Finding Children with Dyslexia in a Sea of Struggling Readers: The Struggles are Real
Varying interests and diverse perspectives populate conversations on a host of topics central to how we go about education in our society. A constant point of discussion in these lively conversations has been and remains reading and for good cause. The importance of reading is undisputed. There is almost universal agreement that children should learn to read. Even lifelong naysayers are hard-pressed to deny the practicality of a basic ability to read. And being a proficient reader, capable of more than just the basics, opens up a world of opportunities and staves off the dire consequences that reading struggles can have on individuals, their families, and society.
As a result, a push to transform reading instruction is underway in classrooms across the nation. A transformation motivated by an honest acknowledgment of reality – most children in the United States struggle to read. These struggles are not the exception reserved for the minority of kids with a disability – such as dyslexia. No, they are the status quo. And sadly, this has been the case for decades. Sure, we can quibble over tests used to make this claim. But at the end of the day, multiple data sources indicate that most students in the nation struggle to read words strung together into text passages and answer questions about what they read. This is a fundamental problem and one that is largely preventable. Yet, we have not found the collective will to prevent this calamity that breaks parents’ hearts, teachers’ backs and causes untold suffering for children.
To be clear, the reality facing parents as they painfully watch their children struggling to read has not gone unseen. Their pleas for help are palpable, and the desperation of parents in the U.S. has led to laws being passed across the nation in an attempt to help their children. As a result, almost every state in the U.S. now has some form of legislation specifically addressing the needs of students with dyslexia – a trend that alarmed me from the start. I am leery of such laws. However, I am not a skeptic who does not “believe” the overwhelming science indicating that a minority of students have extreme difficulties learning to read and spell. The science in this regard is vast and compelling.
However, the push for dyslexia legislation is the wrong solution for the root cause of the nation's problem. When most students in a nation struggle to read, the answer cannot be to focus on identifying and intervening with a minority of students. No, that is an illogical proposition that diverts attention away from the more fundamental problem we face. Whatever might be happening in classrooms across the nation, it is not adequately preparing the majority of students to read. An awareness of this reality is growing, and the initial push for dyslexia legislation has morphed into efforts to exact changes that will address this larger issue.
The push for change has left some people wondering what this all means for students with disabilities - like those with dyslexia. Overall, it is good news for all students – especially those with learning disabilities. We need base systems of support that foster the reading ability of the majority of students. Schools struggle to find kids with reading disabilities, like dyslexia, when most children in a school struggle to read. Within this context, the struggles of the few kids who are predisposed to struggle with reading due to a reading disability are not exceptional. They find themselves struggling to keep their heads above water in a sea of struggling readers – all of whom are at risk of drowning because the ship they set off in was not seaworthy in the first place.
In a sea of struggling readers, we lack the educational context to effectively implement public policies at the federal and state levels intended to identify students with learning disabilities – such as dyslexia and provide them with adequate instructional support. As a result, the interests of students with learning disabilities like dyslexia are bound to the welfare of all students. And the bond is simple. We know a lot about reading disabilities. We know a tremendous amount about how to teach all children to read. Yet, all the science in the world doesn’t do us any good when the base systems needed to translate it are overtaxed or non-existent.
To address the more fundamental issue, we need trained educators instilled with the knowledge and practical skills to set all students up for success. Fundamentally teachers and literacy leaders need to understand what children need to learn to be proficient readers and how they should teach this to them. But therein lies the challenge. As a society, we do not agree upon how best to address this existential crisis that robs our economy of money and our children of their futures. And the interplay between a lack of consensus on what to teach and how to teach it and the layers of adults in the educational landscape provides fertile ground for a host of challenges that can keep things from getting better for children.
However, we have made a massive public investment in decades of basic and applied science to answer these very questions. As a result, we have a solid understanding of what to teach and how to teach children in the early grades – including those with learning disabilities – such as dyslexia. What we need is the public will to establish a network of systems to translate what is known into practice. And efforts to develop these systems will have to be established within the reality on the ground within a local context.
With that said, there are core instructional principles and areas of instruction that should be taught for the betterment of all children. And there are some key takeaways from what we have learned from our public investment in reading research.
We know that language is the basis of reading and writing. In reality, they are not just based on language. They are language. They are the written forms of receptive and expressive language. Also, we have learned that teachers must lead with effective instructional practices. These practices must be grounded within direct instruction that allows educators to teach the skills that support reading and writing. In support of these efforts, students need plentiful opportunities to practice these skills, and some students will require far more opportunities for practice than other students. And critically, it is the application to reading and writing text that ultimately makes these skills matter and allows them to become second nature to a child.
When literacy leaders walk into a classroom, they should see an integrated approach to teaching students to read grounded in these core principles. To see these practices, literacy leaders must know what to look for, and to provide this instruction, teachers need to know what they should be teaching and how they should go about teaching it. So, we need to establish a consensus on what to teach and how to teach it. We also need a highly knowledgeable workforce prepared to implement educational systems to deliver this instruction to students.