Children are diagnosed with dyslexia when they fall behind their peers in learning to read, usually during their first few years in school. The cause isn’t a lack of intelligence, it’s a failure to develop a particular skill: decoding written language. Some kids with dyslexia figure out ways to compensate for their poor reading skills, and their struggles aren’t recognized until they are older, when the demand for reading and synthesizing a lot of material becomes too difficult for them to work around.

It’s not that children with dyslexia can’t learn to read. It’s that they need a specific type of reading instruction, which may not be the method their school uses to teach reading. Students with dyslexia won’t become proficient readers unless they get the right kind of instruction, and some may need more support than others.

How can you tell if your dyslexic child is getting the instruction they need? To understand the best way for a dyslexic child to learn to read (and, indeed, any child) it’s necessary to look at the way the brain operates in reading.

Reading basics

The development of reading starts with something called phonemic awareness — an awareness of the smallest individual, different sounds that are combined to comprise language. These sounds are called phonemes, and we’re all familiar with dozens of them. For example, the word “run” has three phonemes (three separate sounds), one for each of its three letters.

Before kids can recognize words by sight they need to be able to connect the sounds they hear to the letters they see written down, a process that is called phonics. Over time children start to recognize larger and larger units of sound, until they are recognizing the sounds of whole words, which we call “sight” words.

But skilled teaching can prevent or at least minimize struggles with reading and writing. While this instruction is best done when kids are young, the good news is that these skills can be developed at any age.

What works for kids with dyslexia

How can dyslexic students learn to read? The key, says Dr. Phillips, is systematic phonics instruction. Systematic, she explains, means moving step-by-step through a progression of phonics skills, from the most common and consistent letter-sound patterns to harder and less consistent letter-sound patterns.

Dr. Phillips notes that sometimes the term “systematic” is also used to refer to other kinds of instruction, ones that don’t work for kids with dyslexia. For example, some programs that are called “systematic” are instead based on doing error analysis — looking at mistakes that kids make and basing instruction on that, rather than teaching them through a structured sequence of phonetic skills.

What doesn’t work for kids with dyslexia

Reading approaches called “whole language” or “balanced literacy” are ineffective for children with dyslexia, Dr. Phillips says.

Whole language approaches are based on the idea that kids can best learn to read “naturally” by exposure to written language that is relevant and motivating to them. Confronted with new words, they are taught to look for clues to their meaning in pictures or in the context of the story rather than sounding out the new words. But this makes reading mastery much more difficult, Dr. Phillips explains, by drawing their attention away from what they should be focusing on, which is the letters and the sounds.

“Balanced literacy” is a curriculum that combines five different components of reading instruction — phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. But Dr. Phillips argues that there is not enough phonemic awareness or phonics instruction in balanced literacy for many kids to learn to read proficiently, especially kids with dyslexia. “In those early K-2 years, we really need to be focusing on word identification and then you move on to comprehension,” she says. “Balanced literacy is trying to do it all at once with not enough emphasis on phonemic awareness and phonics.”

Why phonics practice is key

Another key to an effective phonics curriculum is intentional practice. After a phonics pattern is introduced in a lesson, students should be provided reading materials that contain those same phonics patterns, explains Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd, an education specialist at the Child Mind Institute.

“If students are learning that the letters ai together say ‘A,’ they need to practice applying that knowledge by reading isolated words that contain ai and then longer text that incorporates that pattern. Some programs only have students practice by reading or writing a few words,” Musoff explains. “If their regular reading curriculum is more of a whole language, or even a balanced approach, leveled readers are often used for the application portion of the lesson, and those readers don’t necessarily contain the phonics patterns that the students have just been taught.”

When the reading is disconnected from the phonics lesson, kids don’t get the practice they need to really absorb and be able to apply their knowledge, she adds. “So a systematic program, in my opinion, should incorporate that practice so that kids carry the taught lesson over to reading.”

Reading materials that are matched to specific phonic lessons are called decodable texts. Decodable books are books in which at least 98% of the words contain the phonics patterns that kids have been taught so far.

Effective reading approaches are also often described as “multisensory.” Multisensory phonics-based approaches are designed to reinforce learning by hearing words, seeing them, saying them, writing them in a sentence, even incorporating gestures and movements. “It may help kids learn just by increasing time on task,” Musoff notes, “or making the phonics practice a little bit more engaging for students. It may help with memory and consolidation. But there’s no research showing that it improves outcomes above and beyond a phonics-based component.”

What to look for in a reading program

How can parents tell if the reading program in their child’s classroom is phonics-based?

Here are tips from our experts:

  • Look at the words that the child is being asked to learn. If they all are in the same word family or they all sound the same — like cat, sat, bat, mat — it’s phonics-based. If they are just groupings of high-frequency words like of, the, have, that, it’s not a phonics-based program.
  • If there’s a classroom “word wall,” words in a phonics-based program are grouped by sound and letter patterns, rather than listed alphabetically. It may also be called a “sound wall.”
  • Is the child being told to guess? Phonics programs don’t encourage guessing based on the picture or the context. Phonics programs encourage your child to look at the letters and produce their corresponding sounds.
  • In a good phonics program kids are instructed and directed. They’re not expected to learn to read just because they’re exposed to a lot of books. It takes direct, systematic instruction and intentional practice.
  • How much are they practicing? With phonics, there has to be lots of repetition. This might include a child learning to decode the word, write the word, and then use the word in a sentence. It’s repetitive but they’re being asked to do the repetition in multiple ways, which reinforces learning.

What programs are effective for kids with dyslexia?

They recommend that parents check out What Works Clearinghouse, a website that evaluates reading programs for their evidence base and their effectiveness.

If your child’s not getting this kind of instruction in their classroom, a reading specialist or an outside tutor can be effective, as long as they’re using a phonics-based program. When a child is receiving specialized instruction, their progress should be consistently monitored and measured to ensure that they are responding well.

The good news is that not only can children with dyslexia make a great deal of progress, Dr. Phillips notes, but “there’s compelling research showing that the brain regions and the pathways used in reading normalize in students with dyslexia after they’re exposed to systematic phonics-based instruction.”