“Compassion,” Caleb said, and his mother burst into tears. It was the first time Caleb read a three-syllable word with ease, a feat that would’ve been impossible six weeks ago. Caleb is a third-grader with a disability called dyslexia, a neurobiological condition that causes problems with reading fluency and spelling. Reading is a man-made process; unlike language, there is not a single center in the brain designed for that function. Therefore, the complex tasks of translating symbols used for reading and writing require three parts of our brain to work together. This is a daunting task for children like Caleb. His language fluency, comprehension, academic progress, and success in life would all be negatively affected if his dyslexia were left untreated.
Caleb’s parents had him tested for dyslexia when he was failing third grade. Upon diagnosis, they decided to leave their jobs and move towns to enroll their son in a special purpose school, The 3D School, for children with dyslexia. “We changed our lives to make this happen,” says Caleb’s mom. “We had to because time was running out.” Caleb’s family is not alone. Within my circle of friends, I know two others who moved because their children could not get the help they needed if they continued in their local schools. One way The 3D School helps students with dyslexia is by providing an hour of therapy to small groups of students five days a week. Upon completion, students transition back to their local schools where classroom success allows them to pursue their ambitions. My friend’s daughter, Adriene, is a self proclaimed ambassador. She is one of The 3D School’s inaugural students and is now a sports information director for a Conference USA university.
What about families who cannot move?
Public schools that provide dyslexia therapy can have equally impressive success stories. I have taught in school districts with and without dyslexia therapists, and the difference is astonishing. Middle school students who received help from a trained therapist during the primary and elementary school years have positive self-images, advocate for themselves, and can read with the fluency required for comprehension, which means they are successful in their classes. Conversely, high school students struggle in districts that have not employed dyslexia therapists. These students take remedial courses, live in fear of failure, and sometimes find themselves unable to graduate like their peers due to low scores on high-stakes tests.
In the 1970s and 1980s, treatment for dyslexia was still a distant hope. But today, schools can take life-changing action when there are warning signs of dyslexia. It is akin to the life-saving progression of screening, diagnostic testing, and treatment for patients with cancer. Early screening and diagnostic testing can lead to early instruction for children with dyslexia. The screening test identifies trouble sounding out phonemes, recognizing symbols, rhyming, spelling, and reading. These tests are reliable as early as kindergarten. Like cancer patients' treatments, early testing allows for therapy before the problem becomes evident and students suffer.
The good news in Mississippi is that all districts are now screening for reading disabilities. The bad news is that, after screening, parents have to pay for the comprehensive evaluation to determine if their child in fact has dyslexia, which costs an average of $400. Many of the student’s families I teach can’t afford it. Even if the child is identified as dyslexic, the school often doesn’t have the resources to provide the proper support. The current figures for dyslexic children in Mississippi are between 5% and 20%, a number dubiously aligned with the retention rate of first, second, and third graders in our state. Incorporating dyslexia testing and therapy in our public schools will help reduce the number of students who are failing early grades and increase their success rates in later years.
A few things need to be done to make education for students with dyslexia more equitable. First, the state needs to pay for the comprehensive evaluation of every student failing the initial dyslexia screening test. Second, school districts need to hire dyslexia therapists to serve identified students in their local schools. Most importantly, we should begin dyslexia therapy during the first years of students’ public school journey to support their self-esteem, lessen their anxiety, and ensure the success of students like Caleb.
• International Association for Dyslexia
• The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity
• Overcoming Dyslexia by Dr. Sally Shaywitz
• The Mississippi Dyslexia Therapy Association
Shelley Putnam is a National Board Certified Teacher and a 2022-23 Teach Plus Senior Writing fellow.