October was dyslexia awareness month. Again. But what have we actually done for children with dyslexia?
Dyslexia screening is a hot topic among advocates, especially in California. The California Department of Education recently published new California Dyslexia Guidelines that will be used to assist teachers and parents to “identify and assess pupils with dyslexia, and to plan, provide, evaluate, and improve educational services to pupils with dyslexia.”
Yet, schools have had access to screening tools, such as the Shaywitz DyslexiaScreen and PAR Test, for years. Effective, research-based practices and neuroscience-based language and reading interventions have also been around for decades.
So, if everything necessary to provide learners with dyslexia with an appropriate education is available now and has been for decades, why are so many kids still being left behind?
First, let’s look at what dyslexia is and what it isn’t. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in reading. Understood.org explains that kids with dyslexia “have trouble reading accurately and fluently. They may also have trouble with reading comprehension, spelling and writing.” Trouble decoding words — matching letters to sounds and then using that skill to read words accurately and fluently — is a sign of dyslexia, too.
Despite the straightforward signs, there are many misconceptions. One of the most common misconceptions is that dyslexia is a visually-based learning problem that causes confusion about letters and words. In reality, research shows that dyslexia is primarily an auditory disorder, with weaknesses appearing in phonological processing. This problem with perception of speech sounds, in turn, causes problems relating a speech sound to the written letter.
Another myth is that children with dyslexia will never learn to read well. However, research has proven that most struggling readers can learn to read well when given intensive instruction using evidence-based programs.
My 11-year-old son is dyslexic. Both his father and I also have a parent who is dyslexic. Born a generation apart on opposite sides of the country, both my mother and his father experienced demeaning treatment as a result of their inability to learn to read fluently in their early school years.
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When my son was a first-grader in an East Bay school district, he too heard demeaning statements from a teacher who referred to him as “lazy” and took away recess and free time as punishment for not completing writing assignments. Other teachers said he just needed “more time” and suggested another year in the same grade.
But waiting doesn’t help. It wastes precious time that could be spent on intervention. Overlooking disabilities like dyslexia creates systemic effects that are bad for the individual and society at large. In U.S. public schools, only 63 percent of students with disabilities graduate from high school, which is almost 20 percent lower than the average graduation rate for all students nationwide. The dropout rate of 16- to 24-year-olds with disabilities is more than twice as large as the rate for their peers without disabilities.
Pam and Pete Wright, authors of “From Emotions to Advocacy,” write extensively about advocacy strategies and skills, and the consequences of not supporting children with learning disabilities. On their website, Wrightslaw.com, they share striking statistics, e.g., 70 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have educational disabilities, and the vast majority have an emotional disturbance and/or specific learning disabilities.
Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to join fellow parent advocates from all over the country for Dyslexia Hill Days in Washington, D.C. We met with policymakers to describe the obstacles families of learners with dyslexia face accessing appropriate instruction. But again, when will that awareness turn into action? Why are so many students still being deprived of the chance to realize their full potential?
Yes, we know that schools are responsible for the costs of education services, and many struggle with funding. But being a dyslexic learner isn’t something that goes away, and the costs become even higher for kids with inadequate skills and academic proficiencies. As adults, their needs are significant, contributing to state and federal spending on public assistance, social services, and incarceration.
We as parents, educators, and residents must insist that scientifically-validated programs be incorporated in our schools. We must reject apathy and the status quo that overlooks the connection between literacy, poverty, and the juvenile justice system. We must appreciate what’s at stake — a child’s present and future, and the future of our workforce and country.
Let’s wait not for Dyslexia Awareness Month to roll around again next October. The time to act is now.