Effective Intervention for Students with Dyslexia

Suzanne Carreker, Ph.D., CALT-QI

Dyslexia affects an estimated 15-20 percent of the U.S. population. But it is often called “the hidden disability” because impacted students are often competent or even exceptional in areas other than reading. Students with dyslexia can be highly intelligent, highly verbal, exhibit above-average listening comprehension skills or vocabulary, so their reading difficulties tend to be unexpected.

Additionally, many people believe that all individuals with dyslexia see letters or words backward. While some do, this is not a defining trait.

So, what’s an accurate interpretation of dyslexia?  Here’s the definition used by the International Dyslexia Association and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin … characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities,” usually stemming “from a deficit in the phonological component of language.”

Sometimes the root of poor word recognition lies elsewhere (e.g., a student may not have been taught to decode). For this reason, a formal clinical evaluation is required to rule out other possibilities and make a proper diagnosis. However, there are specific behavioral and reading indicators that can alert teachers to the need for assessment and support.


Intervening Effectively

The most effective instructional approach for supporting students with dyslexia is Structured Literacy™ instruction. This approach works because it is designed to be explicit; teachers don’t assume students know a concept or skill or will simply pick it up. Additionally, the structured literacy approach is systematic, with a logical order to the skills and concepts being taught (usually progressing from the simplest to the most complex), cumulative, new learning builds on students’ prior knowledge, and diagnostic, instruction is informed by student data. Also, to increase students’ engagement and memory retention, the instruction is multimodal or multi-sensory, employing a combination of listening, speaking, reading, writing, and moving whenever possible.


Structured literacy instruction consists of the following components:


Phonology (the sound system of language)

Since the root of dyslexia is “a deficit in the phonological component of language,” phonology is a very important component of instructional intervention. Impacted students need to be exposed to phonological awareness and phonemic awareness activities in order to be successful at reading and spelling.


Orthography (the writing system of language)

Students with dyslexia need to learn letter names because it makes it easier for them to associate specific sounds with specific letters. Teachers need to explicitly teach the letter-sound correspondences, which will help their students read one-syllable words. It is also helpful to teach them about syllable division patterns so that they won’t leave out entire syllables in multisyllabic words.


Morphology (meaningful parts of words)

This component is important for two reasons: 1) students will grow their vocabularies as they learn the meaning of prefixes, roots and suffixes and 2) this will make them better able to divide words into manageable chunks so that they can read accurately.


Semantics (meanings of words/relationships among words)

If students have difficulty reading, they’ll have fewer reading experiences and won’t grow their vocabulary. So, we want to continue to work on general vocabulary, domain-specific vocabulary as well as the relationship among and between words (e.g., multiple meanings, synonyms, and connotations).


Syntax (sentence structure)

Students have to understand the functions of words, phrases, and clauses within sentences. They should also understand the connective words that connect those words, phrases, and clauses within a sentence as well as ideas within and across sentences. This understanding will help them with more complex sentence structures and texts.


Pragmatics (interpretation and use of language)

This component ensures that students understand words’ pragmatic meanings versus literal meanings. This is especially important if the student struggles with social skills.

Additionally, educators should place an emphasis on spelling and discourse. Spelling is a great reinforcement for students’ decoding skills, and discourse helps students understand the structures of different genres of texts and the internal structure of spoken and written language (e.g., cause-and-effect, problem/ solution structure, etc.), which will support their reading comprehension.


Self Advocacy and Resources for Students

It is essential to help students know their own strengths, where they need help, and what works best for them so that they can communicate that information to their teachers as they progress through the grades. That way, teachers know how to tailor instruction and help students find resources.

For example, as previously mentioned, many students with dyslexia tend to read less because it’s so hard for them. But that reduced reading experience impedes development of their vocabulary, world knowledge, and understanding of complex syntax. Teachers can access audio texts from no-cost resources like Bookshare.org and Learning Ally.org to help impacted students keep growing in those three areas.

Other resources that can be helpful to students with dyslexia are speech-to-print tools for writing compositions and smart pens for note taking. Students should also feel comfortable asking for extended time when an assignment involves a lot of reading or writing.



No two students with dyslexia will be the same. They will have different patterns of strengths and weaknesses at different levels of severity. Accordingly, the intensity of instruction (number of days designated for intervention, the length of sessions, or group size) should vary according to students’ skill level and rate of progress. The good news is that with appropriate intervention, the vast majority of impacted students will become effective readers.


About the Author

Dr. Suzanne Carreker, CALT-QI, serves as the Principal Educational Content Lead​ at Lexia Learning, a Rosetta Stone company. Dr. Carreker is the 2018 recipient of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Margaret Byrd Rawson Lifetime Achievement Award. For additional information, see this whitepaper by Dr. Carreker.


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