Dyslexia Treatment:
Reading Programs that Work

Quick Facts About Reading Programs That Work

  • Many reading programs are ineffective for dyslexic students
  • Dyslexic readers require specific kinds of reading instruction
  • The Orton Gillingham approach is the oldest and best researched for teaching dyslexics
  • Explicit, intensive and multisensory methods work best
  • Content should include phonemic awareness, fluency and explicit instruction of spelling rules
  • Assistive technology is opening the door to more efficient and effective methods for teaching reading
  • Software based reading programs hold many advantages over traditional programs but have not been widely adopted yet

How do you Teach a Dyslexic Child to Read?

The research on dyslexia treatment clearly shows that dyslexic kids need special kinds of instruction in terms of both content and method. Below is a summary of what we know works. 

Dyslexia Treatment: Content

According to the prominent dyslexia researcher Dr. Sally Shaywitz, in her book Overcoming Dyslexia, the key ingredients of effective early intervention programs are:

1) Systematic and direct instruction in:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Sounding out words
  • Spelling
  • Reading sight words
  • Vocabulary and concepts
  • Reading comprehension strategies

2) Practice applying these skills in reading and writing: Practice means using them everyday from reading comic strips to writing e-mail.

3) Fluency training: Fluency is the ability to read quickly, smoothly, accurately and with good comprehension. When reading is slow and tough, kids spend all their energy to just sound out the words, often missing the meaning entirely.

4) Enriched language experiences: Interactive dialogue involving listening, speaking and story telling. 

 

Dyslexia Treatment: Method

In terms of a successful method, the Orton Gillingham (OG) approach to reading that was developed in the 1930s by Samuel Torrey Orton and Anna Gillingham is still believed to be the most effective dyslexia treatment. It is based on the following process elements:

Personalized: Teaching begins with recognizing the differing needs of learners.

Multisensory: The simultaneous use of multiple senses including auditory, visual, and kinesthetic (touch).  For example, a dyslexic learner is taught to see the letter A, say its name and sound and write it in the air—all at the same time. The use of multisensory input is thought to enhance memory storage and retrieval. Multisensory approaches can even be used for math.

Does Font Matter?

Much has been written in the  media about special fonts for dyslexia. Discover if fonts can really make a difference in our Dyslexia Font and Style Guide.

Structured, Systematic, Sequential, and Cumulative: Language elements and rules are introduced in a linguistically logical, understandable order. Students go back to the very beginning of their language learning, to lay a proper foundation.

Beginning by reading and writing sounds in isolation (phonemes), then blending sounds into syllables and words. Elements of language—consonants, vowels, digraph blends, and diphthongs are introduced in an orderly fashion. Only later, learners proceed to advanced structural elements such as syllable types, roots, prefixes and suffixes.

Cognitive: Students study the many generalizations and rules that govern the structure of language.

Flexible:  Instructors ensure the learner is not simply recognizing a pattern and applying it without understanding. When confusion of a previously taught rule is discovered, it is re-taught from the beginning.

Personal and Direct: Building a close teacher-student relationship with continuous feedback and positive reinforcement leading to success and self confidence. 

For more information check out the International Dyslexia Association's fact sheet explaining why multisensory teaching using OG principles is best.

Other good approaches

There are other approaches that are not considered OG but offer comparable benefit through somewhat different methods. The Lindamood-Bell learning centers are one of the best examples.

5 Things You Can Do Today!

  • Practice reading a very short story or poem out loud together until mastered, building fluency and confidence - research shows achieving fluency is crucial for becoming a successful reader.
  • Read aloud to your child/student for as little as 15 minutes a day.
  • Introduce audio books and magazines—available free from your local library.
  • Motivate by recognizing good work—often!
  • Read books yourself to model good reading habits.

Where to Begin

With your school

If your child is in a special education program and/or has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), you will be part of the planning for that program. Be sure to attend the meeting where your child's plan is discussed.  Ask if the school is using a reading program that has been shown to work for dyslexic students, one that meets the content and method criteria above. For more detailed information and advice on the IEP process (U.S. perspective), try this site on Special Education

Unfortunately, sadly, and remarkably, most public schools will fail you at this point.  They either don't have the right tools for dyslexia treatment, resource teachers, time or money to provide the kind of support your child may need. I hope your school is an exception.

What are the Actual Reading Programs?

Below is a list of reading programs that incorporate Orton Gillingham or equivalent approaches and which include emphasis on phonemic awareness, fluency, and strategies for spelling and comprehension. Your school and tutor should be using one of them or an equivalent.

Software Based Systems Rising

Change is hard

The education establishment has been slow to warm to the idea that reading instruction should take place on a computer, be self directed and fun. Especially those organizations that make most of their money from training and certifying instructors.

We believe that within ten years computer based reading instruction programs will displace many of the current paper book, flashcard and tile systems listed above.

The migration of reading programs into the digital realm has been strikingly slow.  While you can find countless apps to help with spelling or vocabulary, there are relatively few comprehensive software based reading programs suitable for dyslexic students. But consider the inherent advantages that software has over paper book, flashcard and tile type reading systems:

  • Much lower cost for tutoring (very good for parents on a budget)
  • Easy to incorporate almost all Orton Gillingham elements right into the software itself
  • Immediate and continuous feedback
  • Automatic adjustment of difficulty based on progress
  • Infinite patience and the ability for students to work more independently
  • Effortless and detailed progress tracking built right into the software
  • Dramatically lowers the bar for the amount of training required to deliver a program
  • Develops keyboarding skills and computer literacy 
  • Fun! Software is often game based, making reading fun—exactly what it should be.

Because of these advantages we believe that software based systems are the future of reading instruction for both home and the classroom. In part, this belief has resulted from two impressive software programs we have experimented with at home:

  • Nessy Reading contains interactive, animated lessons that incorporate Orton Gillingham methods and content. Phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary and spelling are taught in a systematic, intensive, multisensory format.

  • Fast Forword (from Scientific Learning) uses animated drills and exercises to develop cognitive skill building including memory, attention, sequencing and phonologic discrimination.


With 100 lessons, Nessy is more comprehensive, more game oriented and sells for a fraction of the cost—$100 for a year license versus over $1400 for four months of Fast Forward. Our Fast Forward representative provided great service (weekly calls to discuss progress), but in terms of value for money, Nessy wins easily and we recommend giving it a try.

Other software reading systems include Wynn, Kurzweil, Lexercise, Mindplay and Academy of Reading, though the first two programs do not explicitly incorporate as many OG oriented elements—in particular phonemic awareness, which are critical for the dyslexic student. Lexercise, Mindplay and Academy of Reading look promising, but seem to follow the Scientific Learning model of high cost with regular in person service support.

The Systems We Currently Use

Our kitchen table set up for a Barton tutoring session

At home we use the Barton Reading and Spelling System, developed by Susan Barton in California which is based on the Orton Gillingham method. And as mentioned above, we are also experimenting with Nessy Reading, a comprehensive computer based program. 

Dyslexia Treatment: What Won't Work??

Any reading program that doesn't incorporate the Orton Gillingham approach and the type of content noted earlier is less likely to work. The programs and interventions listed below may offer benefits to your child, but they will not likely help them make the kind of progress necessary to close the reading gap with their peers.

  • Kumon
  • Sylvan Learning
  • Hooked on Phonics
  • Reading Recovery
  • Accelerated Reader
  • Vision Therapy
  • Brain Gym
  • Special Diets

Don't be afraid to experiment, but stick to proven programs for the core of your interventions

Where can I find a good reading program?

Explore links to local schools and tutoring centers that offer these kinds of dyslexia treatment programs.


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