DysTeachia Awareness Month
Dyslexia organizations and advocates are once again in full swing during the month of October, bringing attention to dyslexia. To some, this annual call to arms takes on a festive air, as the issue of dyslexia is put front and center in the hope that the “one-in-five” children who struggle with dyslexia will receive proper intervention. Well, I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but I can’t help but feel that the annual effort has become so routine and narrow-focused that the underlying message has become lost. Let’s be honest, we are all already aware of the problem. You know. I know. We all know. There is not an “awareness” gap about the failure of literacy instruction in America and throughout the English-speaking world; there is an “action” gap. And, with all due respect and admiration to those who advocate for their dyslexic children by trying to bring awareness to the issue each October, as we see each year, once October ends, little more is done in districts, schools, and classrooms to make the necessary changes to truly help children learn to read.
We all need to be honest and call BS when we see it. It’s not about a lack of information or awareness. At this point, the research on the benefits of explicit, structured literacy practices for all children is self-evident. It has existed for over thirty years; yet, it has not made any significant difference. And neither has anything else, as teachers, the teaching colleges they attend, publishing companies, and the many corporate and political benefactors choose to ignore the research and maintain the status quo by perpetuating ineffective programs.
While keeping dyslexia in the spotlight is never a bad thing, we have to recognize that the literacy crisis is widespread. I saw a post on social media relating to reading intervention as it exists today. It stated: “If 800 children are in tier 2 intervention, it is a tier 1 problem!” That says it all. It is not just about getting the right intervention for some children. It is about ensuring proper instruction for all children in their primary classrooms!
When over 60% of students across the country are not meeting grade level proficiency, it is more than a dyslexia problem, it is a DysTeachia problem. When the most insidious secret in middle and upper middle-class communities is the extent to which people pay outside tutors to help their children learn to read, it is more than a dyslexia problem, it is a DysTeachia problem. When over 70% of my tutoring students have been, and continue to be, the children of teachers and administrators who work or worked in the public schools, it is not a dyslexia problem, it is a DysTeachia problem.
When we have a school-to-prison pipeline flowing predominantly with illiterate young men and women, we need to pay attention. They do not all have dyslexia. More often than not it is a curriculum disability, not a learning disability, that is at the heart of illiteracy or reading struggles. And unless it becomes obvious and relevant to all taxpayers that reading instruction in our schools is woefully inadequate, the public will not care about the “one-in-five.”
I’m proposing that the way to effect real change is to expand the focus of Dyslexia Awareness month beyond dyslexia. Start a campaign that hits a nerve with all parents, educators, and politicians concerned with children and education. One of the first steps is to recognize that poor reading instruction is not just a problem that exists in minority and socio-economically disadvantaged communities. Just like the opioid crisis in America became relevant when it became a problem in suburban, middle-class communities, the illiteracy crisis needs the same publicity. It is easy to dismiss the problem when it is relegated to urban or rural, economically disadvantaged and underserved communities, or the one in five children and families who struggle with dyslexia.
As stated, the research has been out there for years. Yet, professors at universities and colleges that teach future teachers shamefully hold on to and “teach” antiquated and debunked teaching strategies that they, themselves, have likely not used in years. In fact, many college professors and, believe it or not, literacy “experts” do not, themselves, work with children; yet they espouse “pie-in-the-sky” theories that any present-day practitioner would know are nonsense. And, rather than change their philosophy, they choose to go along and perpetuate a system that does not serve children well.
I taught a graduate level course in literacy for one such local college. Most of the students, all prospective or actively employed teachers, had not previously been exposed to topics such as phonological awareness or any of the other fundamentals of scientifically based reading instruction. They had, however, spent a lot of time in their prior literacy course being taught such things as how to choose a read-aloud book and how to engage children in a shared reading lesson. That is what our teachers are learning in the teaching colleges, and until they take it upon themselves to learn a different way, they will only be able to teach what they know and have learned from their professors.
To be clear, the problem of DysTeachia exists in wealthy districts and poverty-stricken ones. The only difference is the high performing school districts have parents who can pay for outside help. In the meantime, the “high performing” districts will pat themselves on the back for a job well done. It is time to break the silence.
So, how do we change the trajectory for children with dyslexia? The public needs to view the literacy crisis with a new lens. Start using hashtags that focus the attention on the real issue of poor instruction for everyone instead of only the 1 in 5 with dyslexia. Perhaps it is worth trying such hashtags as #SayDysTeachia, #DysTeachiaFIRST, #ShameOnU-niversity, #BalancedBudgetsNotBalancedLiteracy, or #NotAboutThe$$$. Let’s make it relevant to all parents.
Faith Borkowsky is the Founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching with over thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher, reading/learning specialist, regional literacy coach, administrator, and tutor. She is the author of Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention. Ms. Borkowsky is Orton-Gillingham trained and is a Wilson Certified Dyslexia Practitioner listed on the International Dyslexia Association’s Provider Directory. She provides professional development for teachers and school districts, as well as parent workshops, presentations, and private consultations.