Schools

Simulations aim to build empathy for students with dyslexia

Learning to read is a rite of passage for elementary school students, but for children with dyslexia it can pose a unique challenge.

A pair of Los Altos School District parents are working to raise awareness about the learning disability and help teachers build empathy for dyslexic students. Wendy McDowell and Nikki Emens are leading simulations with local teachers aimed at illustrating what school can be like for a dyslexic student.

Over the past several months, the pair have been working with the Los Altos School District to provide the simulation for all of the teachers in the district. For both McDowell and Emens, dyslexia is personal. The learning disability runs in both of their families and each has dyslexic children.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.”

McDowell and Emens are co-leading a local Decoding Dyslexia California support group. Decoding Dyslexia is a grassroots organization of parents working to raise awareness about dyslexia and support parents with dyslexic children.

The simulation the two women are bringing to local schools runs participants through a series of exercises meant to simulate the experience of being dyslexic.

“When we each participated in this simulation ourselves, we realized what a great impact it could be for the staff to experience it, so that’s when we started reaching out to the schools, offering to bring it to the teachers,” Emens said.

One of the exercises deals with reading comprehension. Participants are given a passage with certain letters swapped with each other, forcing them to decode the text. They are given a time limit to read the text and then are quizzed on the content. In another scenario, participants try to transcribe dictated sentences while writing with their nondominant hand.

When Emens and McDowell led a simulation for teachers at Blach Intermediate School back in December, after going through the exercises, Pat Koren told her fellow teachers that her husband is dyslexic, as well as some of her children. Koren said school was always a struggle for them and they often felt unintelligent.

“Anything we can do to help them feel better about themselves and be successful is the biggest thing,” Koren said.

A broader conversation

In recent years, dyslexia has begun to be a bigger part of the conversation in the education community. The California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1369 in 2015, which required the state superintendent of public instruction to develop program guidelines for dyslexia. The guidelines are aimed at assisting educators and parents in identifying, assessing and supporting students with dyslexia.

According to Sandra McGonagle, the Los Altos School District’s assistant superintendent overseeing curriculum and instruction, the district has processes in place to support students in learning to read, including those who may be struggling with dyslexia.

Students are taught to read using explicit phonics instruction, McGonagle said. The district has multiple literacy “intervention” systems for students who aren’t making adequate progress in learning to read. The children work in small groups and use different techniques, including exercises that employ multiple senses, such as drawing letters in sand or shaving cream.

The district also uses a “universal screener” to test all students’ literacy progress in kindergarten and first grade. Next year second-graders will also be screened. The screener includes particular assessments aimed at students with dyslexia, such as being able to list words that rhyme.

McDowell and Emens are passionate about ensuring schools are serving students with dyslexia, and McGonagle said their simulations can help teachers understand how certain classroom exercises might add pressure for dyslexic students.

“It’s a combination of awareness, to understand how dyslexia might present itself in a variety of different ways, … along with some empathy for students who are struggling,” McGonagle said.

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