By Cheri Rae
Dean Bragonier, an East Coast literacy advocate, decided to raise awareness about dyslexia a few years ago by swimming more than 50 miles around Martha’s Vineyard.
His oft-repeated message to the media was, “A dyslexic entering a classroom each day is more brave than someone swimming near sharks.”
I met one of those brave students not long ago, after completing presentations about the complexities of dyslexia to four classes of fourth graders at the “Ability Awareness Day” at the Washington Elementary School Library. The child came close, after waiting patiently until all the other students had filed out of the room, and, with wide, sad eyes locked into mine, quietly said, "I can't read."
As the “dyslexia lady” in local classrooms for many years, I have heard those whispered words seen that pinched, worried look on too many other young faces. It takes a lot of courage for a child who is struggling to stay afloat to share their terrible secret with a stranger.
But when that stranger throws a lifeline by detailing the story of her own son’s dyslexia, some feel emboldened to reach out and grab on.
Dyslexics through history. My interactive presentation includes assemblage art that interprets aspects of dyslexia and literacy. Along with oversized photographs of local dyslexics, it features examples of successful dyslexics through history, and a positive message about supporting strengths while addressing challenges.
I also mention that dyslexia occurs in one in five individuals; this means that, in any given classroom, there may be four or five students who have the hereditary learning difference that makes reading, writing, spelling, and taking notes more challenging.
We also discuss how to be a good friend to someone who is struggling to read — be kind, never laugh or make fun -- land to share what you know in a nice way. Instead of mocking -- “What’s the matter, are you dyslexic?” -- offer support: “I learned about something called dyslexia, maybe we should talk about it.”
I always add, “If any of what we’ve talked about today sounds familiar to you, or is something that is bothering you, please be sure to tell your parents and your teacher, and we’ll make sure you get the help you need.”
That reassurance offers hope, often in short supply for a frustrated student.
“If I had heard your message when I was a little girl, I wouldn’t have felt so dumb and so alone," shared a local dyslexic philanthropist, who has provided generous funding for this outreach program, and who sometimes accompanies me to these classroom presentations.
It's about kids, not the data. Children in classrooms are top of mind in advocating about dyslexia to adults who oversee their education.
In boardrooms and offices, the discussion usually quickly moves to data, with its subgroups, means, averages, bar graphs and pie charts, which have little to do with the hopes and fears of a child who carries the burden of wanting to read but being unable to, through no fault of their own. It’s a burden that weighs them down.
I advise parents of an unexpectedly struggling child to prepare well for their meetings with school officials. In addition to documenting their child’s struggles and strengths, I suggest they bring a photo of their child, a sample of their written work, and a recording of them reading aloud, or talking about their school issues.
It’s a way to remind decision-makers of the young and vulnerable humans represented in their data points.
“We assume if you’re smart you’ll be a good reader," explains Dr. Sally Shaywitz of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. "Dyslexia violates that assumption.”
Her comment points to perhaps the most frustrating aspect of dyslexia advocacy: Identifying it in a timely manner, so that appropriate interventions can start early, before extensive remediation is required.
The politics of dyslexia. Almost unimaginably, screening children for dyslexia has long been a
contentious political issue in Sacramento.
The California Teachers Association consistently resists early identification, claiming that screening “lessens the instructional time available for learning the required curriculum.”
In 2015, the powerful statewide teachers union opposed both the simple screening of students and teacher training in legislation that established the state’s dyslexia guidelines.
Often identified as the most powerful special interest group in the capital, the CTA persisted in opposition to dyslexia screening in 2021-2022, when Senate Bill 237, co-authored by Santa Barbara Democratic state Senator Monique Limon, passed the Senate unanimously but was stalled in the Assembly’s Education Committee and never brought to a vote.
That bill also, inexplicably, was opposed by the California School Boards Association; neither our dyslexic governor, nor the State Superintendent of Public Instruction publicly supported it during an election year.
However, the current legislative session offers renewed hope, as a new bill -- SB 691 for K-2 Universal Screening for Risk of Dyslexia -- was introduced in February by dyslexic senator Anthony Portantino. This time, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has publicly announced his support.
Although Governor Gavin Newsom has not (yet) indicated support of the bill, he has championed efforts to develop a simple, web-based screening tool at the Dyslexia Center at the University of San Francisco.
The 30-minute screener assesses student mastery of essential components for skilled reading and is available in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and other languages to ensure accuracy and prevent overidentification due to language issues. If the bill becomes law, the screener will be made available at no cost to school districts throughout the state.
Passage would likely require the CTA to reverse its longstanding opposition to dyslexia legislation.
Screening would help classroom teachers pinpoint individual reading issues and adjust their instruction accordingly much earlier than the current practice of waiting to fail. It’s hardly a novel concept: 40 other states mandate dyslexia screening (you can weigh in on the issue here).
Bottom line. Pencil it out: Spending 30 minutes on K-2 students could save hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars of remediation instruction. And it would prevent early academic failure that leads to psychological damage when a child feels like a failure by third grade because they’re not learning to read when they’re supposed to be reading to learn.
The brave little fourth grader at Washington School still has time to catch up; the Reading Specialist who overheard the conversation with me assures me the child’s needs will be addressed.
But, as a fellow advocate pointed out, “One child told you, but several others didn’t.”
P.S. A big shout out to the teachers and administrative team at Washington School for their excellent job on Ability Awareness Day. They invited community speakers to facilitate student understanding of a variety of issues beyond dyslexia, including blindness, autism, and deafness. The students were engaged and interested in these age-appropriate presentations, which increase their knowledge, empathy -- and sometimes even identify their individual needs.
Cheri Rae is the director of The Dyslexia Project and the author of DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia. You can reach her at TheDyslexiaProject@gmail.com
Images: Shark photo illustration (Cheri Rae); A note from a student at Washington Elementary (courtesy); State schools superintendent Tony Thurmond addresses the CTA (YouTube); Some of the materials the "dyslexia lady" brought to class (Cheri Rae).