Preparing for College With Dyslexia
Tools and strategies that, if they're mastered in high school, will help kids with dyslexia succeed in college.
Elizabeth C. Hamblet
When children are diagnosed with dyslexia, our initial focus is to get them effective reading instruction. Later, when they’ve gotten some help with decoding, we begin to think about how they will do when they are older. As parents, we worry: Will they ever be good enough readers to make it through college?
The good news is that even though kids with dyslexia will always have to work harder at reading than other kids, for most of them college will be within reach. By law, students with disabilities are guaranteed the right to appropriate accommodations in college, and there is technology that can be a great help to them.
Here are some of the challenges they may face, and some of the tools and strategies that will help them be successful. It’s important that students learn to use these tools in high school, so that when they are under more pressure in college, they’ll already be comfortable and adept at them.
The transition to college requires all students to adjust to a new environment. In the mostly-unstructured daily life of college students, one of the biggest challenges can be time management. This is because students only have a few hours of class a day and there usually aren’t daily assignments or checks to make sure they are keeping up with their work.
All students can find it hard to discipline themselves to get work done each week when they don’t have any immediate assignment due and the exam is a month away. So many fall behind. But while their typical classmates may need just a few days to catch up with their reading before a test or do the research they need to write a paper, students with dyslexia who have procrastinated may find they can’t get everything done because they read more slowly than their classmates. This is why — though it might not seem like the most obvious challenge — students with dyslexia need to be aware of the need to manage their time very carefully.
As parents you won’t be there to monitor study habits in college, but you can help your child prepare for effective time management while she is still at home. The key is to get her in the habit of completing a weekly grid showing all of her daily commitments and scheduling study times as well as chores. Students using this system for an extended period of time can see whether they have set aside enough time (or too much) for various tasks. Doing this can make them aware of how they use their time and of how much time they actually need for assignments, and it can provide them with a strategy that they can use to structure their time at college.
Students with dyslexia may find college reading material challenging, just as their classmates do. First, the difficulty level of many texts can be a leap from what students are accustomed to in high school — some can be very abstract. Second, the vocabulary may be more sophisticated and unfamiliar.
While in high school teachers might have provided students with a list of vocabulary terms (and their definitions) ahead of time, college professors generally don’t. Additionally, college reading material is often not from textbooks that provide comprehension questions, and professors don’t typically provide these, either. This can make it hard for students with dyslexia to monitor their own comprehension. A commonly used strategy called SQ3R can help with this challenge.
In the Survey phase of SQ3R, students preview the text for unfamiliar words that they should put into a list and look up before they begin reading so that they’ll have the definitions handy. This should make reading less disrupted. They also look over any visuals and the headings and subheadings. This preview gives students a sense of what they’ll read, which can help them “warm up” for what they’ll be learning and may bring to mind other information they know on this topic, which can make learning more efficient.
The Question phase begins while students are doing their preview. They turn any headings into questions that they’ll answer when they’re done with a particular section (e.g., “What is osmosis?”). If they have been provided with comprehension questions, students review them before reading so that they know what to look for as they read.
The first R phase is simply Reading. While they do this, students should be thinking about their questions. The second R phase is Reciting, which simply means that they answer their comprehension questions. If they find they can’t, they need to do targeted re-reading until they find their answers. And the final phase is Review, which means regularly looking over the answers to their comprehension questions so that the information stays “fresh” for exams and requires less intensive studying.
Some readings, such as plays or philosophical essays, may lack structure and not be well-suited to the SQ3R strategy. In these cases, students may find it helpful to search the internet for summaries or use Sparknotes to help them preview what they will read.
While students are in high school, parents can show them how to do this with any reading assignments they get that aren’t in a traditional textbook. Even when a teacher has provided their student with a study guide for a play or even a poem, parents can first have him look online to see if he can find a quick summary to get an overall picture of what he’s about to read. This will help him have a sense of the overall plotline, in the case of a play, or of the author’s meaning and any important symbols, in the case of a poem. Such a “foothold” may serve as a comprehension aid.
Technology can help, too, so students should request technological supports as an accommodation. For their reading challenges, text-to-speech software can be a big help. Many of the software programs allow students to highlight the text on the screen and send these highlights to a document that they can use as a study aid. They may also have built-in dictionaries that allow students to click on unfamiliar words and instantly get a definition. There can be other helpful features, too.
Colleges are not required to provide a copy of such software to students (the law says that they don’t have to provide “personal devices” — and such software is interpreted to fall under that heading). However, many colleges do purchase these programs, though there is a lot of variation across schools in how widely available they are.
At some schools, the software may be loaded onto some computers in the disability services office (meaning that students can only access it during the office’s regular business hours) and on some computers at the library (which tend to be open a lot longer). At other schools, they have a site license that allows them to offer it to students registered with the disability services office for use on their own computer. And at other schools, the programs are available to anyone with a student ID — they don’t have to have a disability to qualify.
Once they have access to the software, students need a PDF copy of their reading assignment, which they load into their computer so that the software can read the text aloud to them. In some classes, professors will assign readings (such as journal articles) that are already PDFs, which makes things easy for students who want to use the text-to-speech software. If professors assign textbooks, publishers sometimes make electronic versions of them that are available only to individuals with disabilities (meaning that they’re not available for purchase to the general public). The disability services office will order these e-versions from the publisher for students so that they can use them with their reading software. In these cases, students still have to pay for a copy of the book (no one gets free texts!).
In situations where a textbook or other kind of reading material is not available as a PDF or e-version, colleges are only obligated to provide students with a way to get their texts into the format they need, but they are not obligated to do the conversion themselves. At some schools, the disability services office will provide a scanner that students can use to convert their textbooks, but students will be responsible for doing the job themselves. At other schools, a member of the disability services staff will do the scanning for students.
Parents should try to make sure that students are fluent in the use of such technology while they are still in high school so that they don’t have to get used to it while they are also adjusting to the increased academic demands at college. Some school districts have embraced technology — they provide students with an assistive technology evaluation (or recommend certain programs themselves) and then teach them to use whatever tools are recommended. Parents whose district doesn’t do this but who want to get their student started can contact their state’s assistive technology center to ask about an evaluation and any possible sources of funding (you can look up your state’s resources here).
Once your child gets access to the software, it’s important that she use it regularly so she will be prepared to work with it independently at college. Keep in mind that no matter how widely available the software is, colleges are not required to provide students with any kind of training in how to use it effectively, though some schools have someone available to help students.
Students with dyslexia often have weak spelling skills. While their high school may have directed teachers not to penalize them for spelling mistakes, colleges may instead offer students the accommodation of a laptop with a spellcheck feature for exams. Students may balk at this, but it is important that parents emphasize to them how the use of such a tool may actually help to present work of the highest possible quality. To demonstrate this point, a study done at the University of Georgia several years ago of students with learning disorders that affect their spelling found that even when the content of their responses was of equal quality, the work that contained spelling and other errors received lower ratings than those of the general population. Parents should get their student accustomed to using a laptop with a spellchecker for high school exams so that he is ready to work this way in college.
Parents also may want to invest in software programs designed to catch the errors of individuals with dyslexia (e.g., Ginger or Ghotit) or word-prediction software (e.g, Co-Writer) or enable the built-in feature of their word processing program that can help them to spell the words they want to use correctly in the first place. These can be very helpful for papers completed outside of the classroom, because even if students are accommodated for spelling on exams (i.e., if they are not penalized for spelling errors) they are unlikely to receive such dispensation for papers completed outside of exam settings.
Getting accustomed to these strategies and tools in high school may seem like a lot of work to students with dyslexia who may be holding their own without them. But it’s important to let them know that the challenges they will face in college are different, and the more prepared they are before they get there, the more confident and comfortable they will be. With preparation and an understanding of what the college environment is like, they should be able to learn effectively and be successful at showing what they know.