Reading help for dyslexic students – NEMO Kennislink

Special fonts, audio books, reading software. Pupils with dyslexia can today use all kinds of aids to make reading and writing easier. They are welcome solutions in an education system that is often based on written texts, so poor readers quickly fall behind. But do they really work?

Children with dyslexia have difficulty reading and writing because their brains cannot connect sounds and written characters properly.

Dyslexia is often diagnosed in group 4, 5 or 6 in primary school. In group 3, the first signs can often be seen. This is when children learn to read and write. The degree of dyslexia differs from child to child, and the way it is expressed also varies. For example, some children find it more difficult to distinguish sounds in speech, others to convert these sounds into writing. Furthermore, dyslexia is partly genetically determined: if parents have it, their children are more likely to have it too.

Space between letters

The fact that the number of aids for dyslexia is increasing is of course a good development, but for teachers and parents it is sometimes difficult to make a choice from this range. What can they actually do if their student or child is diagnosed with dyslexia? For this I speak with Madelon van den Boer, remedial pedagogue at the University of Amsterdam. She researches children’s basic skills in primary school and is also writing a book on this for teachers. Because this is precisely the group that sometimes still lacks a handle.

Sometimes a small action can have a big impact, such as adjusting the spacing between letters in a text, says Van den Boer. “In the scientific jargon, this is called ‘space’, which means that you make the space between letters in a word as well as between words somewhat larger. I myself have done two studies that show that all beginning readers can benefit from it, including children with dyslexia. The space between the words must then be 3.5 times the space between the letters. As a teacher, you can adjust the character spacing in Word yourself. You just need to know.”

Some teaching methods adapt the layout of their books to students with dyslexia. There is also speech software to have textbooks read aloud.

Incidentally, this is the only visual aid that, according to scientific research, has been shown to be effective. This does not apply to manipulating the background color of a text or using a special font for dyslexia. Such a special font exists: the Dyslexie font was launched in the Netherlands in 2008 and rolled out to a number of English-speaking countries in 2011. Nevertheless, several studies have shown that the font itself had no effect on the reading skills of people with dyslexia. An Australian study found that the positive effects found could be traced back to the space between the letters and words (‘spacing’) used with this typeface. Equally spaced Arial gives the same result.

Read a lot

In primary school, emphasis is mainly placed on extra reading, explains Van den Boer. Audiobooks support the reading process, but still do not help children identify words. “The tendency in primary school is to encourage children, especially in the lower years, to get involved in reading themselves. Kids don’t always like it, but it’s the way to really improve reading. This does not mean that these children are not allowed to listen to an audiobook at home, but as a teaching method this is handled with care.”

Audiobooks can help build children’s vocabulary. But children with dyslexia have trouble associating words and sounds, so listening to audiobooks doesn’t train the skill they’re already bad at. Therefore, children in groups 4, 5 and 6 primarily receive reading guidance, says Van den Boer. This means that they read aloud with a tutor who corrects and adjusts them where necessary.

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“If you want to learn to read, you have to make a connection between how a word sounds, what it means, and how it looks written. Good readers make that connection very quickly. They see a word, store it in their memory and the next time they recognize it and read faster. This process is much slower in children with dyslexia. They have to identify a word letter by letter. So they have to see a word very often to memorize it. And they actually have to go through that process very often to increase accuracy and reading speed.”

Reluctance to read

According to Van den Boer, reaching kilometers in reading is actually the only solution for children with dyslexia. But it is also very complicated, because these children usually have a huge reluctance to read because they think it is so difficult. Therefore, you need to make reading more attractive. Van den Boer mentions so-called theater reading books, where children can read together and each have their own role. And for parents and children, there are books that you can read together, where parents and children take turns reading a fragment. “Research shows that five extra minutes of reading a day already makes a difference to your vocabulary. So every minute you read counts.”

In secondary education, the emphasis is different because the basics of reading have already been laid. Petra Beuk is a homework tutor for high school students and specializes in students with dyslexia. However, she has a little difficulty with the strict attitude towards audiobooks in primary school. Every day she guides children who are stuck in education because of their dyslexia. “Imagine being confronted every day with something that everyone can do automatically, it’s very frustrating.” It is very recognizable to her, because she also has dyslexia.

Students with dyslexia sometimes develop an aversion to reading because reading requires so much effort.

According to Beuk, audiobooks can be very useful in letting dyslexic children experience how fun books are. Because these books are recorded in the studio, they also have the right intonation, which adds tension to the text. Many study books are now also available as audio books, says Beuk. “For example, you have the Lex app from Dedicon, which is a foundation for the visually impaired. The Appropriate Reading app also contains many audiobooks and is freely available through the library for children up to eighteen years of age. You can install that app on your phone and then you can read along with the text with headphones.”

Digital learning environment

In addition to audiobooks, there are programs that work with speech synthesis, which convert written text into spoken text. Examples are Kurzweil and ClaroRead. You can enter a PDF into these programs and it will be read word for word by a voice computer. “The big advantage of this is that the word that is read is also highlighted. That way you can read along, and it also helps to make the connection between the written word and the corresponding sound, so that you can store it in your brain.”

These tools are increasingly being implemented in teaching. However, there are big differences between the schools, says Beuk. Kurzweil is a very expensive program, so there is a chance that it will primarily be purchased by wealthier schools. And once you have the program, you’re not there yet. “In fact, all keys must also be converted to Kurzweil. There is often too little knowledge for that in schools. They don’t want to convert that, for example, because there is a dictionary in Kurzweil, so you give the students a head start. But you can also block that dictionary.” There are also more and more teaching methods that offer online learning resources in addition to a paper textbook. The book is often also available in spoken form in this digital environment. “Teachers often don’t know that. So sometimes a struggle student, and the teacher does not know what tools are available.”

Broader education

And then Beuk also sees points for improvement in school exams. You can often use a reading app there, but only for the first period. In the second period, when the retests take place, this is only allowed for English and Dutch. “You can imagine: All the exam texts have to be read aloud in the studio, so they don’t do that for all subjects. But imagine: As a dyslexic, you have a repetition of history. So it’s a lot of reading.” It is also possible to opt for speech synthesis in both periods, and VMBO framework and basic students take a digital exam where everything can be read aloud.

However, Beuk believes that education could also be made more accessible to children with dyslexia in other ways. Not just by offering resources, but by expanding education. “Dyslexics excel at other skills. Education could respond better to this. For example, I had a student who had put a lot of time into her book review: she had made a summary of each chapter, drawn mind maps. Then she took a test and got 3. But students with dyslexia read at a macro level, they remember the big lines much more, so don’t ask them for details. For a listening test, it would help if these students were allowed to see the text beforehand. View more videos in the class. It connects better with them. Or work with mind maps to make connections.”

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