Oh the places literacy should go. But we need to help children get there | Opinion

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, impacting one in five students

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By Hollie Woodard

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish!

It was like stepping into a Dr. Seuss book. The walls, saturated with primary colors, melted into the floors, while the brightly-colored tables stacked with children’s books created an inviting environment that sparked imagination. At least 300 paper fish had been meticulously cut out and hung on the wall, creating the illusion of being in a giant fishbowl. An ordinary gymnasium had been transformed into a world of Dr. Seuss, where at any moment you expected the presence of the Cat and the Hat.

It was Read Across America Day, and parents received handwritten invitations from their children requesting their presence at an hour-long event to celebrate their reading accomplishments.

However, my child couldn’t read.

Diagnosed with dyslexia two years earlier, my fifth-grade son had yet to master the code of our language. This day, intended to celebrate his accomplishments, did nothing more than emphasize his failure to read–a failure that was not his fault.

It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.

Seated in the corner, I watched my son enter the gym and nervously scan the room, looking for me.

When we locked eyes, I could see the familiar look of fear, sadness, and self-doubt that dominated his face every time he was asked to read. Reluctantly, he walked over to me, taking a seat at the creatively decorated table that was intended to generate joy. With tears in his eyes, he pulled out a picture book and painstakingly struggled to slowly read.

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Fighting back my own tears, I faked an enthusiastic smile and celebrated the completion of each sentence. I avoided looking at the other tables where students sprinted through paragraphs of chapter books, receiving joyous high fives from their pride-filled parents. However, my son saw their joy, and I saw his shame.

A person’s a person, no matter how small.

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, impacting one in five students. Quite simply, dyslexia is the inability of a student to naturally learn letter-sound relationships, despite having a high enough IQ to do so. It is easily identified and can be effectively remediated with systematic, phonics-based instruction. Sadly, most teachers and administrators have not been properly educated about dyslexia.

As a result of their ignorance, most schools have adopted a wait-to-fail model in which students are often required to fall behind two or three grade levels in reading before they are identified as students with a specific learning disability. This approach causes school-related trauma and damages students’ self-esteem and attitudes towards learning.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Fortunately, in the state of Pennsylvania, due to the overwhelming advocacy work of parents with dyslexic children who witnessed their children endure the same trauma as my child, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has worked with the state legislature and state board of education to change the narrative around dyslexia.

Last year, the state passed new teacher training requirements and legislation that ensure that all pre-service teachers and current teachers responsible for teaching reading will receive professional development in structured literacy, also known as the science of reading.

But there is still more to be done to ensure that students with dyslexia, like my son, will have their needs met before they are allowed to fail for years.

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In the General Assembly, state Reps, Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny and Justin Fleming, D-Dauphin,  and Sens. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, have proposed legislation that would require mandatory dyslexia screening in kindergarten through third grades, ensure instructional materials are aligned with the science of reading, and create intervention plans for students at risk of falling behind.

Oh the places you’ll go!

Literacy themed days are fun, but no amount of paper fish will give a child a love of literacy if they lack the basic tools necessary to decode the language. By supporting the new structured literacy competencies and advocating for the passage of legislation to advance the science of reading, we can be certain that all children, regardless of their neurology, will be given the opportunity to imagine the places they’ll go.

Hollie Woodard is a 2022-23 Teach Plus policy fellow and a high school English teacher and technology coach at Council Rock High School North in Newtown, Pennsylvania. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.