Special Education Opinion

Educating Dyslexic Students Starts With Educating Teachers About Dyslexia

Understanding the science of reading is a necessary starting point
By Robin Zikmund — July 20, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of confused student and teacher.
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I am a mom of a child who has been misunderstood and unsupported in our public school system for more than a decade.

I sent my child off to kindergarten full of excitement. Soon into his school days, my happy, outgoing, confident kid became withdrawn, scared, and anxious. Getting him out the door to school became a challenge.

Full of worry, I reached out to our schools and began to ask questions. The teachers reassured me with common phrases: Relax, give it time, he’s a boy, some kids take longer to develop. But I knew in my gut that something wasn’t right. My story will be familiar to every parent of a child with dyslexia—a story I hope that no other parents will have to share in the future.

I trusted my son’s educators. In fact, I cared very much for them and I could feel their genuine care for me and my son. I trusted they knew and understood what was best to teach my son how to read. They are the ones who studied to become teachers—surely, they know best.

But it quickly became clear that my son’s teachers felt as lost as educators as I did as a parent. It didn’t make sense to any of us why learning was so difficult for my son. He was bright, his vocabulary was beyond that of his peers, and his abilities in some areas came with ease. Why was he struggling with reading?

I now have a plaque on my desk that says, “A Worried Mother Does Better Research Than The FBI,” and it’s so true. I was deeply concerned for my son, so I dove into research.

I came across a dyslexia screener; my son checked every box. The more I learned, the more I understood my son. I went to his teachers and was surprised to discover they didn’t have any real knowledge of this common learning disability. My son’s teachers told me their college-prep programs hadn’t included a single course covering these learning disabilities—disabilities that are covered under federal law.

Multiple special education teachers even told me they were not allowed to call it dyslexia—years after the U.S. Department of Education issued specific guidance correcting that common reluctance. (In 2015, the department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services released a letter to state and local educational administrators to “clarify that there is nothing in the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] that would prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in IDEA evaluation, eligibility determinations, or IEP [individualized education program] documents.”)

I was confused as to why any teacher would graduate with a degree prepared to teach our youth without a basic knowledge of how to meet the needs of this population of students. Far too many special education teachers leave their universities without the skills to effectively teach reading to children with dyslexia.

By 3rd grade, my son became so withdrawn and full of anxiety and said words no parent should have to hear. “What’s wrong with me? I just want to kill myself, Mom.” My son’s academic struggles quickly expanded to a larger concern for his mental health. I realized our education system was not set up to support students like him. Instead, it is often even detrimental to their well-being.

Imagine going to work each day only to struggle with all the tasks that your colleagues can do with ease; that’s what it’s like for our children with dyslexia.

I am passionate about changing the narrative that labels students with dyslexia as “troublemakers.” These children are often seen as lazy, fidgety, and unwilling to focus. It is no surprise they then develop anxiety and depression at higher rates than their peers. Early intervention is key.

If we had left things in the hands of our public school system alone, he would be graduating with a reading level below 3rd grade.

I am incredibly grateful there is a light shining on the literacy crisis across our nation. Over the years advocating for awareness and appropriate training for our teachers and effective instruction for all children, I have been fortunate to meet many educators that I would call leaders of change: teachers who follow their instincts and are willing to do whatever it takes to help their students. They ask hard questions of their leaders and do their own research to learn what they may not know. These educators may not know it, but they are the heroes in the lives of many students.

My son has had many teachers eager to meet him where he was, but their access to training and resources was limited. In four short years, he will graduate from high school. If we had left things in the hands of our public school system alone, he would be graduating with a reading level below 3rd grade.

My son is one of the fortunate ones; my family was in a position to hire a dyslexic specialist who started working with my son this past January, in his 8th grade year. In just three short months, the specialist made more progress with him than his school had in a decade. But the cost was more than many families can afford.

Our teachers deserve to attend preparation programs that give them the knowledge and understanding of this common learning disability. Any teacher seeking certification in special education or a master’s degree in literacy certainly deserves to understand the science of reading. They deserve to know the five early-reading components defined by the 2000 National Reading Panel report: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Change needs to start at the university level in our teacher-prep programs.

I am incredibly grateful for the growing attention the media, many states and school districts, parents, and teachers are giving to our national literacy crisis and the endless work that is being done by the change-makers in education.

To the parents out there of a struggling child, know you are not alone, never question your gut instincts. They are almost always right.

To all the teachers and administrators, join the leaders of change and lead from where you are. Changes are coming.


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