How to manage dyslexia on the SAT and ACT

dyslexia on the SAT & ACT

The SAT and ACT are US tests used for undergraduate college admissions. More than 3 million students take the SAT and/or ACT each year. The SAT and ACT are both long (4 hrs +), written, and competitive. This creates a unique landscape for students with dyslexia.

I founded a company that helps students prepare for the SAT and ACT (Testive). Our coaches have counseled thousands of students, and our online software has helped hundreds of thousands. Based on my experience working with students dealing with dyslexia in some form, here are the common themes:

There are three main considerations for dealing with dyslexia and the SAT or ACT.

  1. Coping mechanisms for dyslexia: achieving peak performance
  2. Test prep for dyslexia: learning tools that are dyslexia friendly
  3. Testing accommodations for dyslexia: making the SAT and ACT themselves more dyslexia friendly

Coping mechanisms for dyslexia and the SAT and ACT

dyslexia and the SAT and ACT

Like most written exams, the SAT and ACT are heavily dependent on reading. The SAT and the ACT are nearly identical as far as dyslexia issues are concerned, so I’m using them interchangeably. Neither test is more “dyslexia friendly” than the other, so don’t worry about that.

Both tests are very long, so not only is the content of the test challenging for some people with dyslexia, but the length of it makes adapting a challenge.

For this reason, the single most popular coping mechanism students use are special testing accommodations that allow for extended time. This is such a big topic that we’ll cover it in greater detail below. Let’s keep this section about strategies for improving performance within the constraints of the testing parameters.

Because dyslexia is such a varied experience, there is no one-size-fits-all coping mechanism for performing well on the SAT and ACT, though many people ask that exact question. I have worked with several students confronting differing types of dyslexia and they have each developed techniques to help them perform better over time. I’ll tell you about a few specific students in a moment, but first, let me share some advice that I give to all of my students.

For all students: improvement requires focused, deliberate practice

The number one thing that I tell all my students is that the best way to learn, and therefore improve scores on the SAT, is by doing “focused, deliberate practice”. This is also true for students with dyslexia, and the fact that one is dealing with dyslexia does not usually change the number one strategic goal. In fact, you might reword this tip to say, don’t let the fact that you’re dealing with dyslexia take your eyes off the main goal, which is focused, deliberate practice. Don’t stop practicing because you think you might be different from anyone else.

When I use the words “focused” and “deliberate”, they are not tongue-in-cheek. I mean very specific things.

FOCUS: Your practice should be focused.

Since long learning sessions can be heavier for people coping with dyslexia, it’s important to get the most out of every minute. For that reason, you should **focus your work on your weakest areas**. This sounds obvious, but is not the norm when people sit down to work. If you struggle with reading for instance, you might be tempted to work on math because it’s easier or more comfortable. Unfortunately, it’s also less useful to focus on your strong areas. Weak areas are the places where you get the biggest score improvement by rounding yourself out. SAT and ACT prep efforts have diminishing marginal returns, meaning it’s harder to improve in areas where you have higher scores compared to areas where you have lower scores, so it’s important for you to focus where you can have the greatest impact: your weak areas.

DELIBERATE: Your practice should be deliberate.

SAT and ACT prep should be focused

What this typically means is that you begin by reviewing notes that you have written for yourself. Also, every time you answer a question incorrectly you figure out why, and you figure out what you will do differently next time to avoid making the same mistake. Then, you write that down in the same notebook that you will review comprehensively every day. At Testive we have found that writing these notes is the single biggest predictor of student success. Our students write what we call “review notes” for every single question that they answer incorrectly or that they spend too much time on.

My experience is that almost no one writes great review notes unless they are coached by a professional, but there’s no good reason, other than motivation, for this to be true. Few people write good notes, probably because the notes are so difficult and time-consuming to write! Nevertheless, real learning occurs with the writing and regular reviewing of these notes. If you write good notes, you’ll improve quickly. If you don’t, you’ll still improve, but more slowly and you’ll make old mistakes more often. Notes are tough, but in most cases are the quickest route to the top of the mountain.

In particular, students with dyslexia should be looking for patterns and techniques that help them perform better. These patterns are most easily discovered while doing practice work itself, not while reading at a theoretical level, so hit the books and take notes. To get you started, below are some examples of things that have worked for my students in the past. Note, however, that in my experience, each student must invent their own adaptations, and that there is no one-size-fits-all model.

How Alice used calendars to help her test prep

One of my students, Alice, had the most trouble with schedules and dates. This wasn’t a problem on the SAT itself, but was a big problem with test prep. Test prep takes a long time and Alice was constantly missing deadlines and failing to put in enough time to see improvement. It didn’t help that she absolutely hated doing the practice itself. The solution was breaking down her prep goals into much much smaller units.

Instead of setting a target of “doing 100 practice questions this week”, she instead set goals such as, “do 10 practice questions on Tuesday between 3pm and 4pm”. Setting a more specific time forced Alice to consider her real schedule, which isn’t something she was used to doing.

Also, setting an ending time made it easier for her to get started because she knew that no matter how painful the prep itself was, that it would be over in an hour. Also, setting a target number of practice questions for that hour (10) helped motivate her and also helped set the right expectations for how long it should take to do a good job on 10 practice questions. 10 practice questions can be answered in about 10 minutes, but it’s the other 50 minutes of review and analysis where the real learning is done.

How Brian used reading aloud to improve performance

Another one of my students, Brian, had been diagnosed with dyslexia but swore that it had no impact on his prep or his ability on the SAT. I wouldn’t have even known that Brian had a dyslexia diagnosis if his mother hadn’t told me about it. Luckily, I was on the lookout.

As we dug into questions that he was answering incorrectly, we found a pattern. Brian was regularly answering questions incorrectly because he misinterpreted the instructions. After the work was done and he was looking back over his work, the errors were all obvious to him. He wasn’t missing any skills that would limit his ability to execute, but he was often solving problems that hadn’t been asked.

This is quite common. Many students (myself included) perform differently when they are subjected to time-pressure. The pressure causes us to rush, and to miss key bits of information. As you can imagine, someone dealing with dyslexia might be someone who is susceptible to this pattern.

The solution: Brian started reading the questions out loud. I’m not sure exactly why this worked, but I suspect that it’s because reading aloud forced him to slow down while reading so that he was able to process the information more completely. Also, when speaking aloud, in addition to seeing the words, he was also able to hear them, which taps into different neural pathways for processing information.

The major blocker to getting Brian to read questions aloud was that he felt embarrassed while doing it. After much needling, he confessed that reading aloud made him feel childish. How did I convince him to keep doing it? His performance improved immediately. It doesn’t always happen like this, but this time, It was night and day. It was, for him, a silver bullet. (So rare.)

He was shocked and actually saddened by the discovery. He was excited to have a new tool, but wished that he had discovered this technique earlier. Learning can sometimes be painful, but it’s almost always worth the struggle. Brian was glad that he made his breakthrough. The lesson: don’t be afraid to try something different. You might surprise yourself.

It’s worth noting that you can’t speak aloud in the regular testing room when you take the SAT or ACT. Brian eventually shifted from speaking aloud, to mouthing words, mostly to the same effect. If actually speaking aloud is important to you, you can get a testing accommodation for that. There are private testing rooms for exactly this purpose. More on accommodations below.

How Kim beat geometry by circling the “wanted element”

One of my students named Kim was having difficulty in geometry. Geometry is a unique type of question on the SAT. It’s math, but it’s not entirely deterministic. That is, there isn’t always a process that you can apply to determine the answer like you can with algebra. In Geometry, sometimes you have to hunt around in the math and look for a breakthrough. Here’s where the challenge was with Kim. Hunting around felt hopeless to her, so she had no stamina for it. What we needed to do was create a set of clues for her to follow.

The breakthrough was having her circle the “wanted element” that is, the thing the question was asking her for. Sometimes that thing is “x”. Sometimes that thing is the length of a line, or the measure of an angle. In all cases, she started circling it before starting the question.

The difference was amazing. Instead of searching randomly, Kim was now going somewhere specific. She was then able to focus on hunting for formulas that would get her from where she was to where she wanted to go.

How Yale student Nancy Hall copes with dyslexia

Nancy Hall wrote a great piece for the Yale Center For Dyslexia & Creativity outlining several specific coping mechanisms that she uses with her dyslexia. While not SAT specific, the advice is a great shopping ground for ideas.

Test prep for the SAT that is dyslexia friendly.

Because dyslexia affects different people different ways, it’s important that you use test-prep resources that play to your learning strengths.

If you have a network of professionals that work with you or your child on dyslexia, you should definitely ask them specifically about the SAT and ACT, and also about SAT and ACT prep. They’ll have some ideas for sure, and it’s not a strange thing to ask.

Here are some examples of how you might think of different learning circumstances.

For example, if you don’t like written information, it’s important for you to get a test-prep resource that allows you to listen, or watch something, rather than reading it. Here are some specific resources.

Classes: A test-prep class has a teacher that does demonstrations and speaks aloud. Classes are very local, so you’ll need to search for one that’s accessible to where you live. In-person classes are also slowly dying out, so there many not be any to choose from in your area. The reason classes are dying out is that they aren’t as engaging as they once were now that better content is available online. So, consider this option carefully.

Tutors: A tutor can animate processes for you. You can find tutors in your area on Wyzant, or if you have a tutor that you work with well already, they can probably help you with SAT and ACT prep as well. If you are applying to a competitive college, it’s worth getting someone who is an SAT or ACT expert since there are many specifics to the test that are relevant. Depending on the severity of your dyslexia, it’s probably more important to have a tutor who is an expert in the SAT or ACT than it is to have a tutor who is an expert in dealing with dyslexia, but tutors are all different so you may need to try several before you find one that works well with your child.

Online prep tools: One obvious challenge with online tools is that you can’t write on a screen, however there are easy ways of overcoming this (scrap paper). One of the major advantages of some online prep tools is video recordings of answer explanations. Many of my students with dyslexia have reported liking this option so I’ll expand on it below.

Why you might want to consider video answer explanations

  1. Video answer explanations are typically recordings of an expert teacher doing problems in real time while explaining their thought process. This allows students to both see/hear/do the work, which taps into many different individual learning styles. Testive is one place that has video recordings of answer explanation videos.
  2. Many video answer explanations are hosted on youtube, so they can be played at faster or slower than their original recorded pace. Personally, I find it much easier to watch videos if they are played at 2x speed. Many students like them played at slower speeds, such as 0.75x.
  3. Because the videos are recorded and available 24×7, students can watch them over and over if they like. One of the things that makes tutors a challenge is that students may be embarrassed to ask the same question over and over again. This is where a recording really shines. It never gets bored or tired, and it’s never judgmental. My breakthrough on this came from talking with Sal Khan, who did a similar thing for Khan Academy. He mentioned that the videos alleviated embarrassment and that was my epiphany, so I recommend that students consider this format for SAT and ACT prep.

Regardless of what you use for prep, make sure you stay nimble. When you are doing real learning, you should start seeing improvement almost immediately, so if you don’t feel yourself making progress, switch to something else.

Special testing accommodations for test-takers with dyslexia

One of the most effective ways to help you deal with dyslexia and the SAT is to seek testing accommodations. Accommodations have many varieties. For example, many people are allowed to take extra time on the test. The SAT and ACT offer 1.5x and 2x timing variants. There are other accommodations as well, such as extra breaks and private testing rooms.

Obtaining accommodations on the SAT and ACT is difficult and takes a long time, so if you want to go this route start well ahead of time. I suggest engaging with the test prep process in earnest the summer before Junior year for all students, and if you are seeking accommodations approvals, you should do so on the same schedule, or earlier.

Also, silver lining, applying for accommodations is one thing that parents can tackle on behalf of their children, which is great because there are so few ways parents can help in the SAT prep process directly and this is one great way.

If you’re trying to determine whether you should apply for testing accommodations, I usually counsel parents to mirror other accommodations they have used in the past on other tests. This sounds obvious but isn’t. Because the SAT and ACT are so competitive, many students look for accommodations on them when they haven’t been using accommodations in other testing situations. This is the most difficult situation. Getting testing accommodations on the SAT and ACT is much easier if you have a pattern of using them in the past.