The Most Important Accommodation for Dyslexia: The Gift of Time.
I am sure that most of us can remember a time when we were in a conversation in a social situation and didn’t have the words we wanted to say. 6 hours later, while lying in bed trying to go to sleep, we suddenly know exactly what we should have, could have, and would have said. But the moment is gone, never to return. I think this happens to pretty much everyone, but I believe it happens more often to people with dyslexia. You see dyslexia is a language-processing issue. Sometimes it takes a minute to process the language and realize what people are talking about. And thinking up the words to respond can take even longer.
How many of you remember being in a room where everyone is taking a test? Everything is quiet and everyone is bent over the test booklet filling out little circles on the answer sheet. You are focused and feel pretty good about how you are doing. You are moving right along answering the questions when the person in front of you quietly closes their test booklet and puts down their pencil on the desk. They are finished and you realize that you are not even halfway through. How can this be? How did they do it so fast? Is there still enough time for you to finish? Even though everyone is quiet you can tell when all the others finish and each one makes you more nervous. You can no longer focus on the questions. Your brain is so distracted by the time 6 others are finished that you cannot even read the questions anymore and you are not even in the middle of the test yet.
This is the way life is for a person with dyslexia. Even if they do know the answers or have a very witty comment they cannot think of it in time. Time is like an enemy for them. Time causes them to lose out on so much.
As a homeschooler, I remember all my homeschooling friends bragging about how their children were already finished with school by noon. It was so easy for them! They had time to learn to bake and raise animals and learn instruments and start their own business by the time they were 9 years old. I hated hearing them brag about how easy school was. We also were often finished by noon but we had only accomplished reading and math and all three of us (both my children and myself) felt like our brains were about to explode. We worked so hard. It was never easy for us. And our progress was slow. By the time we were done with reading and math, we did not have the brainpower left to study anything else. That is why we were done by noon.
Side note to homeschoolers who are in that place now: It's ok. It's ok that all we did was reading and math. If your child learns these subjects well they can learn anything they want to learn. In our family we also learned a lot of history but our kids never thought of it as school. In the evening I read true stories aloud to the family. This is a great way to learn history. Never a workbook or test. Never were the kids expected to read the book. Just relaxing read aloud time where the kids are drawing or playing with legos and I was reading. All of us loved this and learned a lot.
When the teacher at school gives homework to the class, she is thinking that it will reinforce what she has taught and that the students will be able to finish it in a short amount of time. But dyslexic students always struggle to finish their homework. Parents and students often work together for hours on homework. This is unfair to a child who already has spent all day at school.
This movie is one of the only movies I have ever taken my children to the theater to watch. (I do recommend this movie –now you can watch it on amazon prime or find a copy to purchase on Amazon.) When it first came out, we went to it together as a family. Check out the big alarm clock behind this kid. And what is behind that alarm clock? Is it going to explode?! In today’s busy world many of us can relate to the feeling of running out of time. But with dyslexia, it is especially true.
Sally Shaywitz says in her book Overcoming Dyslexia that extra time is the most critical accommodation for the dyslexic reader. “Dyslexia robs a person of time: accommodations return it. Studies carried out over the last two decades confirm a dyslexic reader’s absolute physiological need for extra time. For him, additional time is obligatory, not optional.”
You might be wondering if extra time provides an unfair advantage to dyslexic students who receive this accommodation.
No, it does not. Studies have demonstrated that students without learning disabilities do not benefit from extra time but those with dyslexia do. ("The Effect of Extra Time on Reading Comprehension Scores for University Students with and Without Learning Disabilities," S.E. Shaywitz and B.A. Shaywitz; "The Efficacy of Extended Time on Tests for Postsecondary Students with Learning Disabilities," Learning Disabilities 10 (2000):47-56.) This helps us understand that students with dyslexia need extra time to show what they know. If they do not receive the extra time the test results will lead you to believe that the student does not know the answers when in fact they do.
When my daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia, one of the tests she was given was the RAN. This stands for Rapid Automatic Naming. In this simple test students are shown pictures of things, or letters, or numbers and they are timed for 30 seconds to see how many they can name. They make sure you know all the answers before they even start. They are not checking if she knew the answer – they were checking how fast she named the pictures. She was really slow. This is one of the characteristic signs of dyslexia. When the evaluator explained this test to me I wanted to cry as I remembered all the times I had caused tears because I was drilling my daughter on math facts with flash cards. I thought she needed to be fast but she just never got faster. We also had math games where you try to beat yourself but neither one of my children ever got very fast no matter how many times they practiced or how well they knew the answers.
No, they never got fast. That is one of the main characteristics of dyslexia.
To qualify for a dyslexia diagnosis your test should show average or above-average intelligence with low scores in phonemic awareness and Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN). The difference between the intelligence scores and the phonemic awareness and rapid naming scores will be statistically significant. This explains a lot about what dyslexia is and how it affects a person.
Dyslexia is when a person is smart but not good at hearing individual sounds and not fast at processing language.
There are so many ways that this time issue shows up.
Just think about the kindergarten student who is in a classroom full of children. The teacher is talking about something and most of the class understands and they all move on to the next thing. The dyslexic student is still processing what the teacher said but she has moved on and so does he. He didn’t quite have the time to process what she had said so he misses it. Throughout the year the number of things that he didn’t have time to process grows. There are holes in what he knows. He also has a big problem with rote memorization, so he doesn’t remember all the letter names and sounds. Sometimes, because of the holes in his knowledge, the instruction doesn’t make sense to him. Pretty soon he begins to zone out (or act out). You can see that this can have a snowball effect.
The most common thing that people think of when they think about accommodations is that students with dyslexia should not be given timed tests. This is always true. And not only should students with dyslexia not be required to take any timed tests but they should also be given a quiet room in which to take the test alone. That way they will not be distracted by all the other students who are finishing when they are only ½ way through.
I also recommend several other ways to give students with dyslexia more time.
If you are the parent of a student with dyslexia, I recommend that you talk to your child’s teacher about homework. Ask the teacher how much time they expect the homework will take. Tell the teacher that you will work on the homework for that amount of time but will not finish the work if it takes too long.
Sometimes giving a shorter assignment or allowing someone to help with the assignment is an appropriate accommodation that will help the dyslexic student with having enough time.
Just waiting to see if your child will catch up is not giving them the gift of time.
I explained earlier how the dyslexic child, who is struggling with language processing and speed issues, is missing out on chunks of information. This missing out on information only gets worse and the problem grows like a snowball. Studies show that children who are struggling in first grade do not catch up. They are still behind in 4th grade and the gap only widens.
But do not let this scare you. With the correct intervention, your child can catch up. In one-to-one tutoring, your child will have the time to process information and make it their own. If you are homeschooling you can tailor your child’s education to them and make sure they have time to process and master each new thing before going on to the next thing.
I have another suggestion that may seem controversial to some people.
In the very beginning if you are noticing that your preschool child has issues with speech, trouble learning the alphabet or other rote memory issues, and trouble recognizing rhyming why not give them the gift of time right in the beginning? Especially if their birthday is near the cutoff date. Let your children grow and mature. They don’t have to be in kindergarten at 5 years old.
What I am saying is I think it’s a great idea to let kids grow and be more mature before they are expected to be in school doing schoolwork. I am not saying you should not work on these things during that time.
Without sitting at a desk with pencil and paper your child can be growing their phonemic awareness muscles. They can be snuggling on your lap every day listening to stories and growing vocabulary and knowledge. You can take time to practice the alphabet every day until they can not only say it in order but also identify every letter in isolation. That way when they do officially start school, they will be more able to keep up with the other children.
I am in favor of starting official schooling later when children are a little older. In Finland school does not begin until children are 7 and they have some of the smartest kids in the world. Why are we here in America in such a hurry for our children to get into school?
Whether you have a preschooler who is showing warning signs or an older child who is struggling to become a good reader, I hope this blog has given you something useful to think about. If you are homeschooling it will be up to you to take these things into consideration and provide your child with the time they need. If your child goes to public or private school you can talk to the teacher about giving your child accommodations including extra time. Remember that as the parent you are your child's advocate. What happens with your child's education is your choice. If accommodations are needed you can make sure your child receives them.