Teaching Adult Students with Dyslexia: The Why, Who, and How

Written by Bryan McCormick, First Literacy Program Director

teaching adult students with dyslexia first literacy blogIn the United States alone there are 41 million adults with dyslexia. That’s a whopping 20% of the adult population. The real kicker here is that only 2 million adults are aware of their dyslexia. That leaves 39 million adults in the United States who will have difficulty learning and they don’t know why. These fellow humans may live their entire lives thinking they are stupid or lazy and we as educators know that’s not the case. Chances are high that you have an individual struggling with dyslexia in your class right now. If this concerns you, and it should, then read on.

Adult learners lead very busy lives. An adult learners’ priorities often lead with family and work, leaving the dregs of their time to their education. When adult students with dyslexia are using this precious time to learn and can’t because their learning style is not being met, they leave. When they leave, we fail.

Let’s not fail.

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month so let’s take time to look at some skills that adult learners with dyslexia often struggle with and how educators can ensure that these students have the appropriate accommodations and interventions to help them thrive in the classroom.

From the WHY to WHO

For us to succeed as educators we need to be able to differentiate our instruction for all learners. Best practices for teaching adults with dyslexia are often best practices for all your students. To teach your students you must know them and be able to identify signs of dyslexia. Even students that know about their diagnosis may feel too much shame to share this with you. These students will have developed a lifetime of coping mechanisms and ways to mask their struggles, so it can often be more difficult to spot an adult with dyslexia than a child with dyslexia.

Below are some common behavioral and academic signs, from the Davinci Collaborative, that your adult student may be dyslexic.

Behavioral- adult learners with dyslexia….

  • Can avoid drafting their writing and have trouble with sequential tasks
  • May resist working on one skill or project for an extended period
  • Can be easily distracted

Academic– adult learners with dyslexia…

  • Can fatigue easily while reading and have low comprehension
  • May rely on tricks to remember basic math facts
  • Can make an above average amount of spelling mistakes and may rely on others to write on their behalf

From WHO to HOW

Lucky for you, assessment and instructional scaffolding go hand in hand. We’ve looked at why we need to raise up our teaching to support our adults with dyslexia, how to identify adult learners with dyslexia, and now, finally, we are going to look at four scaffolding and teaching strategies to help adult learners with dyslexia thrive.

1. Make sure that all your students can understand what you are asking them to do. Teachers spend a lot of time planning and can often neglect how to communicate complex directions. Doing this well is critical for all your students, especially those with dyslexia. If you are giving verbal only directions, consider a multi-sensory approach.

  • Use visual directions such as a power point to go along with your verbal directions
  • Speak slow and repeat complex steps
  • Make sure students have access to your written directions
  • Check for understanding. Even a quick, “what did you hear me say?” question to your students can be enlightening

2. Create and maintain good classroom routines. When students know what to expect we all win. Not only is this a best practice for all your students but having a strong and predictable classroom routine can help students with dyslexia feel welcome and reduce their anxiety around learning. It can be highly emotional for adult students with dyslexia to be in the classroom. Remember how we talked about how adult students with dyslexia can feel like they are stupid or lazy? Strong classroom routines will help alleviate this anxiety and lead to stronger learning outcomes.

3. Have scaffolds designed for your adult students with dyslexia available to all your students. Adult students with dyslexia can feel acute shame in the classroom so it’s important to encourage them to take advantage of extra support. For instance, try pre-teaching high level vocabulary and encourage all your students to access scaffolds and instructional aides (i.e. sentence starters, graphic organizers) and use them in your instruction as examples when teaching.

4. Support and showcase the strengths of all your students, especially your adult students with dyslexia. Give students with dyslexia a chance to succeed and show their mastery for all the world to see, or perhaps just your class. Adult students with dyslexia may have spent their learning career feeling deep shame. Help them change the narrative by encouraging them to showcase their strengths. Some strengths of these adult students and their success opportunities may be:

  • Creativity: Showcase their creative writing. Share their their story arcs or outlines with the class.
  • Problem solving: Help them show their work and thinking in math. Their thought process could be an example of how to use multiple approaches to solve a problem.
  • Empathy: Introduce your adult student with dyslexia to complex characters and have them share their character analysis with the class.
  • Meta thinking: Help your adult students with dyslexia showcase their higher-level planning skills.
  • Narrating skills: Support your students narrative writing with strong academic scaffolds such as mentor texts, graphic organizers, and rubrics. Then showcase your students’ narrative writing successes!

We’ve discussed the why, who and how of meeting the needs of your adult students with dyslexia. If you are feeling stressed about changes you feel you need to make in your instruction, take a deep breath and remember, much of what you can do to meet the needs of your adult students with dyslexia are best practices for every student that walks through your door.

You also may need help.

Teachers often feel alone and place 100% of the responsibility on themselves. This is not fair and doesn’t serve our students. If you are struggling with how to reach one of your adult learners with dyslexia, ask for help. Even if your school does not have the luxury of having a full-time special needs teacher, and most don’t, advocate and make the needs of your classroom the needs of your administrator.

To learn more about dyslexia and how to support adult learners with dyslexia visit our Resources for Educators Page and search for Dyslexia and the Adult Learner.


Authors Note:

I am inspired to learn and write about dyslexia by my sister, Lyzz McCormick. Lyzz is one of my heroes and she is an adult with dyslexia. Her story is nearly a cautionary tale.

She bounced around to different schools as an elementary and middle school student. Her dyslexia went undiagnosed and she, like many learners with dyslexia, fell far behind and developed moderately arcane compensatory strategies to develop what skills and knowledge she could.

In tenth grade her special education teacher was having a bad day and was trying to figure out how to teach my sister a math concept. My sister struggled because her teacher didn’t adjust her practice and didn’t do the work to figure out what her learning disability was. After the lesson she plainly told my sister to start looking for a husband and not set her sights on college.

After much targeted advocacy and push back from her school she was diagnosed with dyslexia and her Individualized Education Program (IEP) was adjusted. Since that day my sister has put herself through undergraduate and graduate school with honors and is working every day to help young people be their best selves as a certified and highly regarded school social worker.

October 20, 2022

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