Taking the Fear Out of Dyslexia

In honor of Dyslexia Awareness Month, Shantell Berrett shares how teachers can fearlessly identify and effectively support students with the most common learning disability

It has only been in the last decade or so that dyslexia has been recognized as a legitimate issue. In the past, dyslexia has been ignored, discounted, or morphed to fit under existing learning disabilities. With further research and clear evidence, it’s becoming not only recognized and understood but finally addressed in education. The movement is slow but powerful. States are beginning to compile handbooks, create mandates, and establish laws addressing dyslexia in education.  

As state mandates have come through requiring schools to identify students with dyslexia, educators have quickly realized that the mandates didn’t necessarily come with an instruction manual on how to support students once they were identified. If a student exhibits signs of having dyslexia, the educator’s role is to encourage parents to get a doctor’s diagnosis. If a diagnosis comes through positive, it’s an educator’s job to support this student through their journey, whether the educator is ready or not.

Though the definition of dyslexia is clearer than ever, there are still lingering fears to address. Individuals coping with dyslexia need help to overcome their fear of speaking about their struggles so educators can provide them with the help they need. Educators, in turn, need knowledge and resources so they can help their students with dyslexia, rather than being afraid of what a positive diagnosis might require of them. Here are a few ways that educators, students, and parents can change their mindsets about dyslexia so that, together, they can confront it fearlessly.

Shifting Students’ Mindsets

Our society tends to connect intelligence with the ability to read and write. Research is clear, however, that intelligence is not necessarily an indicator of reading success and that individuals with dyslexia are usually of average or above average intelligence. When I tell educators that research shows one in five of their students has dyslexia, it blows their minds. Then I remind them that those are only the students who have been identified and reported. A common danger for students who’ve gotten through school undiagnosed is developing the belief that their reading and writing challenges are tied to their intelligence and talents rather than the fact that they have a learning disability.

Whether they’re simply unaware or afraid to confront the reality of their situation, students can lose the motivation to learn. Once a student is aware, it’s no longer a question of whether they’re bright or capable—it’s a matter of accepting their learning disability and knowing their brains are just wired differently. That mindset alone changes a learner’s experience.

It’s never too late for individuals who think they might have dyslexia to improve their reading skills. Older students and even adults can still get the instruction they need to achieve progress. Those who’ve dealt with their dyslexia and have identified strengths have learned to think outside the box when it comes to problem-solving. Identifying strengths and taking on challenges can land them in a place where they excel and exceed expectations because of the human ability to overcome. There’s beauty in gaining powerful assets that they might not have otherwise, but it’s still vital for them to know that what they’re dealing with is not tied to their intelligence or talent.

Helping Teachers See the Value of the Struggle

Two items are generally correlated with motivation: self-efficacy and the notion of perceived difficulty. If something seems overly complex and people don’t feel confident in their ability to handle it, we tend to disengage with it completely. Individuals with dyslexia tend to shut down when they encounter reading assignments, and yet they encounter them every day in school.

These fears are the same for teachers. A teacher might recognize some characteristics of dyslexia in a student, but then what? If a teacher isn’t properly trained on how to support that student, the next steps seem intimidating. If an educator gets a complex reading program or a 70-page dyslexia handbook that is confusing, their motivation is going to be slim to none.

The other side of motivation is seeing the value of the struggle. Identifying and supporting students with dyslexia requires research, patience, and persistence—but it’s worth it. It’s important for these students to get the help they need so they know they’re not alone, that they have the ability to improve, and that they don’t reach adulthood not knowing how to effectively read.

Building Communities of Action

Fortunately, organizations like the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and Decoding Dyslexia offer a wealth of scientific information and are working to break their resources down into bite-sized, digestible pieces. In many states, IDA and Decoding Dyslexia also provide a supportive community where educators can find information and meet people with shared experiences who can support them on their journey and help them feel less alone.

It’s easy for dyslexia professionals to preach the science behind the effects of dyslexia, but educators ultimately need action items. Students with dyslexia have problems with decoding, which can only be addressed through phonics-based instruction. A wealth of research shows that if students are taught how to read with Structured Literacy, which includes a multisensory, phonics-based approach that’s explicit, systematic, and sequential, they can improve their decoding skills. It doesn’t have to be an overly complex process. Many phonics-based reading programs, such as Reading Horizons, provide this solution so educators don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Opening up the conversation about dyslexia works wonders. Schools can hold parent nights to answer questions and bring awareness to family members and educators. School administrators can connect educators with their IDA branch or create a collaborative community page where educators and parents can talk to experts who are knowledgeable about dyslexia. It’s all about creating those supports for parents and educators so they can provide the best support possible for their students.

Schools have been overwhelmed about confronting and supporting dyslexia for a while. Luckily, the support system and overall awareness is only growing. Finding the value in taking the responsibility to support students with dyslexia will not only improve their education, it will improve their lives.

Shantell Berrett is a former English teacher and tutor for reading, English, and dyslexia. She currently works as the lead professional development and dyslexia specialist for Reading Horizons as well as a reading and dyslexia consultant for schools across the nation. Berrett is a member of Decoding Dyslexia Utah and the International Dyslexia Association. She can be reached at [email protected].

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