Photo: The Southport School is a K–8 school in Connecticut that prioritizes students with learning-based differences like dyslexia.
As teachers know, there is no universal way to educate. Individual students have unique ways of retaining information, and many must also contend with circumstances that may disrupt their learning, like social and emotional factors, disorders, and disabilities. Not every learning disability is immediately visible. One such disability is dyslexia.
With National Dyslexia Awareness Month 2022 right around the corner, there is no better time to learn how to support students grappling with dyslexia, while bringing awareness to others in the community about its effects on the student population. We spoke with experts on dyslexia—Will Baker, Dr. Elena Grigorenko, and Dr. Ben Powers—to learn more.
October Is Dyslexia Awareness Month
What Is Dyslexia?
So, what is dyslexia? Although there is more than one definition to be found online, Will Baker, President of The Dyslexia Foundation, prefers to use the one provided by the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:
“Dyslexia is a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person's ability to read.”
The NIH definition goes on to state that dyslexia presents itself differently for each individual, and may result in difficulties in speech, spelling, or the manipulation of sounds. It is also a genetic disability and may be passed down through generations.
Much has been learned about dyslexia since Baker first began working at The Dyslexia Foundation over 30 years ago. Baker, who has dyslexia, began to show signs of the disability in the 1950s.
“I do what I do so that no one needs to go through what I went through,” Baker says. “I had a supportive family, so I had the resources, but no one really knew what I had.”
When he first began to exhibit signs of dyslexia, doctors suggested solutions that included removing his adenoids, tonsils, or cutting into the area below his tongue. When Baker began to struggle in class, he turned his focus to sports, where he was able to excel. By the 1970s, Baker was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. By then, he was pursuing medicine in college, and informed the dean of his diagnosis.
“I said I have dyslexia,” says Baker. “And the dean said, ‘There’s no such thing.’”
Despite the definition (and existence of) dyslexia being more widely understood today, when it comes to regulations in schools, there is no single interpretation.
Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for the International Dyslexia Association Dr. Elena Grigorenko highlights the policy considerations when it comes to dyslexia:
“The federal ward dictates one thing, but then the states interpret them differently. And then the state interpretation trickles down to a district interpretation, to a school interpretation, and so forth.”
This being the case, awareness and types of dyslexia reading programs vary across different schools, giving some children more support while others lag behind in their literacy. For educators, the first step that they can take to help, no matter where they teach, is to understand what dyslexia is and how to spot it. A diagnosis alone can help students understand why they may be struggling.
Teaching Students with Dyslexia
Certain independent schools are designed specifically to help students with language-based learning difficulties (including dyslexia and ADHD/ADD) although Grigorenko explains that such schools are not available in every area.
Dr. Ben Powers is Head of School at one such institution—The Southport School in Connecticut.
“We spend an incredible amount of time on literacy instruction,” says Powers. “We really focus on that to build up their skills…and their social and emotional well-being with the objective to get them mainstreamed into a more typical learning environment.”
In schools not specifically tailored to identify or teach to these needs, those who did not struggle with literacy oftentimes do not understand someone who is coming to terms with dyslexia. This can include fellow students, teachers, or administrators.
“One of the big challenges with something like dyslexia is that it's not a visible disability,” says Powers. “And you see these very typical kids in the classroom or typical-seeming kids in the classroom, and there's this disconnect.”
The disconnect can affect more than students’ reading score. It can warp their confidence going forward. Baker, before his diagnosis, found comfort in high school sports because academics only ever resulted in disillusionment. Powers has often witnessed the same damaged confidence in his students.
“At the heart of it is this huge social and emotional impact,” says Powers. “Where you've got these kids who start to feel like they're not smart or that they're not as capable as their peers because it's been so hard for them to learn to read.”
There are also socioeconomic factors that come into play. Without the money and time needed to assist children with reading differences, there is a privilege gap between those who can afford specialized classes or assistance and those who cannot. Even recognizing dyslexia can become a challenge for families or schools with fewer means to do so.
“The kids who usually get identified with dyslexia typically fall into a pretty specific socioeconomic demographic, because those are the parents who have the resources to advocate for their kids,” says Powers. “[But] dyslexia can impact anybody. [It] is an equal opportunity disability.”
Undiagnosed disabilities like dyslexia can also contribute to higher disciplinary rates (especially for students of color), higher suspension rates, and ultimately to the school-to-prison-pipeline. In schools with less advantages or funding, diagnoses are more difficult to come by.
“By being aware and understanding that dyslexia exists in all communities, regardless of the color of your skin or what your environmental circumstances may be…the better chance we have to increase our outcomes for all kids,” says Powers.
How Can I Support Students With Dyslexia?
Will Baker refers to expertise from Dr. Nicole Patton-Terry, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University, for the three things that a child with dyslexia needs: “support from their family, support from their school, and support from their community.”
Baker recalls his own support system when he was growing up with dyslexia. Although his school and community may not have been able to help him, his parents did, and it made all the difference.
“Empower parents with knowledge,” says Baker. “That’s how we’re going to make change in the educational system.”
Once aware of their child's needs, it is important that a parent or guardian work with their school and special education department in order to identify the need for further tests. Following the guidance of the school, parents should pursue a proper evaluation and assessment from a professional accredited neuropsychologist.
In addition to the family, awareness is key for teachers and school leadership. Understanding the signs can help shape a student’s entire academic career, and how they view themselves as a learner and self-advocate for themselves in the future.
As a teacher privy to a child's learning journey, recognizing a student's needs and relaying them to a parent is often the first step. Certain digital reading intervention programs can also help identify students who may be at risk with dyslexia screening. One example is our Amira Dyslexia Screener, an AI-based reading tutor that can highlight indicators of dyslexia.
Another important way to raise awareness in the classroom is through representation.
“You have dyslexic people who might be famous, or people who are successful adults who have interesting careers,” says Powers. “And so we try to raise awareness that way with our kids through the program, especially around Dyslexia Awareness Month. We celebrate who they are, the cerebrodiversity they have, and who they are as learners.”
Next to the strides being made in parental support and teacher understanding, one challenge that remains is with school administration. For Powers, who partners with public schools, leadership can be challenging to reach.
“There's been so much awareness raised through parents and parent organizations like Decoding Dyslexia, which is fantastic,” says Powers. “But there hasn't necessarily been that same focus on raising awareness with school leaders or in school communities.”
For Powers and The Southport School, finding those discussion opportunities with school leaders and helping them understand how dyslexia impacts programming is an important goal.
Media Literacy and Disinformation
One particular pain point in the push for dyslexia awareness is that of false information. Just as with anything, research for dyslexia should come from a reputable source to avoid a minefield of snake oils and scams promising miracles for students with dyslexia.
“There’s no quick fix [for dyslexia]…whatever facts you’re told, find the source,” says Baker. “It’s important for parents to know that whatever information comes up, to do their due diligence. The upside of social media is that we can get the information out there. The downside is that not all of the information is accurate.”
Attempting to side-step the patience and hard work that it takes to help a child overcome difficulties with reading will in all likelihood prolong the issues that the student is facing. Grigorenko describes those that take advantage of parents as selling expensive solutions that are not based in fact.
“[They] treat [students] with different approaches that are not necessarily evidence-based or proven, or sometimes even charlatan,” says Grigorenko. “It's a challenging field for a parent.”
Powers has also witnessed the desperation that some family members feel about their child’s learning differences, and the willingness to pay whatever it costs to help them overcome their struggles as quickly as possible.
“Some of this is just opportunistic, where people find opportunities to generate a business or money,” says Powers. “And some of it is well-intentioned, but based on things that just aren't sound science.”
If you are a parent or teacher and want to know more about dyslexia, use any of the following reputable resources to get started:
- The Dyslexia Foundation
- Haskins Global Literary Hub
- International Dyslexia Association
- Learning Disabilities by Jack Fletcher
For any independent research, be sure to check the source and ask yourself these questions:
- Is this solution backed by science?
- Do experts in this field support or recommend this program?
- Does this expensive solution seem too good to be true?
Student Success Stories
Despite the hardships and the privilege gaps that remain for students with dyslexia, Powers has success stories to share. One student, who hadn’t received any intervention services until he was 17 years old, started the year with low confidence and his head on the desk during class. But after a few months, he began to improve. After attending Northeastern University and pursuing a medical career, he eventually returned to Southport to thank Powers for believing in him.
Baker himself is a success story as well, assuming a leadership role at The Dyslexia Foundation and studying the science behind the disorder. Much has been discovered since he first began to struggle with learning difficulties, and new research is still being done every year.
“We want to create an environment free of reading failure for all children by empowering parents and teachers with current evidence-based research and practices,” says Baker.
As Dyslexia Awareness Month 2022 approaches, remember that not every disability is immediately obvious, and that your awareness may change the trajectory of a student’s life. Intervention is available for all ages, and it is never too late to confront the challenges presented by dyslexia or other learning differences.
“We see kids with various learning challenges all the time,” says Grigorenko. “And many of them stay in touch and grow up and come back thriving.”
For more effective leadership strategies for early dyslexia identification and intervention, register now for the Leadership Strategies for Early Dyslexia Identification and Intervention webinar on October 20, 2021.
Check out the AI-powered Amira Learning, an intelligent reading assistant that can screen an entire group for dyslexia in less than 10 minutes. You can get a free demo here.