How to Teach a Child with Dyspraxia to Read
by Sarah Forrest | 15 August 2018
What is dyspraxia?
Dyspraxia is a neurological condition that affects motor movement, sensory moderation, and coordination of tasks. Though not directly labelled a “learning difficulty”, it has challenging implications for the classroom setting.
Research into dyspraxia is relatively weak, as the Brain Foundation demonstrates in their listing of latest academic publications. No single neurological deficit has been pinpointed, though underdeveloped neuron signalling seems to be an issue.
Though signs of dyspraxia almost always appear before school age, many children are diagnosed after entering formal education. And so many parents often are led to equate dyspraxia with an inability to learn how to read or spell. The cycle of academic plateau or failure can feel hugely heavy for both parent and learner, when faced with a lifelong dyspraxia diagnosis.
There is hope for every dyspraxic child to learn to read, with the right support. We will explore the best avenues of intervention in a few moments.
Early signs of dyspraxia, as explained by Understood’s Erica Patino, include:
- Delayed achievement of development milestones as a baby/toddler
- Being slow to potty train
- Difficulty in learning to ride a bike, and similar balance-related skills
- Great difficulty in hand-eye coordination tasks (tying shoes, brushing teeth, doing buttons or zippers, playing catch, letter formation)
- General clumsiness
- Speech delay
- Difficulty with personal organizational skills, and following multi-step processes or instructions.
What isn’t dyspraxia?
Dyspraxia is NOT a death sentence when it comes to learning to read and spell. Though many dyspraxic children struggle to keep apace with their peers, literacy breakthrough is achievable. The physical act of handwriting may remain a challenge, but reading and spelling is within reach for these children.
Dyspraxia is also NOT an indicator of overall intelligence. Dyspraxic children are just as inquisitive and intelligent as their peers. The classroom, however, is not always the ideal environment to showcase that intelligence, due to the instructional reliance on things like writing, speaking to relay information, and general organization.
How does dyspraxia affect reading development?
There are a few primary ways that dyspraxia can affect reading specifically.
The first is eye-tracking weakness. Your eyes have to work together to move along a line of text. This movement, called a saccade, is an incredibly fine-tuned motor activity. It is exactly the kind of motor coordination task that children with dyspraxia find difficult. You will see things like skipping of words or lines, the child constantly losing their place, trouble copying things down from the board, and possibly complaints of fatigue (or eye-rubbing) when reading.
The second is speech delay and corresponding phonological processing issues. Speech issues will show up well before school age in most children. Speech therapy can usually fix these problems, though catch-up might be a bit slow. The problem is that speech is inextricably linked with sound processing. And any phonological (sound) issues mean that learning to decode becomes very challenging. Trainertext visual phonics (TVP) can help with that.
The third is related to planning and sequencing problems. Executive function is one of the brain’s most important tasks. “Planning” isn’t just about what to bring on a trip to the beach! Our brains have to organize even the smallest of tasks that require sequencing, like arranging things on a desk to start the school day. Organizing your thoughts to answer a question with the right order of ideas is another higher order “planning” task that is difficult for many dyspraxic individuals.
Reading requires quite a bit of sequencing in the early days of literacy. You have to match each letter to its sound, then link those sounds together to blend the word, then hold each word’s meaning to form a comprehensive sentence… the list snowballs. It bears a significant mental load even for a non-dyspraxic learner!
How can you help a dyspraxic child learn to read?
Occupational or physical therapies address the global developmental coordination issues that negatively impact classroom learning. OT Kelly Beins describes how therapies can help dyspraxic children both at home and in school.
If speech delay is an issue in early years, speech therapists can work wonders in improving verbal dyspraxia and articulation! Improving speech in toddlerhood will definitely have a positive impact on literacy development once formal education begins. Speech therapy is usually organized through early intervention programs or through preschool/school.
Another avenue that can directly improve educational skills is developmental or behavioural optometry. Specialized optometrists can address some of the functional visual issues like weak tracking, poor convergence, or impaired binocular vision. You can find a qualified doctor at covd.org, or babo.co.uk in the United Kingdom.
Easyread’s visual phonics system incorporates eye-tracking exercises, and uses visual cues through TVP to reduce the mental sequencing load required to decode, blend, and comprehend. Easyread learners with dyspraxia often find that the Trainertext phonics element is crucial to overcoming years of struggling with traditional phonics.
Success stories to inspire and encourage
Case Study: Autism, dyspraxia, visual issues – Isaac learns to read after years of being trapped in a cycle of failure.
Benjamin suffered from verbal dyspraxia…Benjamin gained 2 years in reading age after 1 year of Easyread lessons, and more than 2 years in spelling age!
Sarah Forrest is an Advisor for David Morgan Education, and contributor at Helping Children to Read. After studying Spanish literature at Yale University, she worked at Easyread HQ in Oxford, England for 4 years. She now lives in the sunny south of the United States with her two children, where she loves coaching parent and children through pictophonics.