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Words Matter When It Comes To Dyslexia

One of the most unfortunate words in the English language is “dyslexia.”  It is used to scare parents, to threaten schools, to label kids, all of which are problems enough.  However, the bigger problem with the term dyslexia is that, as used in common parlance, it does not exist!

Dyslexia is a description of reading skills, best defined by Dr. Sally Shaywitz in Overcoming Dyslexia as “an unexpected difficulty with reading.”

However, this is not how dyslexia is used in every day language.  It is used as if it is a thing, a condition.

If someone has a limp, you would not say he has “limp.” Instead you might say he has a twisted ankle or a torn ACL that is causing a limp.  This same logic should be applied to reading and dyslexia.  It’s not my child “has dyslexia.”  It’s my child language processing difficulties that is holding back his reading, causing dyslexia symptoms.

The dyslexia dilemma

Unfortunately, not only is dyslexia overused, as outlined by Professor Julian Elliott, of Durham University’s School of Education, and Dr Elena Grigorenko, of the Yale School of Medicine, in their new book, The Dyslexia Dilemma, it strikes fear into the hearts of parents everywhere.  What if my child “has dyslexia?” How will my child “overcome dyslexia?”  How can I make sure my child doesn’t “get dyslexia?”

Reading is a relatively recent human skill.  No one is born knowing how to read.  We all have to learn how. And when you think about it, it’s an amazing skill and maybe the real surprise is that we are not all dyslexic.  And actually, according to many studies as many as 40% of 4th graders struggle to some extent with reading, i.e., they have so called dyslexia symptoms.

While reading difficulties seem like something that can be managed, dyslexia sounds more of a challenge.  Dyslexia sounds more permanent and invasive.  It sounds less like a normal part of growing up for many kids and more like a disability that will harm them for life.

And yet, have you ever wondered about all those so called “dyslexics” that have gone on to great things?  How is this possible if they still have the dreaded dyslexia?  In most cases, the answer is simple — they learned how to read.

Where the dyslexia label can be helpful

That same opportunity exists with dyslexia, i.e., it can be overcome because it is the same kind of reading difficulty that 40% of 4th graders experience, but because the difficulties are a little more severe they will take a little more effort to overcome.

This is where the dyslexia label can be helpful. It describes a reading difficulty that won’t like be grown out of. It describes a severity of reading difficulty that will require an active intervention, the sooner the better.  Alerting parents and teachers to this need to be proactive, to intervene as soon as possible, is helpful.

Schools are increasingly avoiding dyslexia

Unfortunately, dyslexia strikes fear in the hearts of parents, but it strikes fear into the hearts of many educators also.  And so more and more schools are reluctant to apply the dyslexia label, only adding to parent frustration.

However, apart from the fact that there is no such thing as dyslexia, as we have discussed above, there is the logistics problem that if schools do apply the dyslexia label, they will be committed to providing extra services throughout the child’s school career.  If a child is rated as behind in reading, annual interventions can be applied until the child is at grade level.  However, if the child is rated as “dyslexic” there requirements are endless — it is a much harder label to reverse.

And so, more and more schools are toughening their stance on dyslexia.  Parents are coming to them armed with clinical assessments, letters of recommendation and/or anecdotal evidence (“she switches her b’s and d’s!”), demanding their child be treated as an at-risk dyslexic child.  But understanding not only the public misunderstanding of dyslexia (the whole “limp” problem)  but also the longer term consequences of a dyslexia diagnosis for the school they are resisting the label.

And this reluctance is driving parents crazy.  They are misinterpreting it as a lack of concern for their child.

How to help your dyslexic child at school

So what should parents do to counteract the school’s reluctance to apply the dyslexia label?

First, rather than focus on getting a school to focus on recognizing dyslexia in your child, focus on the reading difficulty.  Instead of getting an expensive clinical assessment to find out if your child is dyslexic or not, focus instead on understanding exactly where your child stands starting with his or her reading level — the school can probably tell you this, but if not, you can get outside evaluations online or through a reading tutor relatively cheaply.

The easiest way to understand your child’s reading level is in grade level terms — what is your child’s reading level versus their actual grade level.  If he is >1 grade behind, e.g., starting 3rd grade but reading at a 2nd grade 1 month level, then a reading intervention may be merited.

Second, if at all possible, try to isolate the cause of reading difficulty.  If your child had any speech delays or listening issues then you have your answer — speech and language issues almost always end up in reading delays.  If your child has coordination or balance issues, classic symptoms of ADHD, then again, you may want to focus on attention issues.  These two causes — language processing and attention — explain 95% of reading issues, the balance being related to vision or sensory integration issues.

Then, knowing your child’s reading level and a likely cause of any reading difficulty, go to your child’s school and try to:

  1. Confirm your child’s current reading level and the gap behind peers with the school,
  2. Agree an intervention plan based on your child’s needs — a scenario based on progress or a lack there of, and most importantly,
  3. Agree at what level these resources would no longer be needed.  For instance if your child is reading a  1st grade 5th month level and is starting 4th grade, i.e., he is 2.5 years behind, try to get the school to commit to providing interventions until your child is <0.5 years behind.  This creates visibility for both sides and will help the school agree to provide temporary resources.

If your school refuses to provide any intervention for your child, and unfortunately this is a growing trend also it seems, then you will have to seek outside help.  The Common Core State Standards are placing even more emphasis on reading and reading comprehension at an early age (by 4th grade) and so time lost in getting to reading proficiency is increasingly hard to make up. This is where Gemm Learning can help with an individualized dyslexia treatment that targets the source of dyslexia symptoms.


The Dyslexia Debate, by Professor Julian Elliott, of Durham University’s School of Education, and Dr Elena Grigorenko, of the Yale School of Medicine.