Dyslexia Action: Denied and Delayed

10/09/2014 06:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2014-10-09-katherinedylan.jpeg Photo credit: Richard Wheeler

When my family joined in the effort to raise awareness about dyslexia through the film, The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, we were primarily motivated by the desire to help deshame and demystify the condition. My husband and I had raised our dyslexic son during a time when dyslexia was widely considered an academic death sentence and we were compelled by the film's mission to launch a heightened cultural discussion informed by sound scientific research. Thanks to the research of Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz and the stories of many inspiring individuals who agreed to be in the film, it has been profoundly gratifying to hear so many stories about how the film has changed attitudes and personal experiences.

But awareness is not enough.

Students can only achieve their potential when they get the skills and accommodations they need to thrive. Despite everything we know about dyslexia through research and science, too many children are denied screening for the condition, and many more, once diagnosed, are denied the services that should accompany such a diagnosis. Usually the school's reason for denial, either implicitly or explicitly, points to the limited resources (financial or expertise) of the child's school or district. But that is not the whole picture.

Putting aside legitimate resource challenges, the educational change necessary to support this vulnerable group of students often transcends financial issues. In fact, some (not all) of the most significant changes are actually free and actually only require instructional and attitudinal shifts.

Name the condition

Conditions that go unnamed go unaddressed. A few years ago I attended a week-long Reader's Workshop in NYC with over a thousand other reading teachers and the word dyslexia was never even whispered (yes, at a reading workshop). When a colleague of mine asked Lucy Calkins, the creator of Reading Workshop, about her approach to dyslexic students, she told an auditorium packed with teachers that the condition is over-diagnosed and quickly moved on. Really? Needless to say, as the person charged with training most of NYC public school reading teachers, her lack of interest in a condition which impacts between 10-20% of students was particularly unsettling. Sadly she is in good company. There are states, school districts and schools that still avoid naming dyslexia. Naming the condition begs a differentiated strategy. It is easier to use a single method to teach all students and then act mystified when it fails to meet the needs of a variety of learners.

Ensure Reading Specialists have the training to deliver specialized instruction

When a child is diagnosed with dyslexia they are typically referred to a reading or literacy specialist based on the assumption that that teacher is trained to deliver evidence-based remediation. Unfortunately that is often not the case. With no agreed upon definition of what is involved in this area of specialization, the title could merely indicate that the teacher presides over smaller classes of struggling readers with no additional training or expertise with which to facilitate their learning. I have personally encountered "reading specialists" who don't even know the basic signs of dyslexia. Indeed, some have never even heard of Orton Gillingham (the foundation of most specialized reading programs for dyslexics). It would be easy to blame the reading teachers, but specialized reading instruction is rarely a part of teacher training programs. No wonder no one wants to diagnose children with dyslexia: there is a shortage of individuals trained to provide dyslexics with necessary instruction.

This specialized training is not rocket science. Why are we training all reading teachers to teach mainstream readers when we know that it is not effective for more than a million American students? Additionally, despite research that shows how critical early identification is to a dyslexic student's academic success, we are not teaching elementary, or for that matter, secondary teachers how to recognize the basic signs of dyslexia so it can be identified and remediated.

Support Accommodations

Dyslexia robs a student of time. Most assignments and assessments take dyslexics longer because reading (and writing) is more labored. But ultimately, a student's pace doesn't have to impact the quality of her work. Very often time limits are a contrivance in education. We set deadlines to teach time-management and to guarantee that the work gets done, but whether it takes someone 40 minutes or 60 minutes to take a test does not give us any additional information about how well they comprehend the material. In life outside of school, professionals figure out ways to manage their time to get things done. We don't inquire or care about how many hours it took them as long as they meet the deadline and complete the project to our expectations. Why is this false measure of ability still allowed to play such a negative role in assessments?

Educators need to stop negotiating about whether a audiobook qualifies as a book or whether a dyslexic student should be allowed to use speech-to-text to compose a writing assignment. When teachers quibble about the mechanics involved with a student's learning, it inhibits, rather than promotes, progress. With the ever-evolving assistive learning technologies being created, there is no reason to deny student access to content or limit expression of understanding based on outdated notions regarding what constitutes a fair tool. We wouldn't deny someone glasses or hearing aids if they needed them to learn. Assistive technology is no different.

As Dr. Sally Shaywitz elegantly stated when she recently testified in Congress about the science of dyslexia: "In dyslexia, remarkably in America, in the year 2014, we have not a knowledge gap but an action gap..." It is time that we, as educators, take the knowledge, tools, and research that already exists and use it all to support our academically vulnerable, but intellectually able, dyslexic students so they can achieve their potential.