The Well-Intentioned But Misguided Advice of Neil deGrasse Tyson: Why Allocating More Time for Reading Is the Wrong Approach for Dyslexics

05/19/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

It was one of those moments tailor made for the internet. An 8-year-old girl takes the mic in a crowded lecture hall and asks America's best-known scientist if he has any colleagues with dyslexia. Neil deGrasse Tyson responds with his customary off-the-cuff sensibility and care, telling the young girl: There are many scientists with disabilities. These people have succeeded because they learned about their condition and then determined the best way to compensate for it. When successful people encounter a hurdle, they first seek to understand the nature of the challenge and then find a way to jump over it. The key to success for dyslexics, he advises the girl, is to simply allocate more time for reading.

This heartwarming exchange was shared widely on social media--populating hundreds of thousands of Facebook feeds with two minutes and forty-eight seconds of edifying inspiration.

The only problem: Dr. Tyson's advice to ambitious dyslexics is terrible!

We are both dyslexic. We also each have masters and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Tyson is correct that we faced many obstacles on our way. But the key to our success was not to spend more time doing the thing we are, by definition, not very good at doing--reading printed text.

Dyslexia is a common reading disability that affects between five and 17 percent of school-aged children. People with dyslexia experience difficulties connecting sounds to letters and decoding text. As a result, reading printed text is labor intensive, time consuming, and often extremely frustrating for people with dyslexia. Dyslexia does not impact a person's intelligence or their ability to comprehend complex concepts or information.

For us, like many other dyslexics, the pathway to success lay in learning how to develop our strengths and getting information in other ways. Yes, we each received targeted supports to develop our reading skills. Certainly, these supports were critical as learning to read is an invaluable skill. But these interventions did not come at the expense of developing areas where we excelled. This is critical as students who are forced by schools to focus exclusively on their weaknesses often lose interest in learning and disconnect from school.

Developing strengths is important but there is no way around the fact that advanced degrees do require students to consume and produce a substantial amount of written material. A generation ago, dyslexic undergraduate and graduate students had little choice but to spend countless hours attempting to decipher printed text.
Today, this type of Herculean effort is no longer necessary. Voice-to-text and text-to-speech technologies are nearly ubiquitous. Whatever functions not built-in to computers and smartphones can be purchased for approximately the cost of a hardcover college textbook. Nearly all scholarly articles written in the last two decades are accessible in a readable format. Those books and other printed text that are not already digitized can be easily converted to readable text with a standard office capacity copy machine and minimal additional software.

With access to tools such as these, decoding printed text does not have to be a barrier to success. However, many educators and parents are not aware of these options, and students, all too often, are discouraged from using them because people do not perceive using supports such as these as "reading." In recent debates regarding the use of read-aloud technology on the Common Core tests, one academic went so far as to call the use of such supports by students with reading disabilities "cheating."

These beliefs are rooted in the assumption that if dyslexics spend more time reading or tried harder they could just overcome their disability. But dyslexia, like many other disabilities, doesn't go away. We all recognize the absurdity of asking a student who is deaf to allocate more time to listening or asking a blind student to spend more time attempting to see. Why then do we expect students with reading disabilities to spend more time reading?

If a key goal of education is to prepare students to develop the higher-order skills necessary to compete in the 21st century workforce, educators should seek to remove unnecessary barriers rather than simply encouraging some children to try harder. The notion that students with dyslexia should simply allow more time for reading represents one of those unnecessary barriers.

We applaud Dr. Tyson for his comments regarding the value of diversity in the scientific workplace. But his comments show that when it comes to understanding how to best support people with learning disabilities, even the smartest and most well intentioned allies sometimes get it wrong. There is little benefit in forcing dyslexic students to attempt to jump over hurdles when a much more efficient path to success is possible.

Todd Grindal, Ed.D is a researcher with Abt Associates Inc, where he studies how public policies impact young children and children with disabilities. @Grindato

Laura A. Schifter, Ed.D is an Adjunct Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and recently co-authored How Did You Get Here? Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard. @laschifter12