DyslexiaIntegrated Support for Elementary, Middle & High School Education

Some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and pioneers were dyslexic: Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Whoopi Goldberg, and Carol Mosely Braun. That’s because even though the dyslexic brain faces persistent challenges in decoding text, it consistently outperforms other brains in the areas of creativity, pattern recognition, problem-solving, and leadership. When students with dyslexia struggle at school, it’s not because they aren’t bright and capable. Instead, it’s because the school fails to leverage their innate strengths and abilities and provide systematic, structured literacy lessons that ensure students will read proficiently. In almost every school, bright students with dyslexia face a fear of reading and a long series of demoralizing frustrations and failures. Not at McLean School.

Early Intervention of Dyslexia in Lower and Middle School
Everything we do is rooted in research and best practices–comprehensive screening, evidence-based instruction, small group work and one-on-one support, assistive technologies and accommodations. But it’s McLean’s caring, compassionate, expert teachers teaching the way students learn that take our program to the next level, alleviating anxiety for our students and their families. All of McLean’s Lower School teachers are trained in Orton-Gillingham, the gold standard multimodal approach to reading instruction. Our teachers, Coordinators of Learning Services, K-12 Master Reading Coordinator, Reading Specialists, and an ever-evolving toolbox of instructional practices serve all students, not just those with diagnosed learning challenges.

When it comes to supporting students with dyslexia, early intervention is key, yet unfortunately, the reality is that not everyone receives remediation right off the bat. At McLean, teachers use assistive technology and evidence-based practices to help Middle School and older students with dyslexia and reading challenges.

Helping High School Students With Dyslexia Succeed

In order to continue to support students’ reading development as they age, we’ve developed a flexible approach to literacy in the upper grades, based on individual students’ needs. Beginning in grade 5 and continuing through grade 12, we separate English and Literature classes, which enables us to teach advanced phonics and comprehension skills while also teaching writing mechanics, idea development, and author’s craft. At all grade levels, we encourage our students to choose from a range of genres, in print and digital formats, to spark individual reading interests and support passions. At McLean, we are committed to creating a rich culture of reading, whet students’ literary imaginations, and inspire a lifelong love of books. Additionally, we provide a range of accommodations, including read-aloud or scribing for exams, to be sure that everyone’s needs are met along the way and reading teachers support students with the vocabulary and informational reading skills that promote success across academic content areas


How We Teach ReadingThe Seven Elements of Structured Literacy

Structured literacy is an instructional approach that focuses students on the sounds of our language and the ways those sounds are represented through letters and letter combinations. In a structured literacy classroom, the teacher provides direct, explicit, systematic instruction to help students “unlock the code” of written language. Students read books made up of only words they can decode, allowing them to read with a high rate of accuracy, fluency, and confidence. This stands in contrast to a balanced literacy approach, where students engage with texts that are far beyond their decoding skills, including many words they don’t know. Students in a balanced literacy classroom are taught to guess at words they don’t know using context clues and reread texts to memorize new words. This may work initially for students when they can rely upon clues, but as content evolves, the strategy is no longer viable.

Within a structured literacy classroom, teachers provide daily, explicit, systematic instruction in seven key areas to ensure that bright students with dyslexia and other reading challenges become proficient life-long readers.

  • 1

    Oral Language

    Students need to develop a large listening and speaking vocabulary, which requires even young children to gain skills in phonology, semantics, and morphology. Teachers plan opportunities for extended conversation and text talk where they expand on the language children use, introduce sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure, and help students express ever longer and more complex thoughts. Students with dyslexia generally have advanced vocabularies, and tend to shine in this area of structured literacy.

  • 2

    Phonemic Awareness

    Being able to hear, distinguish, and manipulate the sounds in spoken words is the next key area. Using reading tools like slinkies, cubes, and tiles, and games like ‘first sound/last sound’ or ‘smash ‘em’, teachers provide daily practice and ongoing feedback to students in blending, isolating, segmenting, adding, deleting and substituting the sounds in spoken words to prepare them for interpreting and manipulating the meaning in written words. Most schools provide no instruction in this element, but McLean teaches this skill to all students who need it, regardless of the student’s age or grade level.

  • 3

    Alphabetic Principle

    Students must understand that any word can be broken into speech sounds and any speech sound can be represented with a letter or collection of letters from the alphabet. When children understand how letters capture speech sounds, they have the foundation for all reading and writing in English and other alphabetic languages.

  • 4


    Students must also learn the 44 phonemes (sounds) in English and all their spelling patterns. Most schools begin their reading and writing instruction here (after skipping the first three crucial reading skills) and proceed to teach the sounds in a haphazard, disorganized way. We teach decoding systematically, proceeding through a prescribed sequence of sounds that has been proven through research to ensure reading proficiency for students with dyslexia. It starts with the most simple, common sounds (c, o, a, d) and continues through blends and digraphs (st, cl, th,ph), r-controlled vowels (ar, er, ir, ur), and endings like (-le, -ed, -tion, -sion). This decoding work begins in kindergarten alongside instruction in oral language, phonemic awareness, and the alphabetic principle, and continues for as long as the child needs support, typically 1-2 years after they’ve started at McLean.

  • 5

    Word Patterns

    Understanding the patterns of regularity in English that span the alphabetic (m=/m/), syllabic (tion=/shun/) and morphemic (we write definite not defanite because the root word is define) levels sets students up for success in reading and writing. It’s common to hear that English is difficult to read and impossible to spell, but word patterns help readers with dyslexia see the patterns in our language, and pattern recognition is one of the many strengths of a dyslexic brain. To support students in this area, teachers introduce the most common sound for a given letter, digraph, or dipthong first, and introduce less common, alternate spellings later, after students have demonstrated mastery.

  • 6

    Sight Words

    Another key element of our intensive instruction is supporting students’ recognition of thousands of words automatically, on sight. For most adults, democracy is a sight word because it is recognized instantly, while lemniscus (which also has 9 letters) is not. A reader’s sight word inventory includes both words that are phonetically regular (like bank) and irregular (like know). At most schools, only irregular words are taught as sight words for automaticity. We teach students to automatically recognize the most common words for their age and reading level, whether they are spelled regularly or irregularly. This means McLean students learn approximately twice as many sight words as their peers in other schools.

  • 7

    Multisyllabic Words

    Lastly, students must be able to break apart longer words into manageable segments that can be used for reading or spelling. Reading words with several syllables is a major stumbling block for students who have not had strong instruction in oral language, phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, decoding, and word patterns, and is a major reason that older students come to us as vulnerable readers after initially keeping up with their classmates in the younger years. Through daily practice, we show students how to break down multi-syllable words that they encounter when reading stories and articles, making them more successful when reading across the content areas.

Recognizing Early Warning Signs of Dyslexia

McLean’s expert teachers take a strategic approach to grouping children and delivering instruction. At the beginning of each year, students are assessed to determine where they are in their progression towards mastery of each of the seven elements of structured literacy. Some students may present with early warning signs of reading challenges, and some may not. Based on the results, vulnerable readers in K-8 are placed in small reading groups and assigned a highly trained teacher who delivers a structured literacy program individually tailored to each reader. Every day, students practice phonemic awareness drills, sound-symbol drills, spelling and dictation through a variety of routines, games, and texts designed to keep them engaged, excited, and motivated. These lessons directly address the deficits in phonology and orthography that hold students back, allowing them to unlock the code of reading and experience success.

Watch how McLean supports dyslexic students in the classroom by developing skills and growing confidence.

Watch our webinar on the Science of Reading, the intricate process of what children need to know and be able to do in order to become independent readers, and how parents can best help them on their reading journey.