Special Education Opinion

Dyslexia and the Power of Teacher Expectations

By Kyle Redford — May 16, 2016 5 min read
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Last week, The Senate Committee on Education hosted a hearing entitled “Understanding Dyslexia: The Intersection of Scientific Research and Education.” Testimony by a panel of top medical experts, parents of dyslexics, and individuals with dyslexia was both heartbreaking and illuminating. It was clear that we have a long way to go in translating the existing science to best support dyslexia identification and intervention in our schools. But perhaps the most haunting theme the panelists highlighted was the dire need to break the damaging cycle of low expectations related to dyslexia (the medical experts on the panel referenced dyslexia as the most common learning disability, impacting up to 15-20% of students).

David Boies, arguably one of the most prominent Constitutional attorneys of our time - a dyslexic himself - summed the issue up beautifully when he poignantly argued that we must “help {dyslexic} children understand that they are not dumb. They are not stupid. But they can achieve, and that can be sometimes the most important thing that a child can understand.” To do that, we need to make sure that all teachers understand the way dyslexia works; what it impacts and what it does not. After all, how can students understand their condition if their teachers and schools do not understand it?

As teachers we know that our expectations of students are often self-fulfilling. When imagining what they are capable of accomplishing, students commonly take their cues from us. It is distressing and humbling to realize we possess this kind of unearned power, but we do. Handled well, our expectations can positively influence students as they develop an internalized sense of possibility. However, if this power is mismanaged, we can unintentionally reinforce student fears about their intellectual potential.

Because of the oft-confusing learning profile that distinguishes many dyslexic students, the expectations of teachers can be even more complicated - and influential. Dyslexia is defined as an unexpected difficulty learning to read. Students with dyslexia are impacted by a gap between their intellectual level and their reading level. The condition also effects other school-related skills. Consequently, dyslexics struggle with many of the activities that make up a school day (spelling, writing, and reading). Tragically, those daily academic struggles can inform some bleak and discouraging internal conversations. Dyslexics look around the room and see that certain basic skills come more easily to their peers and they commonly make the unsurprising, yet erroneous, determination that school is not for them. To reinforce this cycle further, their humiliating struggles can lead to an all-out retreat from class participation and assignments, furthering the idea that they have low capacity for achievement.

It is critical that teachers of students with dyslexia can see below the iceberg: All teachers need to understand that dyslexia is a mechanical disability, not an intellectual one. Many dyslexics are actually gifted when it comes to processing information, formulating ideas, and making connections. Without that understanding, it is impossible for teachers to engage in clarifying and hopeful conversations with their students regarding their ability to learn and achieve in school. Teachers also need to know about the powerful role that accommodations and supports can play in unleashing the capacity of dyslexic students to thrive. Simple tools and adjustments like employing audiobooks, using speech-to-text and predictive spelling apps, and allowing extra time on assessments can be game-changers for students with dyslexia. But if teachers don’t know the potential that lurks below their struggling student’s symptoms, they may not explore these possibilities.

Sometimes students can make a significant leap and discover their potential through the removal of a single academic obstacle. For example, this fall I encouraged one of my bright but struggling dyslexic students to try audio books (with synched text and speech). I explained that it would allow her to read at her intellectual level instead of her lower reading level. Although initially skeptical and reluctant, she ultimately agreed to try them. The impact of the switch was stunning and immediate. She quickly went from avoiding books to donning her reading headphones during every spare moment. More importantly, this transformation was not limited to her reading. It impacted the way she saw herself as a thinker and a student. All of her teachers noticed growth in the quality and volume of her writing, her participation in discussions, and in the clarity of her expression. She walked with more confidence. She talked with more confidence. She smiled more and missed school less. Her newfound sense of potential also spurred her to self-advocate for other academic accommodations. All of these observed gains by her teachers were recently confirmed when her spring standardized test scores highlighted significant academic progress in nearly every area.

All that student growth took place without one expensive intervention. A student believed she could, so she did. With dyslexic students dropping out of school at dramatically higher rates than non-dyslexics, educating teachers about dyslexia is an urgent issue. While experts continue to debate with policy-makers about the best way to identify dyslexia and deliver critical cost-effective reading interventions, teachers do not need to wait to make a huge impact. By simply increasing their awareness of the condition and the accommodations that can help dyslexics access information and express themselves, many students will be able to better understand, contain and work around their challenges. But in order to do the extra work necessary to overcome their academic hurdles, dyslexics need to believe in their potential. That is where teacher expectations can make a pivotal difference.

Photo: Taken from C-Span website coverage of the testimony: The Senate Committee on Education hosted a hearing entitled “Understanding Dyslexia: The Intersection of Scientific Research and Education” on May 10. 2016 (from left to right: Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Ameer Baraka, Dr. Guenevere Eden, David Boies, Dr. Mark Mahone, April Hanrath)

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