“Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.”—Dan. 5:27.
A new documentary, The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia debuted on HBO last Monday night, and will air again this Thursday, Nov. 8 at 9 am and Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 2:30 pm. I recommend you see it; not because it relates anything startling or new about dyslexia, but because it does a good job of myth-busting and it profiles some remarkable individuals whose experiences with dyslexia inspires as well as informs.
It features famous individuals known for their ability to overcome dyslexia and achieve remarkable things in business, entertainment, science and industry, including Charles Schwab (investment banker), David Boise (lawyer), Gavin Newsom (Lt. Gov. of CA), and Richard Branson (business tycoon). Additionally, the film features families of young children and adolescents who sought help from Drs. Bennett and Sally Shaywitz at the Yale Center for the Study of Dyslexia and Creativity in New Haven, CT.
The film establishes a context for dyslexia by looking at the entire life span. As we have discussed in this space previously, academic difficulties recede in impact and importance the further a dyslexic gets from elementary and middle school. The key is to get children through school in one piece—mind and spirit intact and whole.
However, I caution against accepting all of what the film tries to advance. Particularly, I do not believe that dyslexia is an “isolated weakness in a sea of strengths;” nor do I believe that dyslexia is a ‘gift.’
Suggesting that dyslexia is a ‘gift’ to anyone with dyslexia suffering through grade school spelling tests, carrying the label ‘disabled’, or flunking out of high school or college strikes me as condescending.
“Really?” I want to ask, “A gift you say? Please show me where I can return it!”
The neuroscientists in the film celebrate the lives of those who triumphed over the condition, overcame the obstacles and achieved great things. What their reactions lack is appropriate outrage about the devastating and heart-breaking consequences of needless, chronic school failure that dyslexic individuals face on a daily basis due to the way our schools are organized and designed.
While it is true that dyslexics possess and can develop a skill set that is prized in the marketplace, it is a skill set that is overwhelmingly devalued, ignored, and sometimes even punished in school. No school-age child has ever heard the words, “You have dyslexia,” and felt lucky.
Rather, students with dyslexia are called “disabled” by parents and teachers, and much worse names by other kids. They get low grades. They get teased by peers. Because dyslexics struggle to memorize and repeat rote information, misguided teachers, counselors, and even parents draw negative conclusions about their ability to think through and solve problems. Teachers may encourage dyslexics to apply more effort, or may even suggest that a child doesn’t care enough about school work.
The truth is that students with dyslexia often work harder, and care as much as any of their peers—but the results of their efforts are exhausting, disappointing at every turn, discouraging over time and, eventually, totally defeating.
Students who attend Lawrence School here in northeast Ohio, where we serve K-12 students with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia, can speak to the frustration and discouragement they have encountered in the past. Most of our students transfer after difficult and sometimes traumatic experiences in other school environments. Despite past experiences of failure, our students, from the littlest to the tallest, display enormous courage and resilience.
The saddest and, for me, the most upsetting situation is that so many bright children with dyslexia encounter school environments that are “rigged” against them in almost every way possible. Schools reward rote memorization over thinking and problem-solving, compliance over creativity, and timed test performance over collaboration and team work. Schools confuse ‘standardization’ with high ‘standards’ and ‘remembering’ with ‘understanding.’
Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, schools operate with curricula, courses and schedules devised in the 19th century, then add a few tablet computers and declare themselves ‘21st century organizations.’ Schools have changed very little over the past 50 years and it isn’t only dyslexic learners who pay a steep price for that failure to adapt to a changing world. Our whole society pays heavily for this failure now—and soon a steeper price may be levied on our country if we don’t improve the effectiveness of our educational systems. We will soon lose our tenuous grasp on our prominent place in the global economy.
Recent advances in neuroscience and brain research notwithstanding, the sad and unchanged reality is that millions of children in schools all across our country are failing to learn to read. And while neuroscientists continue to crank up million dollar fMRI machines to search for a ‘neural signature’ for dyslexia, we ignore the handwriting on the wall that shows we have been “weighed in the scales and found wanting.”
We continue to make excuses that cause children to suffer school failure. We refuse to acknowledge the data and conclusions from past educational research that could help millions of school children—dyslexic and non-dyslexic alike—achieve literacy in our schools. We promulgate policies that require a child to fail spectacularly before any help is given—and then only if parents can cut through a thicket of red tape for the barest of accommodations. For four decades we have argued about definitions of ‘disability’ and eligibility criteria for ‘services.’ Even after forty years, a family who moves from one place to another has no assurances that the definitions and criteria that meet eligibility standards for their child to receive services in one city will be acknowledged in another.
We don’t need to re-think dyslexia. We need to rethink our priorities.
The research regarding the importance and efficacy of early reading screenings and instructional interventions in grades K-3, for example, could completely alter the trajectory of failure and illiteracy rampant all across our country—particularly in stressed urban communities and specifically among minority and dyslexic students.
It is ironic that while we read and celebrate the accomplishments of some well-known CEO’s, politicians and entertainers who have dyslexia, we continue to punish children in school with the condition. And there is evidence to suggest that these kids will be the foundation of a healthy economy and society if we can just get them through school without having their spirits crushed.
So, you will not hear me join the chorus of those who romanticize dyslexia in a misguided attempt to help struggling students find their place in school and in society. I hope we will not offer placation or condescension as a form of encouragement to these individuals.
Instead of consigning students with dyslexia to the status of misfits in a one-size-fits-all educational system, let’s offer all children acceptance of who they are as learners. Let’s affirm their challenges and their strengths. Let’s hold them appropriately accountable for acquiring knowledge and skills in a way that honors who they are as learners. Let’s teach them to advocate for themselves—without apology and without arrogance.
Let’s apply the research on the science of reading that we have been sitting on for two decades:
- Assess all kindergarten and 1st grade children to determine if they at risk for learning reading skills by using readily available screening instruments that any teacher can learn in 20 minutes.
- Determine if they have learned their letter sounds and names.
- Screen them for competence in phonology and rapid naming skills—two areas we know are prerequisites for developing reading skills.
- Train primary school teachers in curriculum and approaches designed to deliver structured, systematic, phonics to children at risk.
We can do this today—in every school, for every child without another dollar in grants or research without a single fMRI machine—simply by applying what we already know.
Let’s cut through the arguments about teachers’ unions, poverty and all the other excuses we use to avoid our primary obligation to every schoolchild and every family in America.
Let’s read the handwriting on the wall.
Let’s teach our children to read.
If not us, who?
If not now, when?