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Go Ahead, Say Dyslexia

When I was going through school, dyslexia was often a whispered word. With few known effective interventions and general confusion surrounding the condition, many potentially capable classmates were left alone to struggle in regular classes or ushered into the school basement to learn alongside students with a wide variety of learning disabilities, including the developmentally disabled. In those days, many schools treated dyslexia as if it were an academic death sentence. The condition imposed a heavy burden of school shame on anyone who wore the distinction. It is no wonder that students avoided being associated with the term and were willing to do almost anything to avoid activities that might betray their dyslexia-related struggles (almost anything academic).

Without support or understanding, most dyslexics languished in school and the rare individuals who managed to succeed were not willing to jeopardize their hard-won credibility by acknowledging their learning challenges. Teacher training programs didn't include instruction related to dyslexia so most teachers and schools were lacking the knowledge and skills to teach dyslexics or even identify its signs and symptoms. Not surprisingly, educators implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) avoided the use of the term. Without a name, it went unaddressed. Consequently, low academic expectations for dyslexics became self-fulfilling.

In many schools, educational practices and policies are still impaired by this legacy. Despite all that we have learned about dyslexia, there remains too much denial and shame surrounding a learning disability that impacts almost twenty percent of our population. Naming dyslexia is a critical first step in demystifying and destigmatizing the condition. How can we expect students with dyslexia to self-advocate and overcome their academic challenges if their teachers and administrators don't even use the word? Likewise, schools are unlikely to develop effective practices and policies for a problem they don't talk about.

 Naming dyslexia is easier (and more likely) if we understand:

  1. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximently 80% of people with learning disabilities have dyslexia
  2. It is a mechanical learning disability which impacts production (reading, writing, spelling). It does not impact intellectual ability.
  3. Early identification is possible (and critical) to prevent the shame and learning loss that can result if it goes unaddressed.
  4. There are effective, evidence-based reading methods that can successfully teach dyslexic students to read.
  5. Assistive technologies like text-to-speech and speech-to-text apps dramatically diminish many output struggles related to spelling, reading and writing.

I teach fifth grade at an academically rigorous school. Every year, anywhere from two to five of my new students are dyslexic. Students with dyslexia are in all of our classrooms. They are often the ones who elevate class discussion but cannot craft a coherent sentence to express their understanding. They may be the students who demonstrate excellent comprehension related to anything read aloud, or explained orally, but struggle with content they are left to read on their own. Dyslexics are frequently the students who confound us with their uneven skills and performance. To help them achieve their potential, we need to know who they are, understand their challenges better, and put effective plans and practices in place to support them. However, to do any of that, we need to first start saying the word. 

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