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Meeting the Needs of Secondary School Students with Dyslexia

Categories: Curriculum & Access

Students who struggle to read make up a substantial portion of the 1.2 million students who leave high school each year without a diploma. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 60 percent of twelfth graders scored below proficient in reading achievement, and 27 percent scored below basic level. This means the lowest-performing high school seniors have only partial mastery of adequate grade-level knowledge and skills.

Low reading achievement does not equally affect all students. A third of Hispanic and African American twelfth graders read below the basic level. The consequences for these struggling readers and the costs to our nation in terms of lost wages and earnings over a lifetime are staggering: estimates for dropouts who typically have low literacy skills are about $335 billion per year. For those who manage to find a job, private industry spends an estimated $3.1 billion annually to bolster the literacy skills of entry-level workers.*

How do we approach the learning needs of struggling readers

Panel Discussion:

In Learning Ally’s monthly Literacy Leadership webinar series, Dr. Terrie Noland discusses this topic with Dr. Asya Johnson, Master Principal, Longwood Preparatory Academy, New York City Public Schools, and Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Co-Founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute, San Diego, California.

Reading Assessments in Secondary Education


Effectively gauging students’ reading proficiency at the secondary level is crucial to pinpoint areas of specific skill weaknesses, especially in reading comprehension. However, many secondary schools do not perform reading assessments at this learning stage. Dr. Johnson says, “We need to perform assessments at the secondary level to ensure all students are on track. If they are not, the right assessment will enable us to focus on the types of intervention that each student needs to get them to proficiency level.”


At Longwood Preparatory Academy, all students receive an initial assessment in 9th grade, and then sequential assessments in Fall, Winter, and Spring to determine growth. The teaching staff works with students and families to understand why these exams are vital to a student’s overall academic achievement goals.

“Oftentimes, it is challenging to uncover specific skill needs of students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia,” says Dr. Johnson. “We must ‘dig in’ to identify what is causing a student’s specific issues. Are they having problems at the sentence level, paragraph level, or in sentence structure itself? Assessments let us see where the gaps are and provide explicit and direct instruction.”

Digging in - Providing explicit and direct instruction through intervention.

The panel agrees that ‘socialization’ is a major part of a student’s learning development, especially in secondary education. If some students need extra help, removing them from other academic instruction may be counter-productive. “There is a stigma surrounding students who are pulled out of regular classes,” says Dr. Johnson. “We don’t want to disrupt their flow, or our goals to intervene will not be successful.”

How the system should work with buy-in.

The panel recommends working directly with students to get early buy-in for intervention support. “Collective decision-making will help students understand why they need extra reading support, and how it benefits them. They also need to understand how their teachers will address this support to fit seamlessly into daily routines,” says Dr. Noland.

Schedule Modification

At the beginning of the year, Dr. Johnson’s team created reintervention classes by modifying the learning day. Using Assessment data, students are placed in intervention tiers with a modified schedule of 3-2 day split to ensure students have required reading support, but also opportunities to earn their required credits to graduate and stay connected with friends and peers through fun activities and extracurricular courses.

Access to Books to Build a Culture of Good Readers

One of Longwood’s universal literacy resources is Learning Ally’s Audiobook Library where students have 24/7 access to required grade-level curriculum and popular titles to enhance reading pleasure and independent reading. Teachers and administrators have access to reading data that enable them to grasp a better understanding of a specific student’s reading preferences, behaviors, and measurement of reading progress.

“Longwood works very hard on scheduling and communication so students do not feel separated from their peers,” adds Dr. Johnson. “In addition to the 3/2 day split of explicit and direct instruction intervention, we give students ample opportunities to improve their skills through extra reading support in and out of school and a fun weekly Wednesday school-wide activity that encourages all students to read books on their level, and become a culture of skilled readers.”

Learning Accommodations to Reach Learning Potential

Dr. Sandman-Hurley says, “The right accommodation is absolutely critical to middle and secondary students who are struggling to read; however, this effort may be challenging in middle school, because of the social aspect of ‘looking different’. We must help students understand why using a certain resource will directly support their reading ability, and we must effectively train them and their teachers on how to use the accommodations. This is also the time to help students become self-advocates for their learning accommodations. We must educate them to ask for accommodations in their classes, for exams, and in higher education.”

Feeling Emotionally “Safe” to Ask for Support

The panel agrees that when students with a learning difference truly understand their specific needs, can ask for and advocate for resources that enable them to work to their true potential and feel safe doing so, this is the best of all learning scenarios. “We have to always think about the different ages and stages of a learning difference and help students feel this is a part of who they are,” says Dr. Noland. “Creating a school-wide learning environment where students are comfortable asking for support, who believe in their learning potential and are not afraid of being wrong about an answer, is where the social-emotional-learning connection becomes extremely powerful.”

Dr. Sandman-Hurley encourages students to write their own elevator pitch about what their learning difference is and feel comfortable talking about it, and answering questions about it. “We encourage students to be prepared to explain how a specific accommodation helps them learn and excel; then they can use this pitch with their teachers, bosses, and in higher education settings.

Literacy and Gamification – How to Motivate Literacy in Secondary Education

We live in a world of constant connections through our devices, and today’s students do not have the stamina to sit through the longevity of a book. How do we get more students to want to read, and not just the excerpts or the synopsis of a text? According to a survey conducted in late 2019 and early 2020 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), teens who say they read for fun on an almost daily basis have dropped from nearly a decade ago and are at the lowest levels since at least the mid-1980s.

To motivate more students to read, Longwood Academy connects students with real-time happenings and their intrinsic interests. They also instill high expectations by requiring all students to take advanced AP English or Literature classes and college prep courses. And, they participate in Learning Ally’s Great Reading Games challenges.

Communication with Families

Every parent wants their child to succeed, but understanding a learning difference and what to do about it can be complicated. Many families feel isolated. Dr. Sandman-Hurley says, “We want a parent to fully understand what it means to have a learning difference; how the brain works, and what we can do to support it. Their reaction and participation are important.”

At Longwood, educators have ongoing discussions with families using language they can understand. They discuss what the data says; how a student is responding to the intervention; what they are doing to help them succeed, including providing accessible books, and motivational gamification challenges. Families are also invited to attend evening literacy workshops to learn how to use Learning Ally’s audiobook library and to learn more about promoting literacy activities at home.

Watch this Literacy Leadership panel discussion on demand and learn more from these expert panelists on Meeting the Needs of Secondary School Students with Dyslexia, register here.

Learning Ally Literacy Leadership Webinars

Learning Ally’s monthly learning events are designed to help educators gain actionable insights and strategies from esteemed speakers in the field of literacy.

You can now register for the April webinar, Multilingual Learners and the Science of Reading: What's the Connection? with Dr. Claude Goldenberg, Nomellini & Olivier Professor of Education, emeritus, in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Dr. Goldenberg’s areas of research and professional interest have centered on promoting academic achievement among language-minority children and youth. Prior to his arrival at Stanford, Goldenberg was Professor of Teacher Education, Associate Dean of the College of Education, and Executive Director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research (CLMER) at California State University, Long Beach.


*Mariana Hayes, Alliance for Excellent Education, “Birth-Through-Grade-Twelve Comprehensive Literacy Program,” published on website, April 2015.

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