Building a Knowledge Base for Secondary Educators

Teaching is a profession that makes a difference in the lives of others. One of the most important things we can provide students is the ability for them to continue learning beyond the walls of any individual classroom. Assuring that students are competent and confident readers is an important role for all educators to assume, as it empowers students to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, some students reach middle and secondary classrooms without the ability to read and write proficiently. Many of those students do not want to be identified for additional assistance. They don’t want others to know that they struggle daily and yet show up at school every day expecting to be asked to do things they find beyond their grasp. 

There are many reasons students find reading so difficult. Some students may have moved in and out of schools without the opportunity to receive coherent instruction. Students may have been in classrooms without exemplary instruction and when provided that, will “bloom”. Perhaps students are navigating learning in a 2nd language when they may or may not have a strong grasp of academic language in their 1st language. There are students with severe cognitive disability and reading may always be out of their grasp. Some students, however, may benefit from a different approach to reading instruction and additional support- support that can be provided in the general PK-12 classroom for all students. The purpose of this writing is to provide an overview for what might inform educational practice in literacy for those working with middle or secondary students who struggle with reading. Students faced with daily academic struggle need a caring adult, whether that be a parent, guardian, advocate, or teacher to understand what their classroom experience is and isn’t. Perhaps that person is you.

What is the Science of Reading?

Science of Reading is a term frequently seen in state policy work, brandished by curriculum developers, seen in educational news reports, and passionately discussed on the social media pages of literacy organizations. For clarification, the “Science of Reading” is not a curriculum or a specific methodology, but a body of knowledge related to how the brain learns to read and write and how instruction can best be delivered to assist ALL students in acquiring literacy skills and strategies. The science of reading is growing and will continue to grow as important research is conducted, reviewed, and disseminated. Many curriculum developers in today’s markets advertise products “aligned with the Science of Reading”, and it is important that educators are knowledgeable consumers when tasked with adopting a new core curriculum or supplementary materials for teaching. Being familiar with the tenets of the science of reading, specific evidence-based practices, and content standards will allow teachers to make smart curriculum decisions. The knowledge received through your educational preparation program, the school policy where you work and the curriculum you use have important implications for helping all students achieve their full potential. Teachers make a difference and while you may not be an expert at teaching reading, you are an expert at reading in your content area and you will be the one who can help your students develop that expertise as well. The following information will start to build a foundation related to the science of reading and dyslexia. However, a foundation isn’t a livable structure, so continue to read and follow information that comes from well-designed studies as the science of reading continues to evolve. 

What do you know about dyslexia?

Complete these simple questions and seek confirmation of your responses as you read this chapter.

True or False

1.     Dyslexia is identified by students flipping letters around and/ or reading words backward.

2.     Students can outgrow dyslexia with good instruction.

3.     More boys than girls have dyslexia.

4.     Dyslexia runs in families.

5.     Poor teaching in the early grades causes dyslexia.

6.     By the time a student reaches 8th grade the opportunity to learn to read has passed.

7.     Anxiety is often associated with dyslexia.

8.     The primary problem that secondary students with dyslexia have is poor comprehension.

9.     Dyslexia is often accompanied with lower-than-average IQ.

10.  Approximately 4% of students in our schools exhibit characteristics of dyslexia.

How is dyslexia defined?

Dyslexia is not new. While recorded in writings as early as the sixteenth century, it was named dyslexia as early as 1887 by Rudolph Berlin. Earlier writings referred to it in other terms, such as “word blindness”. The first academic paper on the topic of dyslexia was known to be published in 1896 by William Pringle Morgan in the British Medical Journal (Kirby & Snowling, 2022). Since that time there have been various misunderstandings about what dyslexia is or is not. 

One of the most prevalent misunderstandings is that students have dyslexia if they reverse letters or write words backward. Most young students exhibit that behavior as they are learning to read and the behavior will extinguish with instruction. Dyslexia is also not a problem with vision or words “jumping” about on a page. Dyslexia is not “corrected” with a special font or color overlay. Those have not been found beneficial in outside research studies. (Cowen, 2018). It would be nice if there was an easy “fix”, but dyslexia is life-long condition. Students do not grow out of dyslexia, but they can learn ways to accommodate for their difficulty through good instruction and support. 

The definition used most often in education and state legislative action is the definition developed by the Definition Consensus Project (https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-consensus-project/). This definition was adopted by the International Dyslexia Association board of directors in 2002 and in Kansas, this is the definition that was adopted by the Kansas State Board of Education to guide the work of the Kansas State Department of Education. The definition states: 

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. 

To identify how this definition impacts classroom practice, it is helpful to explore the individual elements within the definition. 

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability.

In special education law, dyslexia is recognized as a specific learning disability and the term dyslexia can appear on a student’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP) if a student has qualified for special education services. That being said, dyslexia presents on a continuum and many students who have characteristics of dyslexia are not being served within a special education model of instruction, but are in general education classrooms receiving their academic preparation by classroom teachers. Students do NOT need to be identified as “dyslexic” to receive tiered support in a general education classroom. Any student who is determined to be at risk on a universal screener or other diagnostic measure can receive tiered support through their school’s MTSS protocol. With the incidence of dyslexia reported to be anywhere from 10-20% of the population, it is important that every teacher understands what dyslexia is and how it may impact classroom behavior and academic outcomes. (Yale Dyslexia FAQ https://dyslexia.yale.edu/dyslexia/dyslexia-faq/; Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/6005-dyslexia).

Dyslexia is neurobiological in origin.

The brain does not have a “reading center”. Instead, our brains utilize various other structures (those involved with vision, language processing and speech production) to create a system that supports taking print off a page, associating it with sound and linking it with meaning to communicate. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI studies), we know that those with dyslexia struggle to engage the more efficient pathways to connect sounds to print when learning to read. Dyslexia is found to affect nearly the same number of girls as boys and is not specific to certain socioeconomic groups or language. Dyslexia is often an inherited trait, and if a parent has dyslexia a child has a 40-60% greater risk for being affected. The percentage is even greater if others in the family have it as well (Schumacher et al, 2007). 

It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.

As students are learning to read and strengthening the pathways to efficient reading, those with dyslexia will struggle in hearing the sounds in words, identifying what letters represent sounds in words- in breaking the code of our language. Students who are becoming proficient readers can orthographically map (OM) words for quick retrieval when reading in the future. Orthographic mapping occurs when students hone letter-sound connections with the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of specific words and commit those to memory (Ehri, 2014). While it is common for very young children to struggle with this until they have been explicitly taught and had time to practice new words, students with dyslexia continue to struggle beyond what is usually experienced by new readers. Students with characteristics of dyslexia may find it extremely difficult to hear individual sounds in words (phonemes) and associate the correct letters (graphemes). With 26 letters and 44 sounds and multiple ways to “spell” sounds in the English language, intentional phonics instruction is critical. For example, consider even these simple words and how the long /a/ sound is represented: bay, eight, rein, train. English is referred to as an “opaque” language, meaning its letter/sound correspondence has elements that are unseen or difficult to discern, mainly because the English language borrowed words from other languages which has influenced our spelling patterns. 

These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.

This difficulty in reading is often unexpected and is not discovered until a student begins school and is asked to work in a print environment. Students with dyslexia often have average or high intelligence and frequently are very good at listening comprehension, which will help them accommodate in classroom work. Slow reading doesn’t mean slow thinking and students with phonological/decoding may be very strong in the meaning-making aspects of reading and language. While unskilled teaching does not cause a student to become dyslexic, there is scientific evidence that there are specific ways of teaching that can assist students in accessing the more efficient pathways for reading and allow students with dyslexia to learn to read. fMRI studies have provided evidence that students who receive good intervention can better develop the neural pathways that allow them to decode and read for meaning. You, as a teacher, can be a “brain changer”! 

Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

It is human nature to avoid things that we find difficult and/or unpleasant. Those who avoid reading, read less, and therefore are not exposed to the same amount of vocabulary and information. Like anything else in life, when you practice things, you get better. Those who enjoy reading, choose to do it more often, are exposed to more information and build stronger vocabularies. It is important that teachers help students who struggle learn to navigate complex texts so they not only find information, but joy and satisfaction in reading. While video content can provide additional context or background information, it should not take the place of students learning how to navigate content grade level texts. 

How do we know if a student has dyslexia? 

While there are doctors, psychologists or speech language pathologists who specialize in diagnosing dyslexia in clinical settings, schools have professionals in place to identify students with characteristics of dyslexia in order to inform instruction and align interventions based on meaningful assessments. Many states have universal screening requirements, as does Kansas, that identify if a student is at risk for reading difficulty. A student that identifies “at risk” on a universal screening measure would warrant further diagnostic assessment to find the specific instructional need the student has. It is important to note that universal screening does not identify if a student is dyslexic, but only that there is risk that should be addressed further.

Assessment protocols depend on local school district, as well as state and Federal guidelines and as a teacher it is important that you understand the guidelines and requirements you should follow. Most often, the formal process of evaluating a student who is not responding to tiered general education support would be led by the district’s educational school psychologist, speech language pathologist, or reading specialist.  

What is involved in learning to read?

There are several theoretical models that strive to represent what reading entails. One is referred to as the Simple View of Reading. Gough and Tunmer (1986) created this model to help identify the importance of decoding, or word recognition, in overall reading instruction. It is a mathematical representation stating that word recognition multiplied by language comprehension equals reading comprehension, with the understanding that if either decoding or language comprehension were not present (are zero), reading comprehension would not be achieved. There are other models, such as the Active View of Reading (Duke & Cartwright, 2021), being proposed and future research will determine their place in practice.  

Figure 1

Simple View of Reading

Gough & Turner, 1986

In addition, one of the more useful models for guiding classroom practice was published by Hollis Scarborough, often referred to as Scarborough’s Rope (Scarborough, 2001). The lower strands of the rope include elements of instruction related to word recognition and the top strands of the rope delineate the elements related to language comprehension. While this model shows decoding at the bottom and language at the top of the image, it is important to note that these elements are not represented in a chronological way, as language elements such as vocabulary and background knowledge begin at birth. The elements of language comprehension are identified as background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. The strand elements of word recognition include sight recognition, decoding and phonological awareness.

Figure 2

Scarborough's Rope

Image Credit: The image, courtesy of the author, originally appeared in the following publication: Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford Press.


What is structured literacy and what does it look like in a middle/ secondary course?

The National Reading Panel report (2000) identified five critical components of literacy instruction. Those include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Phonemic awareness is involved with the sound system of our language. Phonics is the linking of sounds (phonemes) to letters (graphemes), and the rules and generalizations that guide how words are read and spelled. Fluency includes the rate, accuracy, and prosody (expression) of reading and vocabulary includes the meaning and usage of words. Comprehension is the ability to understand what is read in a meaningful way. The National Reading Panel Report can be accessed in its entirety here: National Reading panel Report.

Being informed by the National Reading Panel, research has provided evidence that there is a model of reading instruction that is helpful for all students and essential for those who struggle in learning to read. It is a model that is relevant for PK-12 students and has been adopted by some states, including Kansas, as the model of instruction to be used in classrooms. It is called structured literacy and evidence has shown that it provides better outcomes than balanced literacy or guided reading approaches (Lorimor-Easley & Reed, 2019), especially for students who have difficulty with learning to read. 

Structured literacy informs not just “what” should be taught, but “how” it should be taught, reflecting the concept that pedagogy matters! This instruction occurs most often in the general education classroom but may be offered in tiered levels of support if the school’s tiered intervention assessment/ protocol calls for that. Students should be taught: 

The “how” provides insight into how students learn best and should be supported as they master literacy skills and strategies and become competent readers. Structured literacy establishes that students should be taught with the following principles in mind:

The International Dyslexia Association provides a more complete infographic, Structured Literacy Grounded in the Science of Reading, to provide additional information and support for classroom practice.

Figure 3

Structured Literacy SOR Infographic

So, what if you teach middle or high school and your students are beyond the "learning to read" stage? What are some characteristics of dyslexia that might be seen in an older student?

There are several common classroom practices that teachers may use without recognizing they cause additional disfluency, stress and anxiety for students with reading difficulty. These are practices should be reconsidered, supported differently, changed, or eliminated from practice. These include:

What can teachers do, then, to support students who are experiencing reading difficulties? Classroom practices that are found to be helpful for students include: 

Figure 4

Disciplinary Suggestions

Bulleted table that includes ways to read, write and think in the various content disciplines of science, history, math and ELA.

In Summary

In this section you have been introduced to the science of reading and a working definition of dyslexia and theoretical models that inform much of the research being conducted on reading disability today. You have read about the basics of structured literacy as a model of instruction that is helpful for all students and critical for those with characteristics of dyslexia. You also were introduced to some helpful classroom practices as well as practices to avoid avoid when working with middle and secondary students who have characteristics of dyslexia. Those techniques and strategies that are critical for those students who struggle will benefit all students.

The unfortunate reality is that you will encounter students in middle and secondary schools who are unable to read, spell and/ or write. Somehow, they have been able to move through a system with limited ability to achieve their full potential, unless someone intervenes. Perhaps that someone will be you. They may have faced years of failure and yet come to school each day ready to try again. When you see these students, makes sure you are aware of the process in your building for getting them the help and academic support they need. It is not too late to teach secondary students how to read, and it is essential that the focus is not only on helping them graduate, but on helping them graduate with the skills and abilities that will allow them to achieve their full potential.  Thank you for being an educator. Literacy changes lives.


Answers to the Questions

True or False

1.     Dyslexia is identified by students flipping letters around and/ or reading words backward.

False, many students do that. Dyslexia is not a vision problem, but difficulty with the phonological system of language.

2.     Students can outgrow dyslexia with good instruction.

False, dyslexia is life long, but individuals can improve in reading and learn to utilize supportive strategies and/ or materials

3.     More boys than girls have dyslexia.

False, although they have been referred more often

4.     Dyslexia runs in families.

True, A parent of a student identified and siblings often share this difficulty

5.     Poor teaching in the early grades causes dyslexia.

False, poor teaching does not cause dyslexia, but high quality instruction is found to help students gain skills for reading

6.     By the time a student reaches 8th grade the opportunity to learn to read has passed

False, individuals can learn to read at any age, although it may take longer and more intensity

7.     Anxiety is often associated with dyslexia.

True, anxiety is often associated with dyslexia and can be heightened by classroom practice that highlights a student’s struggle in front of peers

8.     The primary problem that secondary students with dyslexia have is poor comprehension.

False, poor comprehension is a secondary problem for secondary students, with decoding and poor fluency causing an inability to comprehend.

9.     Dyslexia is often accompanied with lower-than-average IQ.

False, dyslexia is often unexpected as students may be at average or high IQ, yet struggle greatly in learning to read

10.  Approximately 4% of students in our schools exhibit characteristics of dyslexia.

False, the incidence numbers most often between 7-20%, but the most often statistic is between 10-20% of people being affected along the continuum. 


Cowen, C. D. (2018). How to counter vision-based claims about dyslexia “cures”. The Examiner 7 (1). International Dyslexia Association. https://dyslexiaida.org/how-to-counter-vision-based-claims-about-dyslexia-cures/

Duke, N.K., &  Cartwright, K.B. (2021).  The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Read Research Quarterly, 56 (1), 25-44 https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

Ehri, L.C., (2014) Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18 (1), 5-21. DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/074193258600700104

Kirby P, Snowling, MJ.(2022, November) Dyslexia discovered: Word-blindness, Victorian Medicine, and Education (1877–1917). Montreal (QC): McGill-Queen’s University Press Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK588803/

Lent, R., (2017, February 23). Disciplinary literacy: A shift that makes sense. ASCD, 12 (12). https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/disciplinary-literacy-a-shift-that-makes-sense

Lorimor-Easleey, N.A. & Reed, D.K. (2019, April 9). An explanation of structured literacy, and a comparison to balanced literacy. Iowa Reading Research Center, https://iowareadingresearch.org/blog/structured-and-balanced-literacy

National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Reading performance. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved [May 4, 2023], from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cnb.

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for Research in Early Literacy. New York: Guilford Press. 

Schumacher, J., Hoffmann, P., Schmäl, C., Schulte-Körne, G., & Nöthen, M. M. (2007). Genetics of dyslexia: the evolving landscape. Journal of medical genetics, 44(5), 289–297. https://doi.org/10.1136/jmg.2006.046516


Where can I go to learn more?

Check out these hyperlinked resources for additional support.

  1. International Dyslexia Association, specifically the tabs About Dyslexia, Resources, and Professionals 
  2. The National Center for Improving Literacy
  3. The Reading League
  4. Kansas State Department of Education Dyslexia Page

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Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/effective_teaching_in_the_secondary_classroom/dyslexia.