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 2021 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 intervention 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.
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