Dyslexia in the Time of Virtual School

The beginning of a normal school year for a child with dyselixa is hard. In the viritual setting, it can feel impossible. I have an 8th grader with dyslexia who is in her 8th week of virtual learning and these are the challaneges and tips that I have compiled so far.

First, what aspects of virtual school are particularly difficult for students with dyslexia? There are a lot. Here are some of them we have encountered so far:

  1. Lots of reading with no built-in read aloud feature. Our district uses Florida Virtual School and upper grades have no read aloud, although the younger grades do have limited read aloud options.
  2. Lots of writing with no built in speech-to-text or word prediction built in. Some virtual programs do have a spellcheck option, but as those with dysleixa know, very often spelling is so far off that spellcheck simply cannot recognize the intended word. My daughter has an elaborate system where she downloads assignments into Co:wrtier, types her paragraph in Co:Writer, then cuts/pastes into Word & uploads it into Schoology. It is slow and multi-step process that is confusing and is not feasible for younger kids.
  3. Kids with dyslexia need tests and quizes read aloud. That is really hard in a virtual setting. If a parent or caregiver is not available to read, then oftentimes students will be left to struggle through on their own.
  4. Some online quizes pop up with a large ticking timer that shuts down the quiz if time is exceeded. This is stress inducing and unfair to kids with dyslexia who need extra time.
  5. Online worksheets that only accept correctly spelled answers. In many formats, if you type in “Pocahanas” instead of the correct spelling, you will get a zero on that item. Students with dyslexia should not be counted off for spelling.
  6. Many teachers ask students to post answers to discussion questions publically. This can cause a lot of shame in kids who spell or write poorly since errors are there for all to see.
  7. Some teachers say “I’ll give you two minutes to send me your response.” Students with dyslexia may take 5 minutes to write an answer and can miss class instruction while focused on typing or may be counted off for not turning items in.
  8. By the end of a long day of looking at the screen, all kids are tired. For students with dyslexia, fatigue can be severe and cause mood issues, acting out and more. Frustrated & stressed kids can affect the whole family.

The good news is that there are some solutions that can really help with most of these virtual school stressors. Here are some tips that can help:

Tip 1. Introduce and Educate.

At the beginning of the year, I always send teachers a quick snap shot of my child along with my favorite easy-to-read dyslexia info. Usually, I do this over coffee before school, but in the virtual setting, it can just be a well crafted email introducing yourself and your child.

I like to include a picture of my daughter with her likes and talents before diving into information about her dyslexia. In a virtual setting, this can be even more important since there is less opportunies for teachers to get to know the personalities of students. I also include subject-by-subject information of her struggles so that teachers can really hone in on how to support her.

In addition to providing teachers with information about my child, I also like to include information about dyslexia in general. I never assume that a teacher has an understanding about what dyslexia is or what it looks like. I avoid sending long articles, but rather send easy-to-read infographics that teachers can quicky glance at. Understood.org has some great ones, and in Tennessee, so does the MTSU Center for Dyslexia at https://www.mtsu.edu/dyslexia/.

Tip 2. Communicate.

It is harder to build relationships in a virtual setting, so thoughtful communication is key. Teachers, parents and kids are all stressed out in this year of Covid. It is important to grant other people grace while also being assertive to get your child what he needs. When you run into an issue that needs to be addressed, email teachers in a kind way to remind them what is feeling challenging and how to easily accommodate the need. In my experience, teachers don’t want children to be totally stressed out, crying and working until 10pm. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Saying, “Math is taking my son 3 hours, which I know is not your intent, so I am going to have him do 2 of each type of problem, and stop working after an hour.” usually is well reciveved by a teacher. Please remember to make sure to email your child’s teacher with things that are going well, too. The are human and need to hear they are doing a good job, too. Several examples of the types of emails that you and your student can send are below.

Remember that older children (usually 4th grade and above) should be learning to do some of the advocacy on their own. Encourage students to reach out to teachers via email, REMIND, text message, office hours Zoom or other teacher-approved method to share with the teacher what they need and what they are struggling with. My daughter was really hating posting in-class commets that could be seen by peers. When she told her science teacher, he gave her his cell number and now she just texts him the answers and she feels so much better about particpating in class. That said, even with older children, if things go unresolved, it is appropraite for you to send an email to the teaching team as well.

Tip 3. Accommodate at Home.

Virtual learning is hard & a lot of accommodations are hard to access, so parents and caregivers need to step in to fill that role. When possible, I set aside an hour each night when she is fatigued & working slowly to read quizzes, scribe worksheets/essays & to help keep organized. It can feel like a lot, but in this Covid environment, we all need to pitch in. This can feel less daunting after you have taken steps 1 and 2 above and teachers have helped to tailor a work load and time table that is manageable. For some famillies with multiple children and busy jobs, this simply is not feasible. That is okay. Communicate with the teacher. Do your best. This is really hard.

Tip 4. Find Assistive Technology!

So much reading and writing in a virtual setting can be next to impossible for student’s with dyslexia, as outlined above. Find assistive tech tools that work to help read, spell & write. Reach out to your child’s exceptional education teacher or district assistive techonology expert for tips on what tech is available in your area.

Here are some of my brand new assistive tech favorites for virtual school that my school and district shared with me. They are extensions for the Google Chrome browser that can be used on any computer. You may have others that you like better.

  1. Natural Reader. https://www.naturalreaders.com
  2. Snap and Read. https://snapandread.com
  3. Co:Writer. https://cowriter.com
  4. Grammarly. https://www.grammarly.com

First, open the Google Chrome search engine. (It can be downloaded on to any computer.) Then, in the search bar, search for “Natural Reader Chrome Extension.” It will take you to a page that shows that you can “Add Natural Reader.” Once you click that, go to the small puzzle piece at the top right of your screen. That will show all your extensions. Click the push-pin icon for Natural Reader and an “N” will show upon the tool bar! From there, you can access the read aloud tool. I prepared this video to show how to get the extension and how to use both Snap and Read and Natural Reader. I may do a video in the future on how to use Co:Writer and Grammarly. Stay tuned!

Tip 5. Give and Get Support.

This is HARD y’all. Talk to your child about her stress and your stress. Normalize it for them, but in a solution-oriented way. Say things like “Virtual school is hard for everyone but especially for kids like you with dyslexia. The best thing we can do is to keep communicating with your teachers to help them know what you need. We will figure this out together.” I avoid saying things are untrue like “this will get easier” or “you are going to do great.” I focus on the fact that my child is loved, safe and can talk about their fears and frustrations with me. When I lose my cool, as we all are doing more these days, I come back and do some repair with my child. I say things like “I am sorry I was short with you when I was trying to help with you english essay. This is really stressful and I got angry, but not at you. We all feel angry sometimes. Lets take 10 minutes to get a snack and come back to this, okay? I love you. We can do this!”

Find other parents with struggling learners and talk to them. The best place to find other parents like you is in your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter. Reach out to get tips and help. You can always feel free to reach out to me.

That is a wrap on this blog. Follow me on Twitter at @athorsen16 for more dyslexia related information. Take care.

Note: I have dyslexia and did not take too much time to spellcheck this blog because it is exhausting. I know this is a safe space.


Published by

Anna Thorsen

I am a parent, attorney and advocate. I and my middle school daughter both have dyslexia. During the 2015 legislative session I was a tireless advocate to help pass the much needed Dyslexia Legislation in Tennessee and am proud to participate in the 2016 Bill Signing. I now serve on the Decoding Dyslexia TN Leadership Team and serves on the TN Department of Education’s Dyslexia Advisory Council. I have been a presenter for the past two years at the Tennessee Association for Assistive Technology annual conferences. I also does frequent speaking engagements around Middle Tennessee on the topic of dyslexia. My family's dyslexia story has been featured in several articles, including Mindshift's October 15, 2015 article "Why Recognizing Dyslexia at School Can be Difficult."

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