How to choose an online school for a dyslexic student

computer on a desk with Lexercise on the screen

What Should I look for when selecting an online school for my child?

As we move toward the school year, not certain if or for how long school buildings will be open, many parents of students with dyslexia are asking themselves – and Lexercise! – how do we choose an online school or curriculum for our dyslexic child?

Online learning has been around for a while, getting both easier and more sophisticated all the time. In fact, the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) posted their “Parent’s Guide to Online Virtual Schools” in 2014!  But many families have had an opportunity to experience online learning for the first time in the last several months.  More and more parents are asking how they can evaluate virtual schools and virtual schooling. 

We suggest that parents “interview” schools and ask for specific information on the following essential elements of online learning for dyslexic students: 

1. A structured literacy approach

Structured literacy (Orton-Gillingham) is the gold standard in teaching students to read, spell and write. It is not only the most effective method for students who are struggling with reading words and spelling them, but it is also the most effective method for teaching the foundations of literacy to all students. In fact, students with dyslexia may not become proficient readers and writers unless they are taught using a structured literacy approach. A structured literacy approach requires three elements:

  • A structured literacy curriculum

    – A structured literacy curriculum thoroughly covers the concepts related to decoding and spelling words with the goal that the student will read and spell even the most complex words automatically and without excessive struggle. In addition, the word study includes vocabulary and usage. Reading, spelling, and writing are practiced in increasingly challenging text reading and writing assignments. (See this IDA structured literacy infographic.)

  • A qualified structured literacy teacher

    – To be an effective instructor for the dyslexic learner, a teacher/therapist needs special training. The IDA accredits professional development programs that meet IDA Knowledge & Practice Standards. Professional development programs that have earned IDA’s Accreditation-PLUS prepare professionals to work one-on-one with students who have complex language processing difficulties.

  • Adequate structured, daily practice

    – A system of structured, daily practice, available online, is critical to the student’s success and advancement. It allows the student to make measurable progress, offers immediate error correction, and provides the parent and teacher with data about the student’s mastery of specific skills.

2. Access to accommodations and technologies

The dyslexic child may need a variety of accommodations, such as extended time to complete assignments and tests. Parents should consider their child’s unique needs in exploring this subject with potential online schools. For example, a child who has reading and spelling challenges can benefit from the support of audio services that provide reading assignments and tests in audio mode for “ear reading.” For writing assignments, a dyslexic student may benefit from technologies such as speech-to-text and spell- and grammar-checkers that work on the level of the sentence (to flag misspellings such as “there” versus “their”). School-wide use of organizational software, such as planning organizers and a calendar system for assignments can be valuable. 

3. Content subjects 

For content subjects such as mathematics, science, history, literature, and art, ask to see the curricula and review the content. Each curriculum should specify what the student will know and be able to do after completing each unit and at the end of the course. Skills and strategies should be related to mastering specific content as opposed to vague objectives, disconnected from content. (For example:  “The student will summarize the causes of the American Civil War” as opposed to “The student will summarize passages.”)

Ask about how students are placed in the curricula. Is there flexibility for placement at a different level if a child has already mastered the material at a particular grade level or if they need to step back a level in one subject? Or will they be placed at a certain grade level regardless of what they have or haven’t already mastered. 

4. School culture

“School culture” may be a little more abstract than the measurable program elements above, but it may be vitally important for a child’s success. The Harvard Graduate School of Education article “What Makes a Good School Culture?” explains the concept. Parents seeking a supportive environment for their child’s learning should explore the school’s stated policies and goals as well as the school’s reputation and achievements. Does the school really do what it says it will do? Do the school’s values align with family’s values and priorities? How do the school’s virtual classes provide children with the opportunity to discuss their questions and opinions about topics in various subject areas? Does the school teach students a process for investigating questions, engaging in discussion, and encouraging them to respect diverse thoughts and opinions?

5. A learning coach  

IDA’s guide emphasizes the role of the learning coach (LC). Typically a parent, the LC “is an integral partner in the education process. Students look to them to administer lessons and provide immediate corrective feedback on their performance toward the lesson objectives.” In our recent “Closing the Gap” post, we noted that the reading skills of some Lexercise students have actually improved faster since school has been canceled – a success we attribute in part to the consistent involvement of that involved adult/learning coach, who may be a parent, tutor, therapist or teacher. (There is a qualified Lexercise therapist assigned to every Lexercise student.) Parents should ask whether the school assigns a learning coach for their child and whether, how, and how much the parents are expected to participate in the lessons. 

Questions about equipment, hours, communication between parents and teachers, written reports, and IEPs should also be part of the conversation with the online school. When it comes to the education of your child, there are no stupid questions. Parents should look for IDA accreditation on the program’s website and ask for detailed information until they are satisfied with the answers.

And of course, if you have questions or concerns about how your child’s reading, spelling or writing may be impacting your child’s learning, Lexercise is here to help with our online dyslexia therapy.

Flipping Virtual Structured Literacy Intervention

Teachers have been using Lexercise for Schools to provide online lessons for their struggling readers during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these teachers have been offering us valuable feedback and telling us what they need in order to reach more students. These conversations have led to some exciting changes in the teacher dashboard and the flexibility with which teachers can use the Lexercise for Schools platform. 

In the pre-pandemic days, teachers started with a 45-minute lesson. Online student practice followed each lesson. But teachers told us that some students couldn’t be there for the lesson; some had school scheduling difficulties or – especially since the pandemic has closed schools – due to internet connectivity issues. Practice, on the other hand, has been less of a barrier because it can be done at any time or, in a pinch, using a cell phone, connecting with cellular towers rather than cable or fiber internet.

With this valuable feedback in mind, we have re-designed the Lexercise for Schools teacher dashboard. Instead of a lesson-first protocol, the changes make it easy for a teacher to begin with a few days of student practice using Lexercise games. The Lexercise interface reports each student’s accuracy so, after a few days, the teacher can see who is mastering the decoding and spelling patterns and who isn’t. The teacher can get a detailed report on every student’s practice to see exactly which words and which concepts are causing difficulty. Then the teacher can schedule an individual or group  lesson and/or short concept-focused instruction to explain and provide guided practice with the concept(s).

Illustration: Accuracy report showing a student’s practice-game results

We have actually anticipated this model for some time. Over the last few years, our data have indicated that most struggling students can master decoding and spelling concepts with just the implicit and explicit instruction provided by the practice games platform.

Starting with a little practice instead of with a face-to-face lesson is  a “flipped classroom” model.  Direct instruction is provided after, not before, initial engagement and practice. Over the past decade,  research has indicated that a flipped classroom model can be very effective, especially with regard to improving student motivation. (See, for example,  Brame, 2013.)

Every day, we see teachers responding to the unanticipated demands of becoming instant online teaching experts. We are extremely grateful for the work they are doing, and for the time they have taken to offer feedback on the Lexercise platform. We are excited and pleased to be able to roll out this change quickly in response to their observations and suggestions.

 

Reference:
Brame, C., (2013). Flipping the classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/.

Tips for Online Instruction

parent and child with online therapistWith schools closing and lives disrupted nationwide, Lexercise is getting urgent calls for help from teachers who are suddenly required to teach lessons online. For many of these teachers, it is their first foray into online teaching. But, interestingly, the most frequent question is, “How can I keep students engaged in online sessions?”

As you know, for many years Lexercise has been refining our methods for capturing and holding the attention of young learners. With that experience in mind, we offer here an overview of online basics.

Utilizing Technology to Keep Students Engaged


Both the teacher and the student(s) need:

  • An internet-connected device, such as a computer, laptop, or tablet; smartphone screens are too small to be workable
  • Internet speed that permits multiple video feeds without stalling 
  • An updated browser
  • A video camera, microphone, and speakers (built into all modern devices) 
  • Headsets with microphones are helpful for both teachers and students, but young students joined by a parent will use the computer’s built-in microphone and speaker since both need to hear the audio feed.
  • A web-conferencing platform that is: secure (e.g., NOT Skype or FaceTime; most Lexercise therapists use Zoom); easy, intuitive, and not glitchy; complete with tools that help keep students engaged (e.g., a way to write on the screen using on-screen annotation tools)

 

Task Mastery

Teachers need to master a number of tasks and troubleshooting measures that will arise in almost every session. Most of these are not technologically complex, but you don’t want to be figuring them out on the first day of class. We suggest that two or three teachers (friends and family members will work, too) simulate an online class and work through these steps a few times to make sure the actions are seamless. (Platforms such as Zoom provide very worthwhile training materials and webinars.) The most common tasks are:

  • Send a web-conference invitation to participants
  • Get participants logged in to the web conference and help them adjust their speaker(s), microphone(s) and camera(s)
  • Solve common web-conferencing and connectivity difficulties (e.g., microphone echo, slow internet speed, error messages, browser issues)
  • Locate features in the web-conferencing interface, share and unshare their screen, switch to and from the desktop and the video feed, open a new tab 
  • Know how to prevent displaying private or personal information to participants

 

Safe & Effective Online Teaching

Online teaching is not just web conferencing! The technology and the web-conferencing platform get you in the same “room” as the student(s). Beyond that, you need to think about what and how you will teach, using research-backed protocols and procedures that are adapted specifically for online teaching. These must be practices that are safe and effective. 


Safety

  • In most cases, a responsible adult, such as a parent, needs to be on-site with the student(s). (Suppose your student decides to climb out the window during your web conference. If there is no adult present, there is nothing you can do!) Since an adult must be in the room it can be a teaching opportunity, but that does require using guidelines for where the adult will be seated and what they will (and won’t) do.
  • There are complex federal and state laws that apply, such as COPPA and FERPA, so use a platform and procedures with a Terms of Service that provides for that.


Administrative Procedures and Tools

  • Beyond the safety and legal aspects, the platform needs to provide for the flow of the entire session, including selecting teaching objectives, session planning, teaching materials, session notes, and all necessary, related administrative tools.
  • The platform needs to provide a secure way to send and receive messages from students and parents. This must be internal to the platform.
  • The platform needs to provide a way to connect with its user community to share information, ask questions, and improve teaching practices.


Setting Up Content

  • There should be a curriculum, not just a collection of apps, games, or disconnected activities. A curriculum is a set of measurable, sequential goals, objectives, methods, and resources that allows a teacher and students to work together toward mastery of a set of skills and a body of knowledge. As Natalie Wexler points out in her recent book, The Knowledge Gap, a curriculum is essential. It can be skills-focused or knowledge-focused and students need both. While a discussion of how to select a curriculum is beyond the scope of this article, we should acknowledge that the selection and use of research-backed curriculum is a necessary component for effective teaching. 
  • Teaching materials need to be designed for online teaching, not paper-based materials designed for use in a physical facility.
  • It is a copyright violation to display copyrighted material in a web-conference (even if you own them). So, if the platform does not include curricular materials, the teacher will have to write their own curriculum from scratch and create copyright-free learning objects and materials to go with it – pretty daunting.
  • Most paper-based materials are not optimized for teletherapy so they may be difficult to see and/or interact within the online class.
  • Since attention is an absolute prerequisite for learning, the teacher needs to know how to keep the student(s) active and participating. The screen can be an attention magnet, but without best practices, it can be a distraction. If an image is too complex or too text-heavy the student will not know what to look at; their attention will flag and time will be wasted. 
  • Even the most well-trained practitioner needs a lesson script or reminder notes to help them pace the lesson and stay on track.
  • And, of course, there needs to be a structured plan for how the student(s) will get practice between lessons and a way to track practice completion and accuracy. The power of a little daily practice is now consensus science, and we know that neural circuits lose their optimization over days without structured practice. 


Best Practices for Online Instruction

  • Learning objectives need to drive the teaching methods, not vice versa. Teachers should select resources and apps based on their teaching and learning objectives.
  • Engagement is essential! Learning is social. Conversation is required and needs to be an intentional part of the curriculum.
  • Screen time needs to be balanced with off-screen activities.


The Lexercise online platform includes the
Lexercise Structured Literacy Curriculum©, a speech-to-print curriculum with lessons that start with phonemic awareness and include explicit, direct instruction in letter-sound associations, word reading, spelling, word parts (morphology), vocabulary, sentences, reading comprehension, and writing. There is an interface for daily practice that is coordinated with the objectives the teacher selected for the lesson. It is adjustable, based on the age and needs of the student, and has been used with students from kindergarten to adults. Like all structured literacy methods, this curriculum is most appropriate for use with students whose listening comprehension is stronger than their decoding/spelling skills. For students with weaker listening comprehension and relatively stronger decoding/spelling we recommend the Lexercise Mind’s Eye Curriculum©, which is available only for use by Lexercise Therapists in Professional Therapy subscriptions.

If you are a teacher looking to meet the needs of your struggling readers, you might want to look into our Lexercise for Schools program.

Here at Lexercise, we believe in teachers and we know they can meet the challenge. We welcome your questions and wish you the best during this unusual time.