Ohio’s Plan to Raise Literacy Achievement addresses the need to support educators to recognize and plan instruction for students with dyslexia. Because dyslexia affects between 11 and 17 percent of the population, all educators must have access to instructional approaches that are explicit, systematic, and structured (Wagner et al). This quality instruction will impact not only students with dyslexia but also their classmates who are not. Equipping educators with knowledge and skills from the Science of Reading is essential for reading proficiency for all students.
Raising literacy achievement is no small task. As teachers know, every student is different with unique challenges and characteristics to consider. Students with dyslexia are a unique group of learners who have specific needs and strengths. While using research-based, structured literacy instructional approaches is the first step, dyslexia is more than a deficit or something that we need to fix. In fact, research shows that people with dyslexia often have strengths in areas such as creativity and invention (Taylor and Vestergard). Recognizing these strengths and providing students with dyslexia opportunities to excel in these areas is an important part of supporting them.
As an adult who struggles with dyslexia, I remember the frustration in elementary school, not knowing what my teachers were trying to accomplish. I didn’t enjoy reading like they said we should. I didn’t try as hard because I thought I’d never get it. I didn’t push myself. I didn’t think I could pursue certain careers. I didn’t think I was smart enough. Each day I repeated the same exercises over and over, but I never felt any sense of accomplishment.
I found myself daydreaming and being distracted by all of the brightly colored posters and pictures of animals next to each letter above the chalkboard. I would imagine stories in my head and think of myself on an African safari walking next to a beautiful giraffe. I would trace my eye around the shapes and teach myself how to draw them. I would think about what colors I had to mix to make orange. Another image on the wall would take me to Egypt and I would wonder what people back then liked to eat, why hieroglyphics are so strange, what it would be like to encounter an alligator, and how they built such enormous pyramids and why. My mind was constantly engaged in thought, full of questions, and incredibly curious.
However, my grade card would say that I was not engaged in class, didn’t try hard enough, was too quiet, and was not working up to my potential. I was tested in third grade. It was a day of puzzles, shapes, problem solving, colors, and patterns – I was good at it and enjoyed it! It was the best day of school yet. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. My brain had been exercised. The results showed that I was “gifted in Spatial Mathematics with Superior high IQ.”
Despite these results, dyslexia affected my educational experience through the end of high school. Thankfully, I didn’t get discouraged, I pressed on and was tenacious and insisted that I go to further my education. Once in college I took a chance and met with an educational counselor to seek help with the volume of reading and studying required in college. After a slew of questions he said, “Well, that’s it! You’re dyslexic!” This diagnosis gave me a foundation to start with to tackle the difficulties I had experienced my whole life. I got creative, of course. I started to experiment to find crazy ways to make my brain work and benefit me in my journey to pursue a degree. I wasn’t alone. College students with dyslexia are typically enrolled in programs involving the creative arts, engineering, architecture, and athletics (Taylor and Vestergard). I became passionate about the arts in 7th grade and focused my energy on developing my artistic skills in high school and worked as a graphic designer before becoming an art teacher.
When I started as a high school art teacher, I saw the same frustrations I felt in my art students. Students said, “I’m just dumb, I’ll never get it.” Or “I’m just not cut out for school.” I empathized with these students knowing what that felt like, the feeling of being less than, of not enough, of not being “normal.” But I could see amazing raw talent--students who were articulate, who were fearless, and adventurous, who created amazing things with their hands, and who had inventive and unique ideas. Individuals with dyslexia excel in seeing the big picture, understanding complex systems, and seeing connections between different perspectives and pieces of information. They also exhibit strength in seeing patterns and analogies in the world around them (Taylor and Vestergard).
I began telling my art students there was nothing wrong with them and they didn't need to be fixed. I reminded them they were unique with different talents and skills. Different, not less than. I helped them capitalize on this and focus on what they were good at and could feel confident and passionate about. It was a different approach to what they were used to. With time, my students developed their passions in the arts, building, creating, and problem solving. They learned new ways to think and to attack their struggles in reading, just like I did.
There is still much research to be done to fully understand what dyslexia is and how it works in the human brain. In the meantime, educators can provide a strong reading foundation using structured literacy approaches for early readers. For older students, educators can support the student where they are. Helping students find passions and areas of strength, and connecting this with reading and texts can empower and encourage.
INFOhio provides quality digital content to support students with dyslexia, both for reading and building on strengths. While the Simple View of Reading addresses the actual process of learning how to read and is an important part of the journey, we can also support students with dyslexia with other tools. Stay tuned as we explore a variety of resources in the next two blog articles of this series.