How to Help Dyslexic Students Navigate Online College

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In the fall of 2019, my son, who has dyslexia, knew his senior year of high school was going to be online-only due to the premature closure of his charter school. It was almost immediately apparent, moving to online work, that the distance between my son and the classroom was only increasing his anxiety. Rather than providing refuge from questions on the spot or better access to technology supports for reading and writing, virtual learning required even more reading and writing, with multi-step written instructions and vague writing assignments that offered little or no conversation to explore. ideas. In short, being online was much harder than being in a classroom.

Since my son was already fully enrolled online by the time March 2020 rolled around, there was no drastic change from the classroom. The difficult online high school experience, however, had helped him decide that he wouldn’t be interested in starting his first semester of college online. In addition, he needed up-to-date dyslexia assessment data in order to receive appropriate accommodations at university.

We had made an appointment with a neuropsychologist in March 2020. Due to COVID, much needed testing did not take place until December 2020. Although my son no longer plans to go to college at the fall, he wouldn’t have been able to anyway, due to the delay in testing. What about dyslexic students around the world who were hoping to enter college this fall?

Navigating Online College With Dyslexia

I started getting messages from desperate parents and students with dyslexia in April 2020, shortly after many colleges and universities decided to go entirely 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 a few weeks into a fully online class, they were failing.

Navigating and registering for classes was suddenly all the more difficult as guidance counselors were out of the office and many disability resource offices closed. The stories seemed to follow a pattern: online classes required more reading and writing to “compensate for the lack of in-person attendance.”

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

Bernhardt happens to be a very social person who usually has no trouble talking to new people. This is one of its strengths, but the online classroom does not play on these strengths. There is no chat before the teacher arrives where you can find people to study with and develop a comfort level to engage in class discussion. There’s no time right after class to quickly ask the teacher a question to break down barriers. In the online classroom, Bernhardt lost his bearings and struggled to ground himself.

Resources to Support “Truly Exceptional Students”

Switching to all online learning wasn’t anyone’s first choice for many reasons, but the stakes are higher for students. Many students I work with have scholarships. If they don’t perform at a certain level, they lose their financial support. For students with learning differences who have gone to college, the impact of performing poorly in a class can be too great. Many of these students feel like they are failures now.

Dr. Barbara Wirostko, a college 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 give up. Once focused and engaged, these students disengaged and disconnected. Dr Wirostko wonders if some ‘truly exceptional students’ will ever find their way back to class, adding: ‘It would be a shame because many of our students have enormous potential and they have already overcome so much to be at the university. . What a loss it would be if we couldn’t find a way to get them back and support them through 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? The Dr. Wirostko Scholarship Program teams up with Jake Sussman, a dyslexic young man who worked hard to graduate from college and now founded SuperPower Consultants, to give back and mentor students like him. Sussman advocates for students with dyslexia and facilitates support networks that not only provide a much-needed friendly peer, but also ideas for advocating for support, classroom survival tips, and more. Find your community online, whether through Facebook groups or the International Dyslexia Associationcan 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 number of college credit hours and should not feel that this is shameful. This is where a mentorship program such as the Sussman Student Collaboration with JJMLF can help. Dr. Wiorstko often recommends that these students consider summer classes, even at local community colleges, to lighten their load during the semester.

If a scholarship or funding is in jeopardy, students and families should contact the funding source and explain the situation. As Dr. Wirostko pointed out, it’s not about a specific class, it’s about graduation, and once a JJMLF becomes a graduate, help is always available. Often the financial part of a scholarship is only the beginning of the resources that may be available to students.

Many professors are looking to host online classes to provide more information on how and when to give feedback, organize online group work, stay organized, and connect with students. . I also asked a few students to reduce their college credit hours in favor of tutoring in reading, writing, or math. Instead of viewing this challenge as a negative experience, students try to improve some basic skills so they are ready to return to a regular in-person schedule when conditions permit.

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


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