Dyslexia: The elephant in the classroom

From left: Kate Witt, Ava Lopez, Zane Coggins, Charlie LeVinus and Rep. Jill Norgaard. All pushed to pass a new Arizona law that helps schools identify and aid those with dyslexia.

Walk into a typical elementary school, and what do you see? Besides tiny desks and crayons, you’ll find posters with inspirational messages about learning to read: “Reading is thinking.” “Readers are leaders.” And my personal favorite: “Reading takes you places.”

The philosophy is this: First you learn to read. Then you read to learn.

In first through third grades, educators focus on developing the basic skills of reading: recognizing the alphabet, memorizing sight words and establishing phonemic awareness.

By fourth grade, the strategy shifts. Students are expected to have mastered the skills necessary for reading independently, and they are expected to use these talents to gather information through research and demonstrate knowledge through writing.

Sounds great. Especially to those of us who are avid readers and proficient writers. As a child, I felt like the entire universe opened up to me when I could finally read a book “all by myself.” And writing became such a passion that today I’m a journalist.

But what about the kids who are not mastering these skills? What happens to them in first, second and third grades when the concepts necessary for literacy simply do not click? Or in fourth grade when basic elements are no longer being taught, and the work they are supposed to be doing independently is now beyond their reach?

What messages are they receiving? Are they not “thinkers”? Or “leaders”? Are they not “going places”?

Letter tiles used to help teach people with dyslexia the phonological component of language– the sounds that letters of the alphabet make. Photo by Daniel Friedman

One in five?

The truth is that many children in Arizona are not learning to read. Politicians and school administrators have described the situation as a “literacy crisis.”

According to Read Better Be Better, which formed in 2014 to address the state’s literacy problem, 72 percent of Arizona’s third graders could not read at grade level.

This is a serious problem, because there is a direct correlation between illiteracy and societal issues. According to The Literacy Project Foundation, three out of five people in American prisons can’t read, and nearly 85 percent of juveniles who face trial are functionally illiterate.

The reasons for the high illiteracy rate in Arizona are many and include poverty, English as a second language, developmental delays, low attendance rates, lack of funding, family issues and a profound teacher shortage. But there’s another substantial reason that is often ignored: dyslexia.

Exact statistics are difficult to pinpoint, but the scientific community estimates as high as 15-20 percent of the population experiences dyslexia to some degree.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.”

But this, too, is controversial, because that definition focuses on the weaknesses of the condition rather than on the inherent strengths. There is ample evidence to suggest that the dyslexic brain is wired differently, but it is not necessarily an inferior wiring. In fact, the dyslexic mind can be adept at higher-level thinking.

With dyslexia, the proclivity for abstract reasoning and visual-spatial awareness is accompanied by difficulties in the areas of decoding, processing speeds and working memory — the very functions directly related to learning to read and write.

It’s not that dyslexics can’t learn to read or write. It’s just that they need to receive instruction in a way that works for the unique construction of their dyslexic minds. If the appropriate methods are not provided, dyslexics will experience high levels of anxiety, frustration and shame.

In fact, one of the first indicators in a classroom that a child may be dyslexic is often behavioral, not academic.

Unfortunately, teachers and school administrators often do not realize that dyslexia is the underlying issue for a child’s avoidance behaviors or outbursts, so children will often be punished for what are legitimate emotional reactions to difficult situations.

Punishment and fear of punishment increase the emotional stress a child experiences. This in turn will affect performance and ability to learn, creating a vicious circle in a child’s life.

It’s important to realize that most children will do just about anything to avoid looking stupid in front of their peers. They will act disinterested, become the class clown or even act out.

The student labeled the “problem child” in the classroom may actually be struggling with dyslexia. Attention issues also can be dyslexia related. Dyslexia is actually more common than ADHD, and many children experience both.

Yet schools are much more likely to recognize ADHD, and will often miss or even deny signs of dyslexia. Without identification and help, the dyslexic child will continue to flounder, and behavioral issues will most likely worsen.

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Facing failure

Phoenix mom Courtney LeVinus says she was caught off guard when she received a phone call from her son Charlie’s first grade teacher. “They wanted to know if something was going on at home. Were there any abnormal stresses?” says LeVinus.“I told them no. Nothing was different.”

The teacher explained that Charlie’s behavior at school had changed significantly: He wouldn’t make eye contact, and he was practically hiding under his desk. The teacher said Charlie was quickly becoming a different kid.

Luckily for the LeVinuses, it was the teacher who recognized that Charlie’s issues might be due to a problem with reading.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me and my husband,” says LeVinus. “We feel fortunate that we are at a great school. A reading specialist directed us to the right doctor who helped us find the appropriate interventions. It’s been financially difficult for us, but we were able to help Charlie. Other kids are not as lucky.”

Charlie attends St. Thomas the Apostle, a private school in Phoenix, which LeVinus says has become a magnet for dyslexic kids because of the school’s willingness to identify the condition and provide appropriate supports.

She recognizes that her experience is atypical. Most kids are left to struggle with dyslexia on their own. She has a special awareness of this, because she has come to realize that she, too, is dyslexic.

Because dyslexia is an inherited trait, it is not unusual for parents to identify their own dyslexia at the same time their children are being diagnosed. When LeVinus reflects on her childhood, she remembers painful experiences of teachers giving her books to read that she couldn’t understand and kids making fun of her. Even in high school, her mom would often have to read the textbooks to her.

She also recalls the inordinate amounts of time she spent on homework.

“I was an articulate kid, but I didn’t feel smart. That’s what I saw happening with Charlie, and it was like I was re-experiencing the pain, but worse, because it was through my child,” LeVinus says.

She realizes now that her feelings of failure as a child were actually a result of the school’s failure to help. Feeling compelled to reach the kids who are left to struggle with dyslexia on their own, LeVinus joined the IDA and now serves on the board.

As owner and operator of her own lobbying firm, Capitol Consulting, LeVinus began to work for legislation so that schools would finally recognize dyslexia. Until recently, the term dyslexia had all but been banished from public education, referred to only as a subset of SLD, or Specific Learning Disability. Many had started to call it “The D-word.”

RELATED: An unexpected joy — homeschooling a child with learning differences

Fighting for change

Rep. Jill Norgaard, R-Phoenix, became aware of the need to address dyslexia issues after visiting schools in her area and seeing for herself the difficulties that literacy problems were presenting the classroom.

With the combined efforts of various organizations — including the Arizona Department of Education, the Wellington-Alexander Center, First Things First, Decoding Dyslexia Arizona and several parents (including LeVinus) — Norgaard was able to get a dyslexia bill (HB 2202) passed and signed into law this year.

The components of the law are: early identification and intervention, a refined definition for dyslexia (and permission to specify dyslexia rather than SLD) and a helpful handbook for parents and educators. An earlier bill passed in 2015 prevents dyslexic students from being denied promotion to the next grade because of their reading difficulties.

Norgaard says the initiative passed in large part becuse of the children who testified. “The kids were the most persuasive part of getting the bill passed,” she says, adding, “We’re going to keep looking at new initiatives. We’re not just going to walk away.”

RESOURCES: Read the Arizona Department of Education’s new dyslexia handbook at azed.gov/mowr/dyslexia

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