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Understanding Dyslexia – Practical Strategies for Jewish Classrooms

Meredith Polsky

dyslexia in Jewish classrooms Lisa Friedman MatanAccording to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “Dyslexia is the name for specific learning disabilities in reading… Children and adults with dyslexia simply have a neurological disorder that causes their brains to process and interpret information differently.”

dyslexia Matan Lisa FriedmanFrom Edutopia, “Dyslexia is real, occurring in up to 20 percent of the population. That means there is a student in every classroom, in every neighborhood, and in every U.S. school. It also means that every classroom teacher has the opportunity to positively change the life of a student with dyslexia by taking the time to understand what it is and provide accommodations for accessing information that the student is capable of learning through alternate formats.”

When given the appropriate opportunities and support, most students with dyslexia learn to read and write successfully. What’s more, dyslexia itself is NOT an indication of intellectual capacity. And yet, sadly, the place where dyslexics are most often misunderstood is in school.

One of the most powerful motivational speakers on this topic, Jonathan Mooney, shares his own experiences as a dyslexic writer and activist who did not learn to read until he was 12 years old. He went on to graduate from Brown University and a holds an honors degree in English Literature. When he speaks, Jonathan strives to have his audiences understand that it is our own systems and structures that limit those with dyslexia and other disabilities. Read more in Our Children Aren’t Broken.

When we break out of our typical molds of expectation, we see individuals with dyslexia who thrive intellectually and go on to careers in fields such as politics, law, science, entertainment and even education.

I am sure that many heads nodded along with the information above. And yet, while completely true, this is where supplemental religious schools get tripped up. Our teachers encounter the notion of “making accommodations” and run scared. They say things like, “If she can’t read English well, how can I possibly teach her Hebrew?” or “You can’t make accommodations when you only see the kids for two hours a week,” and worse: “Making the kinds of accommodations he needs just takes too much time.”

So how do we do it?

Here are four practical strategies for accommodating students with dyslexia in a religious school classroom.

  • Enlarge the font – Such manipulations are easier than ever before with the digital resources at our fingertips. But don’t be afraid to go “old school” and enlarge the content on a written page using a good ole’ copy machine.
  • reading focus card dyslexia MatanMinimize other distractions on the page – Again, many digital readers have the built in ability to do this, but you can create your own of any size by cutting a “word (or sentence) shaped hole” in the center of a piece of cardstock. This image is only one example. Such a tool is most effective when customized to the individual student.
  • Color coding – Color coding, especially in Hebrew, can help with the recall of vowel sounds and/or to distinguish “look alike” letters.
  • Remove time limits – Just as it sounds, students with dyslexia feel anxious and pressure when expected to read at the pace of their peers. Allow students to read at their own pace.

Remember, every student is different and no two students with dyslexia (or any other disability) will learn in the same way. It is important to get to know your students well and tailor strategies to their specific needs. When we move away from viewing learning differences as deficiencies, we can find ways to allow each and every student in our classrooms and communities to thrive.

Photo credit (and product availability): Fun and Function; Additional resources: Dyslexia in the General Education Classroom and What is Dyslexia?

Lisa Friedman 2014Lisa Friedman is Matan’s Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks. She is also an Education Director at a Reform congregation in Central New Jersey where she oversees the synagogue’s and religious school’s inclusive practice.



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