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Getting Your Reluctant Teen With Dyslexia to Read Fiction and Why It Matters


By Margaret Paton

Your teen may be one of the 8.5 million American students with dyslexia.

The teen years are white hot with peer pressure. So, is it worth nudging your teen with dyslexia to read more fiction? Chances are their peers read, so your child might be missing out on connecting more deeply with them, popular culture and a swag of other benefits that reading fiction offers.

But first, the accepted international definition of dyslexia is a specific learning disability with a neurobiological origin. Characteristics include difficulty recognizing words fluently and/or poor spelling and the ability to decode. That can mean issues with comprehending what’s read as well as spelling and writing. Check out our other blog post about what happens in our brains when we learn to read and master the skill.

Reading Fiction a Chore

An adult who’s overcome dyslexia, Nathan [surname withheld on request], says he didn’t enjoy reading in his childhood or as a teen.

“I tend to read for information as I have a very inquiring mind. I’ve always wanted to know how things worked, so I now find it relaxing to read non-fiction.”

Nathan has graduated with three degrees and is onto his second career. He taps into supports (such as spellcheck and Grammarly) for the reports he creates for work. But, is he selling himself short by not reading fiction?

Perhaps. It’s all about developing one of the soft skills essential for the future of work – empathy.

Researchers Mar, Djikic and Oatley say in their paper, Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood, “Exposure to narrative fiction was positively associated with empathic ability, whereas exposure to expository non-fiction was negatively associated with empathy.”

What’s the Big Deal About Reading?

For many of us, getting absorbed in a great novel is reading for pleasure, escapism, transportation into other worlds or even stretching our own world. And the benefits don’t stop there.

When you engage with a story – such as through reading – you’re on the path to narrative transportation. It leads to feelings and thoughts consistent with the narrative world you’re reading about, according to Associate Professor Tom van Laer of the City University of London.

“The more a story transports you, the more likely you are persuaded to adopt the beliefs espoused in it. Deeper changes occur, too. Previous research shows the changes of attitudes and intentions are part of the narrative transportation effect,” he wrote in The Conversation.

As well, a British study, linked reading for pleasure to greater intellectual program in vocabulary, spelling and mathematics. It followed more than 17,000 people born in a single week in 1970, found that “those who frequently read books at age 10, and more than once a week when they were 16, had higher test results than those who read less”.

Society Benefits Because We Read

And just in case you’re still not convinced reading is worth nagging your teen about, hear what cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf has to say in her new book Reader Come Home. It’s a similar message to the one she wrote about in her seminal work, Proust and the Squid The Story and Science of the Reading Brain about a decade ago. In short, the whole of society and our species benefit when individuals read.

Wolf says: “In a span of only six millennia reading became the transformative catalyst for intellectual development within individuals and within literate cultures. The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought; it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species.”

Learners with Dyslexia Start Off on the Back Foot

Bringing this back to students with dyslexia, Wolf makes a poignant statement in her first book. She says our ancestors took 2,000 years to develop an alphabetic code, but “children are regularly expected to crack this code in about 2,000 days (that is, by six or seven years of age), or they will run afoul of the whole educational structure”.

“If reading is not acquired on society’s schedule, these suddenly disinherited children will never feel the same about themselves. They will have learned they are different,” she says.

That’s why you should encourage your teen with dyslexia to get into fiction. Here’s how you can nurture that.

Aim For Grade Level Or Higher

It’s vital that you pitch books to your teen that are at their grade level – or higher – to boost their overall language skills, says Dr Joanne Marttila Pierson of the University of Michigan.

“Rich exposure to reading and books will promote the development of new vocabulary, complex syntactic forms, and literate language forms (e.g., nonliteral and abstract language), and exposure will increase students’ understandings and knowledge about the world. Encouraging students to read a variety of different kinds of texts (e.g., fictional narratives, biographies, mysteries, essays, nonfiction/informational texts) will help them to become more familiar with the different text structures that they will encounter,” she says.

Different Formats

If your teen won’t come to the book, bring the book to them, in a different – and more accessible – format. As Mairi Kidd, the managing director of a publisher that specializes in books for children and young people with dyslexia, says: “don’t ask what’s wrong with the reader, ask what’s wrong with the book.”

There is a myriad of supports to help teens get immersed in a good book including:

  • The letters of the text spaced out more widely than conventionally
  • Larger letters (14 point, for example)
  • Use of a particular font that’s easier to read if you have dyslexia (there have been mixed reviews of the Dyslexiefont and there’s a free download, Open Dyslexic)
  • Using cream, yellow or tinted paper (over colored transparent overlays) to reduce visual stress
  • More generous line spacing
  • Printing on thicker paper so you don’t see the shadows of the words on the other page
  • Controlled lighting
  • Graphic novels (here’s a recommended reading list)

The style of writing could also cater better for readers with dyslexia. Simpler words could still carry a rich plot, but allow a teen reader with dyslexia to take it in speedily than otherwise. Shorter chapters are ideal to make readers feel they’re pacing through the book.

Zero in on Books Designed for Readers With Dyslexia

There are swatces of books written with the young person with dyslexia in mind. Check out Pinterest’s recommendations for dyslexia friendly books here or the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity’s classroom reading list (including for younger readers). There’s also this list of recommended books that will make your teen with dyslexia laugh (we hope).

Here are some book suggestions written for children with dyslexia from Gemm Learning. Part 2 here, Part 3 here.

Check Out the Audio Options

Chances are that your teen with dyslexia has average to above average receptive language skills so might like to toggle between text and audiobooks.

E-book readers as Amazon Kindle allow you to adjust and adapt the text to your preferences, including converting text to audio. Look into Bookshare, an online library offering digital books for people with print disabilities. It’s free for qualified US students and schools.

Another option is the non-profit organization, Learning Ally, which has audiobooks including some with text for people with reading disabilities.

What Are Their Peers Reading?

There’s another way you can encourage your reluctant teen with dyslexia to read non-fiction. You could talk to their peers, find out what they’re reading and talking about. That’s a great way to hook your teen into reading even more by leveraging off their interests.

Get the conversation with their friends going. Put out your feelers to help those novels materialize in an accessible format for your teen. After all, they could have four peers in their class of 20 who also have dyslexia, research suggests.

If you think your teen with dyslexia needs encouragement and a little extra help, call Gemm Learning. They offer a free consultation about our age-specific reading programs for people with dyslexia. Check out what’s involved.

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