Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement


Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.

Mindful Teaching of Reading and Spelling:  Four Facts and One Educated Opinion

January 12, 2017 by Mir Ali

Guest blog by Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D., Dyslexia Training Institute You know what’s really hard? It’s really hard when you meet someone (or in my case more than one person) who shows you that what you thought you knew about English isn’t correct. While it is destabilizing to have what you thought you knew debunked in a matter of minutes, lifelong learners know that it is a golden opportunity to learn even more and most of us are very excited and motivated by the destabilization. What I learned one day in Chicago was that I really didn’t understand the English writing system. Sure, what I was using with my students worked, to an extent, but I was misrepresenting to them how their own language is structured. What was even more concerning to me was that linguists have known the following facts about the English language for decades and somehow education professionals (myself included) seemed to forget to ask a linguist about language. Seems like a glaring omission now. What you choose to use with your students it totally up to you and should be in response to the individual needs of the student, but before you teach your next class or session, consider and ruminate about these four facts about English that every single teacher should know:  

Fast Fact #1 – The English writing system is not based on syllables.

The English writing system is morphophonemic. This means that it is difficult to know how to pronounce a word until we consider how the morphemes interact with each other. For example, in the free base the <s> is pronounced [z]. When we add the suffix <-ure> the phonology of <s> shifts to [ʒ] and <ea> shifts from [i] to [ɛ]. With this understanding we can take the load off of the common weakness of memory and processing speed and transfer it to verbal and problem solving strengths. I mean, if I had a dime for every struggling reader and speller that was a great Lego builder…English is just like Legos, find the elements (morphemes) that fit together and build something beautiful. With the base you can build please, pleasant, pleasantly, displeasure, pleasing and on and on. graphic breaking down please  

Fast Fact #2 – Spoken English is a stress-timed language.

This is one of the reasons we cannot reliably ask students to "sound out" words, as a first step, when spelling or reading. English speakers often either reduce spoken vowels to schwas or elide the vowel completely.  Say this sentence in a normal conversational rhythm: Our president was part of the family. Then write that sentence exactly as you hear it (there are no right answers, we all articulate things differently), you might come up with something like this: R presidint wuz prt ov the famly.  Now say this same sentence while pronouncing very clearly each and every syllable. This second rendition is almost incomprehensible to native English speakers. So, now take a look at some spelling mistakes and see if a mistaken phonology-first strategy can explain a few of the spelling errors. When we remind students to think about what the words mean as they write them, we see more mindful spelling; not perfect spelling, but mindful.  

Fast Fact #3 – Spelling is not phonetic, period.

If we are going to toss around linguistic terms while we are teaching reading and spelling, we really should make the effort to use the terminology correctly, right? Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies the minimal segments (phones) of speech. A phoneme, on the other hand, is a psychological construct, an “alphabet-induced concept” (Coulmas, 1999), and “…a mental entry related to various allophones [phones] by phonological rules…”(OSU, 2016). The phone is the smallest unit of physical pronunciation and the phoneme is the smallest unit of distinctive, mental categories of pronunciation. Phonemes are spelled in an orthography, not phones. That is a critical distinction, especially when we are using pedagogical "phonemic awareness" tools to identify students at risk for dyslexia. If a student identifies four ‘sounds’ in the word and we count it wrong, that is our mistake. The student's answer actually reveals an impressive "awareness" of the number of "sounds" in that word, which is exactly what she has been told to do. She is identifying that there are four phones [flaɪ] in the word , but not that there are only three phonemes. Of course the teacher or proctor knows there are only three phonemes, because they already know how the word is written, and/or because they themselves have been miseducated about what is actually a phoneme, and what a phoneme actually is. Phonemes and the graphemes that spell them also do not have a 1:1 correspondence in English (or in most written languages), which is why using nonsense words is problematic, because that is not how the language works. If I ask you how to pronounce the word what is the right answer? Well, there is no way to know without knowing what it means. It could be [kɑm] or [ʧɑm] or [ʃɑm] because the pronunciation of is entirely dependent on its etymology. For example, chef (French), chorus (Greek) and chip (Old English). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  

Fast Fact #4 – Drum roll please…contrary to very popular belief the troublesome <-tion> is only troublesome because it is not a suffix.

It just isn’t! How many of us have seen the word spelled *. Imagine the relief of the student when take the pressure off the memory and the sounding out when we ask what means and what the suffix <-ion> spells, it spells a noun. It changes a verb to a noun. It contributes meaning. Then ask what the meaningful parts are in that word ( and ). Look for related words (, , ). Now they are ready, with mindfulness of how their language really works, to either spell or read the word. The belongs to the base or stem – always.  

Opinion #1 –   Everything you ever wanted to know about what your student understands about the English language is in their writing.

We can give other assessments until the cows come home and none of them will give us more information. Don’t ignore spelling and when you do decide to teach it, make the effort to understand it. Understanding spelling better leads to better reading. This article is a good start. Recently, I was lucky enough to co-facilitate a self-advocacy workshop with K-12 students, ranging in age from 8-20 years old. Their dyslexia varied from mild to severe. Their school experiences varied from horrific to a perfect fit. I asked them to raise their hand if they were poor spellers, every hand went up. I asked them to raise their hand if they wished they were better spellers and it they were still interested in learning how to spell, every single hand went up. When people say spelling isn’t important, it is usually someone who can already spell well making that judgment call for someone else. But if we are going to teach it, and expect ou students to understand it, we have to use the terminology mindfully: Look to the linguists, because the researchers and curriculum developers are operating from a flawed understanding of the English writing system and it’s time to correct that – that is fact #5. If you know better you should do better. Now you know better. Dr Kelli HeadshotAbout the Author: Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D. is an author and co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute. She received her doctorate in literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. She is also completing her TESOL certification. Dr. Kelli is a certified special education advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. She has training in mediation and also serves as an expert witness in the area of dyslexia. Dr. Kelli is trained in Structured Word Inquiry, the Orton-Gillingham approach, Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Read Naturally. Dr. Kelli is a Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. She is a dyslexia consultant working with schools to improve services offered to students with dyslexia and training teachers. She co-created and produced “Dyslexia for a Day: A Simulation of Dyslexia,” and she is a frequent speaker at conferences. She is the author of the well-received book, Dyslexia Advocate! How to Advocate for a Child with Dyslexia within the Public Education System.
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Learning Ally 30-Second PSA

January 5, 2017 by Doug Sprei (LAE)

Note to producers and program directors: this PSA is available in MP3 and WAV format.  Contact Doug Sprei at (609) 243-5865. [audio mp3="/Portals/6/Images/blog/uploads/2017/01/Learning-Ally-PSA-iHeart.mp3"][/audio]  


For a lot of kids at school, reading a printed textbook or novel is easy. But for millions of students like me, reading is really hard, and we struggle to keep up with our friends in the classroom. Why? Because we're dyslexic -- we're really smart, but our brains just work differently when we try to read. With your help, Learning Ally can change that.  It's a national nonprofit that’s helped millions of kids like me succeed -- and it even helps our parents and teachers too! Want to give the gift of reading to kids who need it most?  Visit Learning Ally dot O-R-G slash Get Involved to donate or volunteer. Read More about Learning Ally 30-Second PSA

How a Chance Summer Dyslexia Training Changed a Teacher's Life
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December 12, 2016 by Mir Ali

Guest Blog by Carol Stather, Slingerland Teacher and Learning Ally's December 2016 Tutor of the Month CarolBecoming a teacher was my goal since the fourth grade! After graduating from San Jose State University, I began substitute teaching. While searching for my first full-time position, I learned there would be a couple of jobs openings coming up which required a summer training course. That training, which I took, happened to be the Slingerland teacher training, an Orton-Gillingham approach. Afterwards, I was hired to teach at Eliot School, a magnet school where all the teachers were Slingerland-trained and the students were screened for Specific Language Disability (aka “dyslexia”). I didn't realized at the time that it was highly unusual for this approach to be used in the public school system.
I am so thankful to have had that experience. There are too many students out there whose parents and teachers may not recognize the telltale signs of dyslexia.
I have come to feel that the “happy accident” of falling into this line of work was perhaps not such an accident, after all! Perhaps it was the path I was destined to follow! I strive to be my students' cheerleader, to let them know that they are talented, gifted, and so intelligent in so many ways, and that they have definite gifts to share with the world! I remind them that we ALL have strengths and weaknesses, and while we need to work on improving our weaker areas, we need to also work to develop and celebrate our unique talents and strengths.

Advice for Parents

Parents should trust their gut instincts about their child's reading ability, as they know their own child better than anyone. As we know, educators (as well as the general public) have varying levels of knowledge and understanding about dyslexia. If the parent is being told that the child will “outgrow” the learning difficulties, or “it's a developmental thing”, the parent should follow his/her instincts and seek further information. TutoringWhile students can be remediated even when older, early intervention is best. Make sure the child is receiving the appropriate instruction, which should be the Orton-Gillingham approach, or one of its derivatives, as these approaches are systematic, structured, sequential multi-sensory teaching approaches. Learning Ally is a great resource for parents and students! It's so helpful for students to be able to get their books on audio for “ear reading." I like to inform parents about the events put on by Learning Ally for parents and students, including the wonderful YES! Ambassadors' presentations, where students with dyslexia share with other students strategies and technologies that have been helpful to them.
It's awesome to see these students lead other students in taking ownership of their dyslexia, identifying their own strengths and weaknesses, while also sharing this helpful information with their classroom teachers and other school educators.
It is so vitally important for our children with dyslexia, who have so many talents to share with our world, to be taught in the way the learn. Let's help them grow into the spectacular, creative and inventive people they were born to be! Learning Ally LogoIf you would like more information on Learning Ally for your child or school, visit LearningAlly.org. As a national non-profit, many of our services are either fully paid for or supplemented by donations from our supporters. Read More about How a Chance Summer Dyslexia Training Changed a Teacher's Life

Tips for Selecting a College that Will Work For You As a Blind/Visually Impaired Student
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December 12, 2016 by Mir Ali

Blog by Megan Dausch, College Success Mentor Photo of MeganLike so many students, I can still feel the ball of fear that crept into my stomach when I had to make the final decision about which college to attend. How would I choose the college which was right for me? What if I discovered, too late, that I had made the wrong choice? Many of these fears are the same ones all first-time college students face, however they were perhaps even more compounded for me because I am also blind. What really helped me determine a good fit was breaking my college search down into a process. These are the steps that helped me narrow down my choices and ultimately led me to choosing a college that matched my needs and desires. While everyone’s process for choosing a college is different, I hope that some of these tips will help you during this exciting, but often daunting, journey

Explore, explore, explore

One of the most helpful meetings I had before deciding on a college was a meeting with my high school guidance counselor. This meeting took place during my junior year of high school. There are countless colleges out there, and I really had no idea which one would be a good fit for me. We sat down and explored several questions: Did I want a large school or a small school? Did I want to move across the country or did I   prefer to stay closer to home? What was I thinking of studying? I knew I wanted a small school. I didn’t want to get lost in a sea of students. While a larger school might offer more activities and resources, I wanted classes that were small, and in which I could directly interact with my professors. I knew I wanted to study in the humanities, and at the time I wanted to major in romance languages. The school I ultimately chose had a major in romance languages, something I couldn’t find at a lot of other colleges.  While I knew I didn’t want to be too far from my family, I wanted to be far enough away so that I could feel separate and independent.
Answering some or all of these questions will give you a good starting point.  For instance, you may not know exactly what you plan on studying, but you probably have an idea of whether you're a humanities person or a science person.
Even after you have answered these basic questions, you'll probably be given a long list of choices. Explore the websites of the colleges you are interested in to learn more about what they have to offer.

Look at the financials

While it’s not a fun topic to discuss, college often requires some kind of financial commitment. How will you pay for college? Will you receive support from your state Vocational Rehabilitation Agency? Will you get support from your family? Will you need to take out student loans to cover the cost? If so, think about the future, and how much debt you are willing to take on. One of the many factors that helped me choose my school was that I received a generous scholarship. When I was researching colleges, I noted that the school I ended up choosing offered many scholarships for academic achievement. I felt that this was something to value when making my decision about where to go, especially since many of the other schools I was accepted to did not offer scholarships strictly based upon academic achievement in high school.

Visit in person

College StudentsIf you're able to, visiting as many schools  in person as possible will allow you to interact with students, walk the campus, meet with the Disability Service Office (DSO), and generally gain an idea of what the campus culture feels like.
This can be especially important for blind and visually impaired students; sighted students have access to pictures of the campus, but blind and visually impaired students need to walk the campus to gain a good idea of its layout.  
Make sure you are comfortable with the location of the DSO. I liked that my college’s DSO was in the library—a short walk from the freshman dorm and the main classroom building. For me, visiting my top choices was probably the most important step in this process, as it  helped me to narrow my options.  I immediately felt comfortable on the very small campus of the college I ultimately chose. The student body overall appeared very friendly, and I found the administration and college president accessible on my first visit. For more tips on making the most of your campus visit, you can read my other article on this topic on the Learning Ally website.

Location, location, location

While most of what you need will be on campus, research what else is around the school. Does the school offer bus trips into the town or a nearby city? One aspect that attracted me to my college was its proximity to New York City. The college offered frequent bus trips to the local town and into New York City. Students were able to purchase steeply discounted tickets to Broadway shows, and the school provided a bus directly to the show and back to the campus. This was a great way for me to meet other students while taking advantage of my access to the arts.

Find out  about on campus clubs and activities

While finding out about academics was my top priority, I wanted a school with a vibrant extracurricular life, too. When exploring my college’s website and visiting the campus, I noticed that there was a plethora of clubs and activities. Giving back to my community has always been important to me; throughout my high school career I volunteered with soup kitchens and organizations that would let me give back. I was delighted to find out that community service played a vital role in my campus community. I was able to teach English to English-language learners as well as volunteer my time with teenagers in need.

Make a list of pros and cons

If you’re stuck deciding between several colleges, try writing down lists of traits you like about the colleges as well as traits that you wish were different. Sometimes, just getting your thoughts down in writing can give you a clearer picture of the situation. Writing down my thoughts about the various colleges I visited and reading them back later helped me make my final decision about where I wanted to go. Ultimately, your college experience will be determined by what you put into it. Regardless of whether you go to a large university or a small college, you will define what you take away from your classes and friendships. If you end up not liking the school you ultimately choose, remember you can always look into transferring. College ultimately is not about which of your top ten you attend, but about what you do while at the school and what you take away once you leave. Learning Ally LogoTo learn more about Learning Ally's College Success Program, visit LearningAlly.org/CollegeSuccess. This program is provided free of charge thanks to the generosity of our donors       Read More about Tips for Selecting a College that Will Work For You As a Blind/Visually Impaired Student

3 Keys to Helping Struggling Readers Succeed
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December 8, 2016 by Mir Ali

Guest Blog by Rafael Scarnati Executive Director at Learning Foundations Cognitive Training Center Learning Ally's December 2016 Specialist of the month Rafael Close UpMy parents were both teachers (that's how they met) and I started teaching right out of college.  After only three years, I realized that no matter how hard I tried to motivate some of my students to be successful, it was just not enough. I never received any training on identifying or working with students with dyslexia, so I had the same misconceptions as most other educators do.  I was taught that using colored paper would solve the problem for my dyslexic students. It wasn't until I read Overcoming Dyslexia and learned about Orton-Gillingham methods through Susan Barton that a passion ignited in me to help students with dyslexia overcome their unique challenges.  Now, I get to work with these students all the time and see them grow and thrive in many important ways.

In my mind, there are 3 keys to help struggling kids and teens overcome their reading challenges:

1) Intervention - This is key.  Using multisensory, structured language instruction in a 1 to 1 setting will give the child the underlying tools he or she needs to become a comfortable, efficient and confident reader and speller. 2) Accommodations - These help make the educational experience more enjoyable for the child.  This helps them go from hating books and reading, to actually enjoying them and wanting to read more.  Audiobooks play a very important role here as they allow kids to continue to love stories, and continue to learn content from textbooks without the stress and anxiety that print-reading produces.  Learning Ally is an incredibly valuable tool for all of our students.
What Learning Ally has that is worth much more than the price of membership is that all of their books are read by actual people.  This is critical when trying to get an already struggling student to comprehend by allowing him or her to pay attention to the tone, volume and prosody in the reader's voice.
3) Development of natural strengths -  Often forgotten is the fact that people with dyslexia have a lot of natural talents and abilities.  Kids and teens with dyslexia should be allowed ample time to develop those skills.  Extra curricular activities such as acting, robotics, martial arts, dance, Junior Achievement, playing with Lego's or Minecraft etc, will allow kids to continue honing skills and talents that won't get graded in school, but are still very marketable career skills. Visit with CongressmanAt our free parent information sessions, I hear a lot of the parents concerns, grievances and fears regarding their children's struggles.  They often are very emotional since many of them are going through the same frustrations.  It gives me immense joy to see those same parents a month into their child's program with a sense of optimism and pride.  Even more so, is to hear the success stories from parents and from the kids themselves.
As I write this, a grandparent in our waiting room just shared that her granddaughter was so proud to read out loud to her, her dad and grandpa for the very first time.  She had tears in her eyes, and so did I.
Learning Ally LogoFind out more about dyslexia, audiobooks and resources by visiting LearningAlly.org. We have a tutor and specialist network, student-to-student events, and teacher and parent support.       Read More about 3 Keys to Helping Struggling Readers Succeed