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Stop the Dyslexia Debate

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Earlier this month, my Twitter stream exploded with passionate tweets about arguments related to the annual Literacy Research Association’s conference in Nashville (#LRA16). According to the tweets, the focus of the controversy was a presentation by several professors who made an argument (to a room full of reading teachers) that dyslexia was “mythological.” One presenter even went so far as to equate people who believed in dyslexia to those who deny climate change is real.

Given that there is a wide abundance of research to establish the existence of developmental dyslexia—defined as an unexpected difficulty learning how to read—it was troubling to hear about literacy specialists and researchers spreading this kind of misinformation.

When it comes to translating the current science surrounding the disorder into best teaching practices, I will concede that decades of misunderstanding and neglect associated with dyslexia have created a disorganized mess. Those dark decades, when dyslexia was considered an academic death sentence for students, prevented many current teachers from learning about and utilizing useful information to address the condition. However, given that research has now identified dyslexia as a cognitive disorder within the brain’s language system, anyone still debating its existence is ignoring established science.

Nonetheless, there are many other urgent and valuable things to discuss and debate about dyslexia at a reading conference and beyond. One of the most important is: How can we most effectively train teachers to screen for the condition?

Identifying Dyslexia in the Classroom

Knowing what to look for to diagnose a child with dyslexia can allow for early intervention and make a huge difference in how the condition affects a child. Dyslexics struggle with reading even if they deploy their intact intelligence, motivation, and adequate instruction in order to learn. Depending on the school’s reading program, children with dyslexia may need alternative instruction or additional support to learn to read. How can schools identify which evidence-based reading programs are the most effective and cost-efficient for dyslexic children?

Since dyslexia impacts reading fluency, one of the biggest barriers to a dyslexic student’s success is efficiently accessing written content. To complicate matters further, the condition also impacts many other language-related areas of the school experience, such as a student’s spelling and general written expression; testing abilities; the skills to work at a fast pace; and the ability to learn a second language (which sometimes necessitates a language waiver for graduation or college entrance requirements). Dyslexic students may be the leaders in a class discussion of a book or complex concept, but struggle with the same topic in a written test or essay. Teachers need to know how to best address the gap between their oral and written expression.

But do we really need to label dyslexics to teach them?

The short answer is yes. Scientific research has also established that dyslexia is a lifelong condition. The challenges associated with dyslexia morph as students progress through school, but dyslexia cannot be "instructed away." Since dyslexia is a mechanical disability, not an intellectual one, the focus on the acquisition of mechanical skills (like decoding, handwriting, spelling, and math facts) in the early grades can make school particularly challenging and stressful.

Unidentified dyslexics spend most of their day in fear of mispronouncing new vocabulary, struggling to read aloud, or misspelling common words. Much of their energy goes towards hiding and avoiding activities in the classroom, making school a stressful and often humiliating place. If we have a word that helps explain, contain, and address their academic struggles, why wouldn’t we embrace it?

Supports for Success

Identifying dyslexia offers both students and their teachers a clarifying and flexible road map to help anticipate the types of struggles students may encounter and to suggest possible supports that may be helpful.

As dyslexic students get older, the emphasis on mechanics is replaced with a focus on higher-order thinking skills (an area where many dyslexics excel). Nonetheless, increased output expectations and timed assessments usher in new mechanical hurdles for older students. Even once they do learn to read, they will likely always struggle with speed (but not comprehension). Accommodations that allow dyslexic students extended time to show what they know, as well as assistive technology like audiobooks and text-to-speech tools, can be critical to their academic success.

Most importantly, dyslexia often takes a significant psychological toll on students. Many students are not identified as dyslexic until after they have already decided that they are stupid because school skills are so much more difficult for them than for their peers. Furthermore, they have likely encountered classmates and teachers who mistook their poor spelling, weak reading, and minimalist written expression as evidence of low potential, thus triggering a self-fulfilling prophesy.

When we as teachers can understand and identify dyslexia in our students, it offers us some clarity about what those students need from us in order to achieve: early intervention, evidence-based reading programs, and access to assistive technologies and classroom accommodations as academic expectations change. Additionally, dyslexic students benefit from teachers who are trained to distinguish between their mechanical disabilities and their intellectual abilities.

With the right supports, dyslexic students have the capacity to become academic leaders. But the only way they can get there is if we start talking about how to best address dyslexia in schools—not continue debating whether it exists. That question has been resolved. Spending our time questioning dyslexia’s legitimacy only hurts the children who are impacted by the condition. Instead of debating the existence of dyslexia, let’s explore how we can most effectively put those elements to use to combat its effects in every classroom.

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