How to Help Dyslexic Students Navigate Online College


In the fall of 2019, my son, who suffers from dyslexia, knew his final year of high school was going to be exclusively online due to the premature closure of his charter school. It was almost immediately evident, upon switching to online work, that the distance between my son and the classroom only increased his anxiety. Rather than offering a refuge from questions on the ground or improved access to technological aids for reading and writing, virtual learning required even more reading and writing, with instructions written in several steps and vague writing assignments that offered little to no conversation to explore. In short, it was a lot harder to be online than it was to be in a classroom.

Since my son was already fully enrolled online by the time of March 2020, he hasn’t had a drastic change in the classroom. The difficult experience of high school online, however, had helped him decide that he would not be interested in starting his first semester of college online. In addition, he needed updated dyslexia assessment data in order to receive appropriate accommodations at the university.

We had made an appointment with a neuropsychologist in March 2020. Due to COVID, the necessary tests did not take place until December 2020. Although my son no longer intended to go to university in the fall he would not have been able anyway, due to the delay in testing. What about dyslexic students around the world who were hoping to start college in the fall?

Navigating Online College With Dyslexia

I started receiving messages from desperate parents and dyslexic students in April 2020, shortly after many colleges and universities decided to go fully online. The messages were very similar: My son or daughter had discovered a “system” that seemed to work for in-person college classes, but just weeks after starting an online class, they were failing.

Navigating and registering for classes was suddenly much more difficult as guidance counselors were away from the office and many disability resource offices closed. The stories seemed to follow a pattern: Online courses required more reading and writing to “make up for the lack of in-person presence.”

Some students have been overwhelmed by the online social demands of having to figure out how to comment in the online classroom without real direction, which is difficult for any student, let alone a student with a learning disability. “I feel like I’m starting over from scratch,” said Matthew Bernhardt, a University of Utah student and recent Joseph James Morelli Legacy Foundation (JJMLF) scholar. “Not only is there more reading and writing in many of my classes, but I don’t know how to defend myself in the online classroom. “

Bernhardt is a very outgoing person who usually doesn’t have a hard time talking to new people. This is one of its strengths, but the online class does not play on those strengths. There is no chatting until the teacher arrives where you are able to find people to study with and develop a level of fluency to engage in class discussion. There is no time right after class to quickly ask the teacher a question to break down barriers. In the online class, Bernhardt lost his bearings and struggled to ground himself.

Resources to Support “Truly Exceptional Students”

Going to all e-learning wasn’t the first choice for many for many reasons, but the stakes are higher for students. A lot of the students I work with have scholarships. If they don’t succeed at a certain level, they lose their financial support. For students with learning differences who have made it to college, the impact of poor classroom achievement may be too great. Many of these students now feel that they are failures.

Dr. Barbara Wirostko, a university professor and founder of the JJMLF Scholarship for Dyslexic Students, said she has seen many scholarship students, who were successful long before online learning, simply give up and drop out. Once focused and engaged, these students became disengaged and disconnected. Dr Wirostko wonders if some “truly exceptional students” will ever find their way back to the classroom, adding: “It would be a shame, because many of our students have enormous potential and they have already overcome so much to be successful. university. . What a loss it would be if we couldn’t find a way to get them back and support them during this difficult time. “

So what can be done to help students with reading difficulties stay engaged in online college courses during COVID-19 and beyond? Dr. Wirostko’s scholarship program teams up with Jake Sussman, a young man with dyslexia who worked hard to graduate from college and has now founded SuperPower Consultants, to empower and mentor students like him. Sussman advocates for students with dyslexia and facilitates support networks that provide not only a much-needed friendly peer, but also ideas for advocacy for support, classroom survival tips, and more. Finding your community online, whether through Facebook groups or the International Dyslexia Association, can help students with dyslexia feel like they’re not alone, which is an incredible relief.

Additionally, students with learning differences may need to reduce their college credit hours and shouldn’t feel like this is shameful. This is where a mentoring program such as the Collaboration between Sussman and JJMLF students can help. Dr. Wiorstko often recommends that these students consider summer courses, even at local community colleges, to lighten their load during the semester.

If a scholarship or funding is threatened, students and families should contact the funding source and explain the situation. As Dr Wirostko pointed out, it is not about a particular class, but about graduating, and once a JJMLF becomes a laureate, help is always available. Often the financial part of a grant is just the beginning of the resources that may be available to students.

Many faculty are looking to facilitate online lessons in order to provide more guidance on how and when to provide feedback, organize group work online, stay organized, and connect with students. I have also asked a few students to cut college credit hours in favor of private lessons in reading, writing, or math. Instead of viewing this challenge as a negative experience, students try to improve some basic skills so that they are ready to return to a regular schedule in person when conditions allow.

Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah, with an MA in Education and Teaching from Westminster College, as well as a Certification in Special Education. She began her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She uses Reading Horizons in her individual work with students. Connect with her at [email protected]

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