Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disability, but teachers may not always be able to recognize it in their students. A recent workshop in Sioux Falls gave elementary teachers a glimpse of the challenges their dyslexic students can face in the classroom.
For Nina Lorimor-Easley, dyslexia is personal. She’s a mother of three from Iowa who thought her middle child’s persistent behavioral problems in elementary school were a discipline problem. For instance, when it was time to read out loud in class, he would punch another student and get sent out of the classroom.
“It took us until sixth grade to find out he actually couldn’t read, and that was where all the behaviors were coming from,” Lorimor-Easley says.
She went back to school to become a tutor to help her son, and now has a Master’s degree in educational psychology. A few years later, when her younger son’s teacher showed her his handwriting with letters written backwards, Lorimor-Easley instantly knew what was happening.
“Dyslexia is 50% heritable, so as soon as I saw it in my younger son I recognized it and have been able to completely alter every parenting approach I have based on his abilities.”
She also knows how difficult it can be to find adequate resources for students with dyslexia, despite how common it is and the abundance of research about it.
“Almost 400 studies a year are published on reading alone, and many of those in regard to phonological awareness and phonological processing. So there’s tons and tons of scientific data to back dyslexia and its presence and what that means in a classroom.”
She says most elementary educators don’t have the time to keep up with that research. So she created a workshop to help teachers experience the classroom through the lens of their struggling students. That’s how she ended up at Sioux Falls Christian Schools.
Earlier this year, the school founded the Pathways Literacy Center to offering tutoring for any students and community members who struggle with reading. Carmen Heethuis is the Pathways Director. She says the program focuses on dyslexia because it’s so common: one in five people fall somewhere on the dyslexia spectrum.
"When you think about a classroom size of even just 20 kids, if 20% of those kids potentially have dyslexia, that’s a large number of students that aren’t being reached," says Heethuis.
To take advantage of available resources, teachers and parents need to be able to recognize signs of dyslexia in the first place.
"Who would like to read next?" Lorimor-Easley asks the workshop participants. After a beat of silence, she chastises them: "Class these are not hard words, these are words you’re all familiar with."
Elementary teachers and tutors fill a classroom. They glance at each other nervously and stare at the hand out they’ve been given. Some letters are jumbled, some d’s replaced with b’s, and some lines have blank gaps. Everyone falters, and most don’t volunteer to try. When teachers giggle, try to guess at words or lose their place, Lorimor-Easley scolds them and tells them to pay attention. It’s all part of the demonstration.
"Part of the problem that we deal with is that dyslexia often looks like a motivational issue, or a behavioral issue," she says. "Often times increased exposure--in other words just having a kiddo read more or try to read faster, a lot of times well-intentioned educators think that’s going to be beneficial or is going to help when in reality it’s not."
The teachers are visibly flustered by the exercise. Lauren Fey teaches fourth grade and says Lorimor-Easley helped her have more empathy for struggling readers.
“I guess just being in the shoes of someone who has dyslexia with the activities that she did with us really made you feel so frustrated, and it makes you think about those students in your own classroom,” she says.
The presentation also gives teachers common signs of dyslexia to help them recognize it in their students: things like guessing at words based on the first letter, or extreme discrepancies between a student’s verbal and written communication skills.
Lorimor-Easley also recommends that teachers give those students a heads up before calling on them in class or asking them to read aloud. This can help cut down on a student’s classroom anxiety and keep them from shutting down.
“Kids, they just can’t take all of that failure. So they continue to continue to continue to perceive failure, and they will get to the point where they won’t try anymore. Where for them, it’s not worth the risk. The only safe thing to do is to not try.”
Ultimately, the three hour workshop isn’t a substitute for years of research and training on dyslexia. But it’s better than nothing. Lorimor-Easley says a teacher in Iowa can earn a master’s in special education and not be required to take one class related to dyslexia. In South Dakota, dyslexia is included in special education training but not yet required for general education training.
But being able to spot signs of dyslexia in students can help teachers understand how to help. Fourth grade teacher Lauren Fey doesn’t expect to forget what she learned in the workshop.
“I think it’s gonna be more on my brain now, those little warning signs for each student, knowing that I’ve got resources around me that I can go to somebody to ask for help if I think somebody is showing some of these warning signs of dyslexia.”
And for people who struggle with those warning signs, the Pathways Literacy Center hopes to be a valuable resource.