When a student receives a diagnosis of dyslexia, or dysgraphia or dyscalculia, the news can rattle parents, shifting their academic expectations for their child. Having worked with middle and high school students with dyslexia for more than a decade, I can explain not only what these diagnoses mean but how best to respond now and what to expect in the years ahead. The advice shared here should get you on the right track – if not reassure you that you’re already there.
Get to know the “dys.”
Neuropsychological testing can lead to diagnoses of “specific learning disorders” with “impediment in reading,” “impediment in written expression,” or “impediment in mathematics.” These are formal, clinical terms. Learning specialists, teachers, and students more commonly call them “dyslexia,” “dysgraphia,” and “dyscalculia,” respectively.
Of students with reading difficulties, 70 to 90 percent have dyslexia, which has a high comorbidity with dysgraphia. In other words, the student with dyslexia is more likely to have dysgraphia. In my career as a learning specialist, dyslexia and dysgraphia have been my areas of focus.
No one is born with the inherent ability to read, but people with dyslexia find it more difficult to learn how. The reason is that they have difficulty doing what non-dyslexic readers take for granted: connecting the sounds of language to symbols and text.
This difficulty has a neurological basis in the brain, and it is in effect hard-wired. You see, when we engage in the reading process, the first area that gets activated is in the back of the brain – called the occipital lobe. Neurons have to make connections that go then to the frontal lobe. That's the phonological processing area.
Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), we have been able to see, quite literally, that the brains of dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers work differently. In a non-dyslexic you can see the pathway light up pretty instantaneously. It's fairly wide. It looks like a connection. I often like to think of it as a flowing river or stream. In an individual who is dyslexic, you can literally see breaks in that stream between the neurons. It's like a streambed where it hasn't rained in 30 days.
If you can explain to kids this whole idea, the importance to learning to read of having sound pathways in the brain from the occipital lobe through the temporal lobe to the frontal lobe, and that their brain isn't wired like that, it makes a world of difference.
So does understanding that these pathways can be strengthened. More on that later.
Dysgraphia has to do with fine motor skills or “graphomotor” skills. It's kinesthetic. In very simplistic terms, it translates as poor handwriting.
Twenty years ago, dysgraphia was more significant, if not more prevalent. Now that students are so well versed in technology, there is a clear way around it: typing, starting in fifth or sixth grade. It seems simplistic, but the reality is that's where we are. When I went into the field 12 or 14 years ago, in the early 2000s, dysgraphia was somewhat significant. Now that kids are so well versed with technology, it's less so.
Dyscalculia is difficulty with numbers, which shows up more in the math realm. At Forman School, where I teach, we have a math support program taught by individuals with specific expertise in this area. If the student has a diagnosis of dyscalculia, they'll participate in that specific program. Again, my focus is on dyslexia.
Recognize the signs of dyslexia.
Dyslexia expresses itself in school in three distinct areas that are worth keeping an eye on when your child starts learning to read:
oral reading fluency
When I listen to thousands of hours of dyslexics reading out loud, it's choppy. It's paused. It takes significantly longer. Those neurons, those connections, have hiccups.
Reading struggles tend to hit home for a student when he or she is asked to read out loud in an academic setting. For that one student who struggles in a class of 20 other kids, that’s the catalyst that gets the child to realize, “Oh my gosh. Here is where I am compared to my peers.”
Another key moment is the first time that a student has to spell. There is a clear connection between dyslexia and poor spelling. A student’s performance on spelling exercises and quizzes is, in my opinion, one of the most obvious signs. The misconceptions to be wary of are that people with dyslexia read backwards or they don’t see the right patterns. While there may be times when a student confuses “b”s and “d”s, that’s all myth – really, it is.
Finally, you can pay attention at home to whether your child is picking up on what’s going on in a text. When you read a book to your child and you see that they're not grasping the material, or they themselves are struggling, or reluctant to read, I think that's huge. Because they're exerting so much energy and focusing on the phonological foundation – the actual nuts and bolts of the reading process, of connecting C-A-T to the sound “cat,” comprehension gets placed much, much farther back in the brain. It comes further down the pipe than it should. Things like that are the red flags, so to speak.
Get a diagnosis early and intervene often.
Often times parents tell me, “I wish I knew earlier.” Honestly, early intervention is better, because it strengthens pathways in the brain.
If you pick up on clues, your first step is to talk to your child’s teachers. Ask them if your child is meeting milestones, is reluctant to read, is having difficulty with phonological processing.
If teachers see that your child is struggling, seek out an expert to perform a neuropsychological evaluation. That will give you a confirmation of what's going on and let you know what your student's strengths and challenges are. Ideally, a diagnosis of dyslexia is made right when the child starts reading, in first or second grade.
The age at which children are diagnosed with dyslexia has gone down over the decades, and that’s a good thing. If you were to look at the 1970s, students were typically diagnosed in the fifth or sixth grade. Currently most children are diagnosed in third, fourth, or fifth grade. Fortunately, because teachers are being educated about dyslexia and reading specialists are in schools, some diagnosis is happening in first and second grade – which is fantastic. Kids are getting help. At Forman School, I’m in a unique environment, but the amount of tutoring and help that kids have gotten before they enter ninth grade is pretty significant.
The wish of educators who teach middle and high school students with learning differences is that they get the support they need as early as possible. By the time they’re in fifth and sixth grade, we hope they’ve had a ton of interventions.
Always tell your child’s teachers – and tell all of them.
When we look back on students who have really found success, they all say that every teacher they met with every day knew what their diagnosis was and would engage in conversation about it. When your child is younger, your first step is to inform all the individuals, faculty, and staff who work with your child on a regular basis that your child has this diagnosis and what it means. As your child gets older, you can equip him or her to take up the mantle and self-advocate. At every age, informing teachers and staff helps ensure that they coordinate their efforts to support your child’s needs.
There are a number of tremendous resources out there, including nonprofits. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) is one. Their annual conference offers sessions and workshops for parents, and I have seen students in attendance, as well. The Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOGPE) is another, which provides some pro bono tutoring and testing.
Oftentimes, it's great to find a local community organization, or parents in your school that have children with similar learning differences, specifically dyslexia, and engage in conversations. I know it seems weird, but what's vitally important is for kids to understand that they're not alone in this. There are other people out there that have similar shared experiences.
In terms of reading material, there are a number of books I would recommend to parents who want to better understand dyslexia and the reading brain. For starters:
Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read by Stanislas Dehaene
Language at The Speed Of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It by Mark Seidenberg
Anything by Sally Shaywitz
Also look into the different evidence-based reading programs available in your public school district or used by private schools where your child may enroll. They may include Lindamood Bell, the Wilson Reading System, or Orton-Gillingham, which we use at Forman School. If there's a faculty member or a member on staff who is versed in that, who has been trained in a particular method, it's vital to pick their brain. See what support they can provide your child and go from there.
Read with your child.
I tell kids every day, “You’ve got to read!”
Dyslexia cannot be outgrown. You don’t get rid of it. It’s just the way the brain is wired.
Students can, however, strengthen those pathways. Doing a program such as Orton-Gillingham or Lindamood Bell is one way. But one of the best ways is to read.
Simply reading out loud every single day for 20 or 30 minutes can make a huge difference. The student has to read to somebody – somebody, ideally, who is non-dyslexic – so that person can help correct and explain mistakes. Even if students read silently, it's okay, but it's so much better if they read out loud. It’s that simple!
Get comfortable with saying “dyslexia.”
I think the really nice thing about Forman School is that if a student has dyslexia, they say "I have dyslexia." About half our students have a neuropsych diagnosis of dyslexia. They have no problem saying it. All the parents say it. The kids recognize it. Because there are a hundred or so other kids that have the same diagnosis, they talk about it at length.
In mainstream schools, students are more likely to struggle emotionally as the result of being pulled out of classes. Peers notice. That sparks questions about what’s wrong with that student, and students feel it. It doesn’t feel good. There is a huge correlation between struggles in school and emotional well-being. We want all students to grow in confidence as the result of our interventions, not the opposite.
One way we build that confidence at Forman School is by explaining the science – showing dyslexic students the FMRI of the dyslexic and the non-dyslexic brain, sharing the streambed analogy. The idea is to make sure that students are highly aware of what their challenges are and how those challenges are going to present themselves. Our goal is to get students to the point where they can self-advocate and tell a teacher, and later a college professor, “I have dyslexia. This is what it means. This is how it affects me and these are the accommodations that have proven beneficial in the long run.”
Know that a learning difference is not a disability.
I think it’s really important not to view a language-based learning difference as a “disability.” The shift in language from talking about “disabilities” to talking about “learning differences” is more than a sign that we live in a P.C. culture. It is more so a result of the evolution of brain science. We know now that students with dyslexia have a tremendous ability to strengthen pathways in the brain, strengthen the connections between neurons. The key is to find someone that your student can work with, that can instill confidence, and that can have a connection to the student that is powerful – that makes a difference.
Students who face the challenges of dyslexia also develop amazing strengths. One of the strengths that people talk about with dyslexia all the time, and the evidence points to this, is this idea of independence. Dyslexics have had to do things on their own. They've had to get by on their own because they have this challenge. So they push themselves.
The list of dyslexics who have emerged as icons and world leaders goes on and on – Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, Agatha Christie…. Some students with dyslexia have the ability to express themselves beautifully orally. They can use that strength to overcome deficits with written expression, say by working with technologies that translate speech to text. Focus on the strengths and use them to overcome challenges. That’s the right idea.
The future looks bright.
As kids hit 12 and 13, they become more introspective and analytical. That’s when they really begin to question "Where is this going? What am I going to do in the future?"
I recently attended the International Dyslexia Association Conference, with 4,000 other attendees. What was most fascinating was the presence of companies who will recruit students with dyslexia and ADHD from colleges that have learning support programs for students with learning differences. J.P. Morgan, Mass General, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Fidelity are interviewing 20-somethings out of college. They genuinely believe that it’s an asset to have these individuals in their field. These companies recognize that those with learning differences have strong internal motivation and an ability to work through challenges
If you look at the number of entrepreneurs that are dyslexic in the world – people who have started their own businesses – around 35 to 40 percent are dyslexic. The percent of dyslexics in the global population is 7 to 8 percent. You can see there's a huge number.
The question you ask is "Why?"
I really do think it's because these kids have, and I mean this, a tremendous sense of ingenuity in them, of creativity. They have this ability to work through a challenge and to not quit. I do think that then lends itself to starting a business or coming up with an idea and seeing it to fruition. Because kids have had to struggle in the past, and they haven't given up, and they've pushed themselves, and they see what it means to persist, they follow through.
People with dyslexia have, and can have, a profound impact. The trick is to understand it, to accept it, and, most important, to read.
Assistant Director for Cognition and Learning, Forman School
Devin Burkhart is a learning specialist and the Assistant Director of the Cognition & Learning Department at Forman School, an independent college preparatory boarding and day school in Litchfield, Conn. that is dedicated to educating students with learning differences. He was on the team that set up the learning center at Poly Prep Country Day School in New York City and started his career at Kildonan School, where all students have diagnosed learning differences. He is trained in the Orton-Gillingham approach. Email him questions at email@example.com.