Unidentified dyslexia is more common than one might think. The prevalence numbers vary, but research tells us that there are too many unidentified and quietly struggling dyslexic students in our K-12 classrooms and schools. The National Institutes of Health estimates that between 6 percent and 17 percent of school-age children have some form of dyslexia, although not all of those students may have been identified by their schools. Some unidentified students may present as lazy, disruptive, or lacking in academic potential, while others manage to deploy enough energy and intellectual ability to hide their difficulties and pass along with their disability undetected. However, without effective support, neither group of students can achieve their full potential.
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Anyone who has taught a dyslexic student has observed that dyslexia, typically considered a reading disability, affects other areas of learning. It makes spelling difficult. It makes writing difficult. It can even make memorizing math facts difficult. It simply makes school difficult—every day and in every way.
A 2016 study by neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may help to explain why dyslexia, typically considered a reading disorder, also creates learning obstacles in other academic areas. The MIT researchers discovered that the part of the brain that is used to learn new things is diminished in the dyslexic brain. Using MRI scans, researchers observed that people with reading difficulties struggled to recognize objects and faces too—tasks that have nothing to do with reading.
The researchers hypothesize that we associate this struggle only with reading because reading is a particularly difficult thing to learn to do. Consequently, that weakness is more easily observed. But weakness in reading may actually serve as a detection system for a more generalized processing difference.
Given the practical school challenges related to dyslexia, early identification of the issue is important so that children can access and qualify for critical interventions, tools, and accommodations to aid in their learning. Concrete supports such as specialized reading instruction, extra time on standardized tests, or the use of programs that allow students to combine both text and audio when they read (such as Learning Ally and Bookshare) can go a long way in helping dyslexics access content and information. Additionally, dictation and predictive spelling software can help them effectively show what they know.
However, the value and urgency of early identification is driven by an additional, more profound threat: Unidentified dyslexic children often privately think they are “stupid” or have diminished potential. They spend much of their school day focused on learning how to use basic mechanical skills with which they typically struggle. Worse yet, they look around the classroom and see their peers having a much easier time with these same skills, triggering confusion, frustration, anxiety, and humiliation.
After expending tremendous effort to achieve results, many dyslexics eventually avoid school work. It seems more appealing to skip the work than to struggle with it and possibly risk drawing attention to their challenges. To “save face,” students may adopt a low-effort or minimal-investment posture. Students fear of their struggles being “found out” also prompts them to spend much of their mental energy trying to avoid detection. They don’t want their teachers and classmates to know how hard it is for them to perform certain tasks because they worry that it will reflect negatively on their intelligence.
And yet, none of the learning skills they struggle with are any indication of their thinking abilities.
On the contrary, dyslexics are often exceptional thinkers. Outside of school, one does not have to look far to find examples of dyslexics as leaders in diverse fields such as science, politics, medicine, business, law, and the arts. More often than not, those professional success stories come with an equally exceptional story of school struggle. Even dyslexic superstars report that their early years of failing and feeling stupid in school left psychological scars too deep to be vanquished by their adult success. Yet, many also confirm that identifying dyslexia as the root cause of their learning struggles was transformational and liberating.
In order to identify dyslexics, teachers have to know the clues. Dyslexics are slow and effortful readers, but they are often the students who demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of content or story. They often have sloppy handwriting and struggle with spelling, but they have amazing ideas. In math, they may be the student who cannot retain their math facts, but readily offer creative ways to solve the problems. They struggle with written tests, but may lead class discussion. Overall, their weak mechanical skills shouldn’t be any indication of their intellectual abilities.
As Frederick Douglass wisely warned, it is “easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” In the case of dyslexia, the earlier we can intervene in a dyslexic student’s life, the less of a toll it will take on his or her sense of confidence and competency. Identification is the first step in explaining the struggles and securing necessary supports. Additionally, understanding that dyslexia is a mechanical disability, not a thinking disability, goes a long way in dispelling the silent shame that can potentially haunt a student for life. This clarity is critical because students have a much better chance of inhabiting their potential if they (and their parents and teachers) believe in it.