I recently read an article that suggested that children are not learning disabled until they attend school and fail to adequately learn to read and write. The author referred to this as “school-induced learning disabilities.” The article went on to suggest that if those same kids were simply taught the way they learned, they would not only not need special education services, but they would not need a label of “learning disabled,” or as in most cases of learning disabilities, dyslexia.
If you ask parents of a child who is eventually identified with dyslexia, they will tell you that their child was a normal, happy, curious, intellectually-capable child from birth to kindergarten; and for those bright, curious preschoolers who were not identified with dyslexia and did not receive the appropriate intervention, something slowly changed. They became frustrated with homework, got stomachaches that sent them home early, received low grades in reading and writing, referred to him- or herself as “stupid,” started to make statements about not liking school, and in many cases developed behavior problems—they became learning disabled.
And although dyslexia is a neurobiological reading and writing disorder that children are born with and therefore are inherently learning disabled, I do agree that children do not really become learning disabled until they get to school. School is where they are exposed to teaching that does not respond to how they learn, it is where they experience failure and are compared to their peers, it is where they learn that they can’t do what their peers can do—so within the walls of the schools and during the time they are learning reading and writing, they become disabled for the first time.
I understand that for educators who have admirably dedicated their lives to educating children, this is a difficult pill to swallow. We all know you did not sign up to be teachers to miss those children who need the most help. And you certainly didn’t sign up to make them “disabled.”
It happens because educators don’t have the information they need to prevent reading and writing failure. It is a sobering fact: dyslexia affects up to twenty percent of the population and it has very specific symptoms (see www.interdys.org for more information about symptoms and the definition). Dyslexia occurs on a continuum, so it can be mild in one student and profound in another, and they both have dyslexia. Lastly, there are piles of research that should inform how we identify and teach these children in elementary school, starting in (if not before) kindergarten, so that they never become outwardly learning disabled—although they will always have dyslexia, with the correct instruction, they may never feel disabled or outwardly demonstrate a learning disability.
Now, in response to that second idea proposed in the aforementioned article: I do not agree that children who do receive the appropriate intervention early on and do not end up exhibiting learning disabled symptoms do not need an official diagnosis or “label.” They will always have dyslexia, and those students with more moderate to profound dyslexia will always encounter difficulties and will almost always need some accommodations to help them reach their potential (and every child should be allowed and given the tools to reach their potential). For many parents and their dyslexic children, the label of dyslexia frees them from years of asking themselves why reading and writing are so hard, wondering what they did wrong as a parent to cause this academic angst in their children, and/or why all their efforts are not helping.
Additionally, a diagnosis and label gives them a road map to help their children and themselves which will lead them on the journey to success. The official label liberates students from self-doubt and self-blame. So, yes, diagnosis and labeling is important. Even when children are identified and received remediation early, they will always have dyslexia.
But don’t take it from me; take it from those who have walked the walk. For example, Ben Foss, a Stanford-educated attorney, author and dyslexic, greets families with children (and adults) with dyslexia with this: “Welcome to the Nation of Dyslexia.” He goes on to state, “Whether your child is on the cusp of being identified or you’ve known about his dyslexia for quite some time, I say welcome to the club! It’s safe here, and you can let go of your fear and anxiety about this identification. Believe me, I know how you feel. I was there and so were my parents, and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that it will get better. Indeed, you’re going to have fun.”
In many ways, the identification allows you to belong.
It’s unfortunate that dyslexia has become such a divisive term in the education world. But despite that divisiveness and constant banter about what dyslexia is and how to help a child with dyslexia, the fact remains that dyslexia is real and the fifteen to twenty percent of children in schools who have dyslexia are depending on you to do your due diligence and learn about dyslexia.
So, why do we continue to use the wait-to-fail model? Isn’t that too late? What if it was your child that was failing despite ability? Would any teacher deliberately allow a child to become learning disabled? I don’t think so, but that is what happens when this debate continues without action.
In my personal and professional life, I am surrounded by teachers. I know teachers are admirable, smart, caring people—they need (and want) information about dyslexia—they are the gatekeepers to child’s academic and emotional health. At the Dyslexia Training Institute we hear this comment in each and every course from frustrated teachers: “Why didn’t we learn this in our credentialing program?”
Well, here’s your chance, and you can start with a short, four-minute video created by Ted-Ed:
Just four short minutes could change the life of a child sitting in your class. And if you have just under an hour to spare, you can watch the documentary “Embracing Dyslexia” for free online.
For a full list of teacher-friendly resources you can read the Lowdown on Dyslexia here.
While we continue to debate, here’s an idea in the interim: if you don’t like the term dyslexia, why not identify the phonological processing deficit (and in some cases an additional rapid naming deficit) and respond to it immediately? It is still dyslexia, no matter what you decide to call it, and dyslexia still exists, but you still need to respond to the cause of the reading and writing challenges.
Hal Malchow, the President-Elect of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), recently responded to the dyslexia debate (also to a book by the same name) this way:
We also understand the power of common language and the mission and purpose it can provide. We believe that "dyslexia" is a beautiful word. True, it describes a category of learning disorders. But it also describes a community, a body of knowledge, a category of law, a more positive sense of self, and a belief about the progress we can achieve together. We will continue to use the word “dyslexia” now and in the future.
I will leave you with this thought (and yes, it’s a bit of a guilt trip): while we continue to argue about the existence of dyslexia, another child becomes learning disabled in your local school.
Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the co-owner of the Dyslexia Training Institute. She received her doctorate in literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. She is a trained special education advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. Dr. Kelli is an adjunct professor of reading, literacy coordinator and a tutor trainer. Kelli is trained by a fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy and in the Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Wilson Reading Programs. Kelli is the Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, as well as a board member of the Southern California Library Literacy Network (SCLLN). She co-created and produced “Dyslexia for a Day: A Simulation of Dyslexia,” is a frequent speaker at conferences, and is currently writing “Dyslexia: Decoding the System.”