In October, education communities across the country recognized Dyslexia Awareness Month. The National Institute of Health and Yale University found approximately one in five people face challenges with reading relating to dyslexia. Yet state and federal decision-makers often fall short, repeating the same conversations with little tangible progress to be seen.
Although dyslexia is relatively common, it continues to be incredibly challenging for these students to be identified. Dyslexic students often find themselves in classrooms lacking the essential resources they need to thrive as readers. The consequences are immeasurable.
Allowing these students to progress through the system without the tools they need to become proficient readers often results in even greater repercussions down the road. Not only do they continue to struggle academically, but due to that continued struggle day after day, these students often experience trauma in school settings, resulting in depression, anxiety, and sometimes suicidal thoughts, triggering a range of behavioral issues. What is most concerning is that this is all preventable.
The tragedy here is that most students, including those with dyslexia or other learning differences, are capable of learning how to read. Researchers estimate that 95% of students can learn to read with appropriate instruction.
The first steps are correcting our teacher prep programs at universities, continuing professional development and coaching, aligning teacher practice with science, and putting state and district systems in place to ensure success from the top down and the bottom up.When I found myself tied to this cause by advocating for my son, who was diagnosed with dyslexia in elementary school, I was heartbroken to learn that there were limited resources available for my child and other children like him. Even worse, regardless of federal laws in place to support children with additional needs, it didn’t seem to be a concern or priority within my school, my district, or my state education system. In 2018, after an exhausting search for appropriate resources to help my son learn how to read and spending thousands of dollars in private tutoring, I founded the Idaho chapter of Decoding Dyslexia (DDID)—Idaho being the last state in the country to create a chapter—to raise awareness and improve access to educational interventions and teacher training to help dyslexic students.
The truth is there are plenty of resources with proven methods to support this population of students, but they are often overlooked by our decision-makers. We cannot continue to allow failed systems to fail our children. Literacy is a civil right and key to a successful future. If you can’t read, you will struggle in all areas of school and life. There are decades of research that have studied the reading brain and how all children learn to read. We must advocate for our education systems to support evidence-based reading instruction so that all educators are equipped with the knowledge and tools to teach every student how to read; it starts early in our core classrooms.
Why Dyslexia Legislation in the US Isn’t a Cure-All
States across the country have their versions of mandates meant to support students with dyslexia, and these continue to evolve. One example in recent headlines is dyslexia screening mandates, which the majority of states now have in place. These policies require all students be screened for dyslexia, mainly in grades K–2, ideally to catch at-risk characteristics early and provide interventions immediately. We know from research that early intervention is critical to introduce effective instruction at a time when children are still developing neurological understanding of words.
Still, dyslexia screening mandates do not always stand up. According to the National Center for Improving Literacy, the term screening refers to a brief evaluation, no more than five minutes, to identify the risk of performing below a benchmark on a specified outcome. Screening results cannot be used as diagnostic tools and are merely red flags that would ideally prompt further evaluation. But there is no guarantee that students will then receive what’s most important, that is, the next steps—further evaluation and diagnostics to determine the specific areas of struggle—and even less guaranteed is the availability and promise of effective interventions.
Far fewer states have mandated intervention for students with dyslexia, and with 71% of teacher preparation programs spending less than two hours of instructional time teaching candidates to support struggling readers, this creates a gap in knowledge for both teachers and students.
States that do have proper mandates often fail to support and coach educators in the classroom on how to implement necessary instruction. Distributing resources without adequate context, continued coaching, and systems of support in place is not enough; legislation is often broad and either lacks clear direction or lacks state and/or district leaders dedicated to carrying the changes through.
As we look forward, we can assume that dyslexia legislation will continue to grow and evolve, but this will mean nothing without significant changes in how policy is being translated and implemented by states and districts. Still, there are options available to administrators, educators, and parents concerned about the progress of their struggling readers.
Bringing Educators to the Frontlines
The best way forward in dyslexia reform is prioritizing coaching for the educators working with students daily in their classrooms. The passing of state legislation is just checking a box if we don’t look at system changes and the leaders at both state and district levels who are in positions to lead this work. The following should be high priorities for districts as they navigate the process of creating a support system for struggling readers.
Invest in Teacher Preparation—Experts agree that all students, but especially those with dyslexia, benefit from structured literacy, explicit, multisensory instruction that involves phonics and decoding words.6 Until recently, this was not widely understood, which means teachers were not receiving this type of preparation in their university training—and many still aren’t.
The National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2023 report found that just 25% of teacher preparation programs cover all the core elements of scientifically based reading instruction, and another quarter don’t cover any adequately. States and districts must allocate time, money, and resources for teachers to receive this type of training when they enter the school environment so they have all the tools they need to teach all children how to read.
Create an Emphasis on Literacy—Students need exposure to literacy throughout every part of their educational years, even after the first four to five years considered early childhood education. According to the Center for Public Education, students who cannot read at grade level by third grade will face daunting hurdles in school and beyond,8 which can be made even more difficult for those students with dyslexia. Struggling readers rarely catch up with their peers academically and are four times more likely to drop out of high school, lowering their earning power as adults and overall potential. We can’t stop the emphasis on literacy after early education when the majority of dyslexic students aren’t identified until after third grade.9
Foster a Network of Support and Accountability—Create a unified culture of genuine support and mutual respect across all levels of the education system, prioritizing listening to and supporting teachers. Teachers should feel empowered rather than stifled while addressing the disconnect between administrative requirements and teacher constraints to create an environment where everyone works to ensure all students learn to read. Most importantly, there must be a system of accountability ensuring that legislation mandates are properly integrated into practice.
The landscape of dyslexia legislation in the US portrays a drawn-out, persistent struggle. It doesn’t have to be this difficult. We have decades of research telling us how the brain learns to read, passionate educators eager to meet the needs of their students, and legislation outlining state literacy requirements.
What is missing? Leadership and accountability.
It’s time we move beyond checking boxes and passing the buck to prioritize meaningful actions by our state and district leaders to ensure every student has the tools and opportunities essential to help them thrive in school, life, and work.
Robin Zikmund is strategic relationships manager for the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE) and founder and president of Decoding Dyslexia Idaho.