As a kid, I used to sneak into my sister’s bedroom, pull out each of her “Baby-Sitters Club” books, look at the covers, and wonder what each one was about. I’d make up stories to what I thought was going to happen, but never once cracked the books open to attempt to read the print. Everyone in my family was an avid reader, so I wanted to be a reader, too. But I didn’t think I had access to that knowledge. It wasn’t until I was 34 years old that I found out that my confusion, shame, and sense of defeat stemmed from the fact that I have dyslexia.
I didn’t discover this until after I had taught kindergarten for 10 years and became a reading program implementation specialist for educators around the country. Students with dyslexia develop astonishing coping mechanisms to make it as far as I did, and unfortunately, my story isn’t as rare as you might think.
Fortunately, having dyslexia has nothing to do with one’s IQ, but no student who struggles to read is going to inherently think that. That’s something an authority figure needs to tell a student until they believe it. As we celebrate Dyslexia Awareness Month in October, here are a few ways educators can change their perception of dyslexia and help their struggling readers change their perceptions of themselves.
Understanding the Gap between Intelligence and Abilities
In college, I took a formal assessment in hopes of getting a time accommodation for exams. When the report came back with the words “learning disability,” I was filled with so much shame. My whole body shut down. I hid the report, scared that someone would see it.
A decade later I read “Overcoming Dyslexia” by Sally Shaywitz and “The Dyslexia Advantage” by Drs. Brock Eide and Fernette Eide. Both contained stories that completely resonated with my education story. I dug out that report and gave it to my best friend, who’s a psychologist. She explained to me that the assessment compares the gap between your intelligence and your academic abilities. The report said that my intelligence is actually very high but that the gap between my intelligence and my abilities is wide enough that I must have some sort of learning disability. I wanted more answers, so I decided to get a formal assessment for dyslexia.
I had spent so much energy trying to hide my struggles, but after I got the diagnosis I realized I could do something good with this information. Once I turned my destructive thoughts about myself into open conversations, I made big breakthroughs. I was 34 and an implementation coach at this point, so I shared my newfound information on what dyslexia looks and feels like in the classroom with educators. Most of the time, it wasn’t what they thought.
Seeing Beyond Jumbled Letters
Even though I majored in elementary education and special education with a reading endorsement as a college student, I don’t remember learning anything about dyslexia. All I thought was that someone with dyslexia reverses their letters. For example, when a young student uses a “b” for a “d.” I had no idea what the scope actually was, and therefore didn’t recognize it in myself.
I had no problem being creative, solving problems, debating a topic or discussing different philosophies. It was the more procedural, remedial concepts like math facts that were nearly impossible for me to master.
When it came to reading, I relied heavily on context. I’d read the text and skip words I didn’t know, filling those gaps with words I thought would make sense. I saw myself as a big-picture thinker and figured as long as I got the gist, I was fine. My spelling was atrocious because I didn’t see patterns within words. It’s these coping mechanisms that are harder for educators to spot, but that’s why it’s so important to develop relationships with your students.
Lightening the Cognitive Load
Homework and reading assignments felt daunting and left me feeling exhausted. As a student, I’d avoid schoolwork because of my perceived notion of difficulty for even simple assignments. At times, I thought I’d rather my peers consider me someone who just didn’t care, rather than someone who gave it her all and fell flat on her face. I followed my strengths, and I put more time into being a good friend and immersing myself in extracurricular activities.
The easiest way an educator can boost a child’s confidence is to reduce the perceived difficulty of the task at hand. Learning how to read is going to be overwhelming for a young student with dyslexia, and even more so for an older student. Educators can lighten that cognitive load by finding the gaps and breaking them down into bite-sized pieces. This can be achieved by using a multi-sensory, explicit approach to phonics. For example, I often had trouble knowing how to spell using suffixes, but learning the five phonetic skills that explain syllable types made it easy as pie to see the patterns and understand the rules.
Now, when educators approach me after a training session and say that a student of theirs exhibits characteristics of dyslexia, I tell them that an effective first step is to have that student take a free dyslexia screener. This informal screening does not provide a diagnosis, but it may assist in identifying common indicators in your student. A significant number of positive responses to the screener might indicate the need for further assessment.
Having a clear diagnosis helps students and their families understand what’s going on, but academic success depends on that powerful bond between teacher and student. I didn’t advocate for myself throughout school, but the classes I succeeded in were taught by educators I connected with and who made a point to see the whole me. That kind of relationship gives students the opportunity to separate their strengths from their abilities.