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Reading Exercises for Dyslexics

by Anthony Owens, studioD

Imagine that because you have dyslexia, you routinely confuse the short-a sound in "sat" with the short-e sound in "met" and the sound of b with the sound of p. "The best pet in the world is a cat" might then read "The past bat in the world is a cet." The problem isn't lack of understanding but that the part of the brain that links English letters and words with their sounds while reading--even silently--isn't working perfectly. Fortunately, various phonics and reading fluency exercises can help.

Definition of Dyslexia

In an article published in the November 1996 issue of "Scientific American," expert Dr. Sally Shaywitz defines dyslexia as impairment in the ability of the brain to decode letters and printed words back into the individual sounds--or phonemes--they represent. Because people with dyslexia struggle to automatically and accurately decode text, they have a hard time focusing on meaning.

Word Sorting

In the 2011 book "Words Their Way…," Donald Bear and coauthors endorse word sorts for phonics instruction. Readers use words they know to help them identify new words that are similar in spelling and sound. The known or taught words "cap, den, bin, bob" and "cub," for example, could act as labels for columns--or cans or boxes--into which to sort other words with the same short-vowel endings. For example, the words "map" and "sap" would go under "cap," and the words "tub" and "pub" would go under "cub." Sorts can be based on sound, spelling or meaning, and it's good to target problem phonemes and spelling features and to mix it up. Follow up with a fluency building exercise--such as reading aloud with another fluent reader or repeat reading--to promote accurate, quick and expressive reading of actual texts. Use texts or rhymed poetry rich with the target phoneme(s) for practice.

Word Building

In her 2006 book "Making Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Whys," phonics pioneer Isabel Beck teaches that reading lists of related words first in isolation and then in context helps readers--including dyslexics--improve decoding skills. Practice reading lists of words that have target phonemes in common and minimal spelling differences--words such as "turn, word, fir, thirst, hurl" and "bird"--quickly and accurately. In this example readers learn to connect the phoneme "ir" with the various ways that it's spelled in many different English words. Readers can also switch letters with other letters. For example, replacing the t- in "turn" with ch- creates the related word "churn." Again, follow up by reading texts rich in the target phonemes to develop fluency.

Nonsense Words

In the 2006 "National Reading Panel Report," Timothy Shanahan explains how and why nonsense (made-up) words can help readers develop decoding skills. (See Reference 4, Page 44) Nonsense words force dyslexics to use their phonics skills versus memory to sound out words. Because the words are new and unfamiliar, the only way to decode them is to apply learning of letter-sound links. The nonsense word "chernd," for example, requires readers to string together four phonemes: ch-, -er-, -n- and -d. More advanced readers can create and read multisyllabic nonsense words--such as "chernabilicious." In this example readers must decode the consonant digraph ch-, the r-controlled vowel -er-, and the common ending -cious. As always, follow up by reading real texts rich in the target phonemes to build fluency.

About the Author

Anthony Owens taught language arts at secondary institutions from 1999 to 2004 and has been teaching writing and literature at post-secondary institutions since 2010. He holds a Master of Education in instruction and learning from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Fine Arts in literature and creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont.

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