Fighting The Dyslexia Stigma

July 18, 2012 by Geoff Nixon

Labels Don’t Help Children, Especially With Dyslexia

dyslexia stigmaThe person who came up with the idea of naming an unusual difficulty with reading has a lot to answer for.  That name, dyslexia, now strikes fear into the hearts of parents everywhere – every child is one dropped syllable or reversed letter away from the dreaded dyslexia stigma and a lifetime of struggle and frustration.

This fear of dyslexia is misplaced.

First of all, a big part of the dyslexia stigma is this persistent myth that dyslexia is a disease.  This is simply not true.  Dyslexia in children describes an unusual difficulty with reading — nothing more, nothing less.

Also, there is a fear that if a child has even “a little bit of dyslexia,” they will experience difficulties above and beyond what is normal. It’s a label and, yes, even a stigma that can stick.

What is most unfair is the labeling of a dyslexic child in 1st or 2nd grade.  This occurs much more in the United States than in many other countries, where reading instruction often does not even start until a child is 6 or 7 years of age.  Again, though, early labels can stick and affect a child’s confidence.

Adding to the dyslexia stigma is the mythology surrounding dyslexia that teachers are often unwilling to opine one way or  the other. In some school districts, a dyslexia diagnosis comes with rights.  Another issue for teachers is that opinion may be treated as advice — and giving advice to parents can have repercussions for the teacher and the school.  And so the “does my child have dyslexia?” question is often treated with a vague, guarded response that many parents take for a “yes!”

Reading is Not Easy or Natural

In the course of human history, reading is a relatively recent invention.  It is not natural — there is no “reading” region in the brain — and so, every child has to figure it out from a standing start. Add in the fact that our children need to learn English, a particularly challenging language because of the processing skills required to hear the small sounds, or  phonemes, inside words, which are required for recognizing text while reading. To hear every sound, every blend — for instance, the |s| |p| and |r| in “spring”  — requires processing at 40 sounds a second!  This is one of the most challenging skills the brain is required to do.

It is not surprising then, that up to 40% of 4th graders struggle somewhat with reading, mainly due to delayed attention or language processing skills. To then label this quite understandable difficulty getting started with reading as dyslexia is downright unfair!  It’s like sending a child to a piano teacher, and labeling him as piano-challenged if he is not playing Beethoven in the first year!

Dyslexia Can Be Treated

The fact is that most reading difficulties can be ironed out.  Sometimes it’s true that a cognitive intervention (such as what Gemm Learning offers) that focuses on the underlying processing skills is needed, but very often it comes down practice — getting over the hump to a point where reading is easy enough so that practice is not painful. And, as we all know, practice makes perfect.

One solution to prematurely labeling a completely natural delay in reading as dyslexia is to label that tendency for premature labeling.  How about “dyslexaphobic” — an inclination to accuse any child who hesitates while reading as dyslexic?

Of course, we are just kidding about this labeling to make a point.  Learning to read is a real challenge for almost half the population, and many children take quite a few years to get to the point where reading practice is not painful.  At that point, reading will improve quite markedly.  In the meantime, it is not helpful to saddle a child with a dyslexia label because of the dyslexia stigma that might linger along with that.

By all means, get dyslexia help — reading is a critical skill and the sooner it is mastered, the better — but please think of your child as a struggling reader or still learning to read, not as dyslexic.