Volume 7, Issue 4
By Deborah Lynam
At some point, I imagine that many teachers come face to face with that concerned parent who wants to know, “Is it dyslexia?” Perhaps the comment is a passing one sparked by a few letter reversals on the writing assignment hanging in the hallway. Sometimes it is enough for a teacher to explain that letter reversals are common among young students and nothing to worry about. But sometimes, the question is asked by the parent of a struggling reader—the one who seems to be stuck in the lowest reading group, the one for whom reading, writing, and spelling are just not coming easily.
Avoiding the “Runaround” Is Key
In this moment, teachers are faced with a choice: “How do I best respond?” I am the parent of three boys; two of them have dyslexia. Believe me when I say that the teacher’s response is very important. The response may create trust and collaboration between school and parent; it also has the potential to put the school-parent relationship on shaky ground for years to come. Many years ago, I asked a version of this question myself. Unfortunately, I received an unsatisfactory answer: “No, we don’t diagnose dyslexia.” Not understanding the subtlety in this statement, and not receiving any additional information to settle my fears, I was left on my own to figure out what my son’s struggles were all about. Months later, I arrived at the understanding that my son did indeed have dyslexia. Let me tell you that I certainly felt like I’d been given the “runaround.” The very professionals I was counting on for support had led me astray and allowed us to waste precious time. It shook my confidence in the school’s ability to work with my son. I wondered how they were going to teach him to read if they didn’t even “recognize” why he was having difficulty.
Building Trust Is the First Step
Many parent-school conflicts begin with a lack of trust. Parents may quickly lose faith in schools when they feel their concerns around dyslexia or their child’s reading difficulties are dismissed. Investing in these early interactions with parents and proactively encouraging discussions around typical reading development, the risk factors for reading failure, and evidence-based reading interventions can go a long way in building trust. Parents are hungry for this type of discourse with their schools and teachers. These early conversations can be the first step to building strong partnerships that will result in timely and effective support services for the students who need them most.
As parents, we need to feel confident that our teachers are well versed in the latest research on reading development and dyslexia. There is so much excellent information available to us in all kinds of formats nowadays—workshops, books, and websites. We want to share in and discuss this knowledge and information with the professionals working with our children.
Working together to build a common understanding of typical and atypical reading development is an important step toward collaboration.
Good Communication Fosters Positive Outcomes
Strong parent-school partnerships are important in helping students reach their full potential. The earlier these conversations start with parents, the better. Building trust starts with good communication. The federal government has acknowledged that it is OK to say dyslexia. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released a Dear Colleague guidance letter on the use of the terms dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia in Individual Education Programs (IEPs). It reminds schools of “the importance of addressing the unique educational needs of children with specific learning disabilities resulting from dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia during IEP Team meetings and other meetings with parents under IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act].” However, I’m sure we would agree that waiting until a student qualifies for special education services is far too late a starting point for these important discussions. We need to start these conversations much earlier, and we need to learn how to best communicate the objective data resulting from screening and evidence-based intervention practices.
Dyslexia is not a term to fear. We can establish a culture in our schools where parents and teachers are regularly discussing reading progress and any specific areas of deficit we find worrisome.
We cannot advocate for students if we hesitate in our efforts to collaboratively understand their unique needs and the appropriateness of particular services and supports.
While dyslexia is a legitimate concern for many struggling readers, it is not the only reason students may be at risk for reading failure. When parents come forward with those early questions about dyslexia, or when they share more general frustrations about their child’s reading progress, let’s pull them in and immediately start working together to find the answers we need . Let’s not argue over, get confused by, or fear a “term.” Let’s not allow concerns about labeling or mislabeling a student get in the way of the conversation. Maybe it is dyslexia and maybe it isn’t. The important issue is that we are working together to foster the best possible outcome for that struggling reader. That is the response that matters most!
Deborah Lynam is the Director of Partnerships and Engagement at AIM Institute for Learning and Research and currently serves on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy. She chairs the NJ State Special Education Advisory Council and is a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia–NJ.
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