Teaching for Dyslexia

Imagine opening your favorite book, maybe the pages have that nice old book smell caused by the breakdown of cellulose and lignin in the paper. Instead of your favorite characters, or a favorite literary haunt like Hogwarts, you are greeted by words swimming and dancing before your eyes. The words that once flowed so easily between your lips or in your head take minutes to decipher, not seconds. It is like wading through thick sand made of letters, and it feels like a herculean task for your brain. Writing and spelling are painful to get on the page, and it is difficult to remember many of the things you are learning about. Now imagine you are surrounded by a group of your peers, and they are having no discernible trouble. What takes you hours of work and effort takes them seemingly no time at all. This is what many students with the learning difference known as dyslexia experience every day in school.

Most of us think of letter flipping or the reading of words backward when we hear the word dyslexia. Despite the highly common occurrence of dyslexia, which is in fact the neuro-biologically based struggle to break words down into their individual sounds [or phonemic awareness, to use a bit of jargon], there is a relatively low understanding of what dyslexia actually is despite some of the best research and methods of instruction at our fingertips. Massachusetts actually leads the country in dyslexia research, but rarely is that research put into practice. Of late, there have been encouraging developments such as President Obama's READ act, which provides funding for more research and the implementation of that research. There is even a dyslexia awareness day. Unfortunately, in our current system, the process known as "Wait to Fail" is the widespread method of handling dyslexia in school.

Children have to wait until roughly third grade before they are diagnosed, and receive the help they need, if they are diagnosed at all. Massachusetts does not even currently use the proper definition of dyslexia, but rather refers to a specific learning disability, a diagnosis that includes thirteen radically different conditions from head trauma to dyscalculia [a struggle with math].

This definition means that teachers who are not trained to specifically teach for dyslexia, but rather have a generalized background are provided, despite not often being trained in the proper interventions. In many districts teachers are told they can't even use the word, despite research showing the benefits of having the diagnosis so children don't blame themselves for the struggle.

According to experts, like Nadine Gaab of Harvard and Boston Children's Hospital, the most effective window for dyslexia intervention is well before third grade. It is possible, with dyslexia screeners, to identify the struggle as early as pre-school with 80% accuracy. If an evidence-based reading intervention is delivered in a timely manner, and with enough repetition, it is possible to mitigate the harmful social and emotional side effects of untreated developmental dyslexia, which can include depression, behavior problems, and stress induced ulcers. It is research like Dr. Gaab's that belongs in our schools, influencing decisions being made for those students who struggle the most, and yet many of these schools continue to adhere to the "wait to fail" model, even in 2016 when we have known about dyslexia for decades.

It is time to change how this system works, and it is time to implement research based interventions in our schools. Dyslexic students are normally of above average intelligence, and many of the most influential individuals from Einstein to Spielberg had to struggle with this learning difference. We have all the tools we need to create change for these children, we just have to use those tools.

For more information about dyslexia, legal resources, and early signs, you can visit the parent-led group Decoding Dyslexia.

Read "Teaching for Dyslexia Part II" here.

"ASCII soup" by J.H. Fearless via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0