I just got off the phone with one of my best friends, Jen, who is a very successful career geologist and also happens to be dyslexic. Jen left me a panicked message the other day saying that she is worried about her first grade son’s reading skills, especially knowing her own struggles, and wants me to do an assessment to make sure he doesn’t have dyslexia.
When I got a hold of Jen today, she sounded much more calm, and said she wasn’t as concerned as she was when she originally called. Since leaving her message, she had spoken with her son’s teacher, who assured her that her son is “making good progress” and will likely be reading “at grade level” by the end of the school year. Hmm…I had to wonder where the discrepancy was between Jen’s frantic parental concern and this teacher’s optimistic assurances.
So, I asked Jen to explain to me the signs she saw that gave her such concern. She explained that after numerous practice exercises reading and writing simple sight words, like “what”, her son still couldn’t recognize these words consistently. She also described that he struggled to sound out new words and that his reading was “painfully slow.” With a family history of dyslexia, I was really starting to wonder how this teacher came away without concern. Then Jen added, “Well, when I told her about my history of dyslexia, how I knew it was genetic, and all these symptoms I noticed with Seth, his teacher said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you about dyslexia.’”
Are you kidding me?! A first grade teacher in a public school classroom didn’t know enough about the most common source of reading difficulties and reason for the majority of special education referrals to give my friend an intelligent answer?! I find this absolutely outraging! And yet, I know all too well that this is far from an isolated case.
Gaps in Teacher Preparation
Sadly, everything I know about reading instruction and identifying reading disorders I learned outside of my teacher credentialing program. I don’t remember discussing dyslexia beyond a cursory paragraph in a Learning Differences course. What I know about reading disorders and how to help students overcome them, I learned through supplemental certificate courses for reading specialists and trainings on specific programs for reading instruction. The bottom line is that elementary school teachers are not required to learn about dyslexia in most states (which is a broad category describing individuals who struggle with reading words and have slow reading rates as a result). Worse, in many public schools, teachers are blatantly forbidden to utter the word, “dyslexia,” due to stipulations about the special education process and fear of mislabeling a child.
I’ll share with you what I told Jen as a dear friend, who’s son is so close to my heart I consider his situation as I would for my very own child: if you have a gut feeling that your child is struggling with reading, get it checked out. Do not trust your child’s teacher when she tells you nothing’s wrong.
What enrages me the most in thinking about Seth as a first grader who has slow reading speed, difficulty matching letter names and sounds and recalling sight words, frequent letter reversals, and a mom with dyslexia, is that these are the tell-tale signs that every teacher should be required to know before being granted the privilege of teaching children to read. It is negligent in my eyes to ignore such a constellation of symptoms of dyslexia, because early intervention is so essential. Providing additional instruction in phonics and word reading strategies in first grade can completely prevent later need for special education services. Not to mention, treating a child who has dyslexia early on can circumvent the secondary consequences on self-esteem, writing skills, and overall engagement in learning.
When it comes to reading, trust your intuition.
It is an uphill battle making changes in public schools. There are parents fighting across our country through organizations like, Decoding Dyslexia, to make training on dyslexia mandatory for teachers and school psychologists (you heard me right…the very people who are in charge of diagnosing learning disorders in schools are not required to learn about dyslexia in most states). As long as the teachers’ unions and other lobbyist groups fight against additional requirements for teacher preparation and training, we will continue to have children, like Seth, who go from being bright-eyed, enthusiastic students, to find themselves ill-equipped for success in school. And with that barrier against properly educating our teachers, parents have to trust their guts – not their child’s teachers – when it comes to concerns about reading.