Identifying Students with Dyslexia
By Donell Pons
When my son was in second grade, it became apparent he was not going to read without serious intervention. His speech was not delayed, but he was completely unaware of rhyme, the sound-to-letter relationship eluded him, and almost every characteristic of letter formation was challenging, from lower to upper case, left to right, and top to bottom. Although I was aware of my husband’s struggle with reading, despite being very bright, and the subsequent struggle my daughter had learning to read, I was still unaware of the heritable component of dyslexia. Had I been informed, I would have had my son screened for dyslexia and insisted he receive reading instruction following the guidelines of Structured Literacy.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know, so we stumbled into intervention after years of struggling and too late to spare my son from the tremendous anxiety that comes with struggling to read despite being plenty bright. In fact, it’s the plenty bright part that makes dyslexia so painful. My son, husband, and daughter were all painfully aware that learning to read was much harder than it should have been and that knowledge made everything in school far more difficult. Thankfully, through the efforts of many researchers, psychologists, educators, and parents, there has been an increasing move to screen for dyslexia and provide appropriate instruction.
Once I knew what I was looking for, I could see the signs of dyslexia running throughout my family. When I cautiously questioned my husband about his reading, he revealed that, when he was in school, it took him more than six hours a night to complete his homework. He often misspelled the months of the year and struggled with certain days of the week. He had to practice his home address. He would often blaze past construction signs and public signs, appearing to disregard the information when, in truth, he couldn’t read it quickly enough to process what it meant.
When observant parents know what to look for in regard to dyslexia, then they can begin to see a pattern of behavior that distinguishes dyslexia from other reading challenges.
One in five students has a learning disability, the most common of which is dyslexia. Now that all but four states (legislation is pending in many states) have finally adopted dyslexia as its own category of special needs, more districts are taking action to identify and accommodate students with dyslexia. There are so many ways parents can recognize the telltale signs of dyslexia, and it can make all the difference for those affected. If remediation is conducted early and appropriately, students who show signs of dyslexia are likely to learn to read just like their non-dyslexic peers. When observant parents know what to look for in regard to dyslexia, then they can begin to see a pattern of behavior that distinguishes dyslexia from other reading challenges.
Characteristics of Dyslexia
Many researchers now agree that struggling word-level readers share some characteristics such as poor phonemic awareness (PA) and below-average rapid automatized naming (RAN). Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to manipulate sounds in spoken words, and RAN is the amount of time needed to name known stimuli including digits, letters, and colors.
Sally Shaywitz at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, author of the highly regarded book Overcoming Dyslexia, has a comprehensive list of recommendations for parents and educators, including being observant of early language development focusing on rhyming, word finding, and pronunciation. She also counsels parents to be attentive to print-to-language skills like naming individual letters. Shaywitz also recommends examining family history, which can be a strong indicator.
Both of my children with dyslexia were verbal in childhood, with no obvious signs of language challenges, until I started introducing the alphabet with letter-to-sound correspondence. As soon as I would introduce a letter with its sound, my children with dyslexia would forget it. My otherwise very quick children were absolutely struggling with the basic connection between written letters and their corresponding sounds.
Common Experiences in the Classroom
In the classroom, students with dyslexia will continue well past elementary school to misspell common words, such as the days of the week or months of the year. They often have anxiety about being in the classroom because of the numerous tasks involving reading and writing. Writing assignments may go unfinished, even when the student seems engaged in the topic. Penmanship may be sloppy, not because of an underlying handwriting issue, but to disguise poor spelling. Often, the student will randomly capitalize words or letters within words because not only are the rules of spelling and grammar elusive but also because discriminating between the letter formations is still unclear.
My son with dyslexia will often accept a lower grade rather than ask for much-needed help to finish a writing assignment. He is capable of completing any writing assignment with speech-to-text or a scribe. If those aren’t available, he won’t even attempt to finish the assignment. Writing takes so much effort with a language-based learning disability like dyslexia that it’s essential, even after reading remediation, to provide accommodations for students with dyslexia. The truly sad part is my son has so much to say on many topics, but he’d rather remain silent than struggle to spell the more complex words associated with his higher understanding.
What to Do if You Suspect Your Child Has Dyslexia
If you suspect your child has dyslexia, you can immediately request the student be evaluated under the Child Find mandate found within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The wording of Child Find is clear: “Schools are required to locate, identify, and evaluate all children with disabilities from birth through age 22.” Identifying students who need services is an important first step. Child Find covers home-schooled students as well as those in private schools. This means that a student under 22 years of age who has not been identified still qualifies for identification even if the student is “advancing grade to grade.” For more comprehensive information regarding Child Find, search Wrightslaw.com or Understood.org.
If a child is struggling enough with reading that a parent is asking the school for help, then that parent and child deserve consideration. The alternative is to ignore a plea for help that doesn’t simply go away but escalates into larger issues, such as truancy and disengagement, leading to higher dropout rates.
I often hear school personnel express concern that every parent thinks their child has dyslexia followed by every parent will ask to have their child tested. These statements puzzle me. If a child is struggling enough with reading that a parent is asking the school for help, then that parent and child deserve consideration. The alternative is to ignore a plea for help that doesn’t simply go away but escalates into larger issues, such as truancy and disengagement, leading to higher dropout rates. So what’s wrong with listening to a concerned parent and walking through a quick screening to see if dyslexia could be present? My husband should have been identified as dyslexic numerous times, as he was clearly underperforming given his potential. Basically, it’s never acceptable to see a student unable to read or write at grade level without any known intervention or support and say nothing.
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About the Author
Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah. Pons started her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She has a master’s degree in education and teaching from Westminster College, along with a certification in special education. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.