a completely different relationship to school. They also develop different academic expectations for themselves and start imagining their potential in different ways. We have to encourage the student to stay with the initial difficulty involved in adopting tech tools because ultimately they will gain ownership over a more productive way of learning. Of course, independence is not uniquely tied to tech tools; some of it is attitudinal as well. How much does self-advocacy play a role in your work with students?
Learning to Self-Advocate
Jamie: Coaching students to be strong self-advocates is a large part of assistive technology training. At this point, there are so many AT options that students need to be able to identify which tools work for them and be able to communicate that to others. More often than not, they know more about the technology than most of the people around them, so they need to be able to explain why they need AT to be successful and independent. That becomes especially true if they decide to go to college, where they no longer have IEPs that spell out their accommodations. When I am working with high school students, I like to make sure they are ready to advocate for themselves by the time graduation rolls around. You work with younger kids — do you foster self-advocacy skills at that age?
Kyle: My students are 10 and 11 years old, but they need those skills for the same reasons you mentioned for high school students. The untidy reality is that my students also have to know how to advocate for access to their tools. I am sure that you have encountered the wide range of teacher philosophies about assistive tech. You hear everything from, “If he uses speech-to-text he will never learn to write." Or, “Audiobooks will prevent her from learning how to decode words." I have witnessed teachers resist even the most minor adjustments, like refusing to offer extra time to finish an assessment because they think it will give a child an unfair advantage over other students in the class. I am always prepared to debate these issues, but that is not as helpful as giving my students the language — and the permission — to address it themselves. That kind of coaching requires a kind of nuance which can be more challenging for younger children, but the earlier they learn how to explain and advocate, the smoother their school road will be.
Struggling to Grow
Jamie: I have certainly spent time helping teachers overcome misconceptions about AT, but I think their reluctance often stems from not having a complete understanding of how technology can provide independence for students with learning disabilities. I think all educators can agree that one of our main goals is to teach students how to do things on their own, but as we said earlier, it is sometimes difficult to do that when our protective instincts take over. On their own, students will sometimes fail, but failing gracefully and learning from mistakes are key skills that everyone needs, whether there is a learning disability involved or not.
Kyle: You touch on something that is really important. As a parent of a child with dyslexia, and as a teacher, I have often debated when and how much to let a dyslexic student stumble (and fail). Because students with dyslexia spend a lot of time struggling with mechanics during those first years in school, they often emerge fragile and lacking academic confidence. Parents sense this fragility and often can’t help but go into overprotective and over-supportive mode. My own son, however, would argue that the best thing I did for him involved gradually stepping away and letting him figure out where he began and ended. It was painful and counterintuitive, but critical.
Jamie: I didn’t understand that “mama bear" mentality until I became a parent myself. It’s actually a little unsettling when the instinct to protect overshadows logical thinking. I’ll bet it’s even stronger in parents of dyslexic children who have struggled with what we now consider to be essential skills — reading and writing. Can you remember when your son became truly independent?
Watching Students Move Into the World
Kyle: He had been gradually reducing my role in his school life over time. But he completely fired his teacher mom when he went to college (no editing, no advice). It wasn’t long before he started to send me his papers, but not until after they were graded (mostly to show off). He let me know that he was actually receiving superior support at school (it was certainly less messy and infantilizing). Over the years, he had become expert at leveraging the supports available to him in different learning environments and explaining his needs to teachers. He was well-positioned to take advantage of supports like editing help or asking for extra time on exams when he hit college.
Jamie: It’s those kinds of success stories that keep me going. I can remember a student I worked with starting in eighth grade. He was profoundly dyslexic and resisted any kind of independence. At that time, assistive technology was completely out of the question for him. It was only after receiving other supports, both academic and emotional, during the next few years that he was ready to give AT a try. It was one of the proudest moments of my career when, as an 11th-grader, he completed his first exam with text-to-speech and dictation technology instead of working with a reader and scribe. When I can give kids independence like that, I know that I’m in the right profession.
Kyle: So I think we agree that assistive tech is the passport to independence for students with dyslexia. But it is also clear that tech tools, in themselves, are not enough. They are only as effective as the student using them. Academic independence involves a potent mixture of self-advocacy and self-awareness as well. The tricky part is that independence does not magically happen. Both teachers and parents have to be brave enough to step away and let students develop and practice these skills, even when it involves some tough lessons.