First of all, stop beating yourself up.
It was always a given that my kids would love books and reading. Frankly, I couldn't see how they could not like books and reading. It was beyond my comprehension. Raised by two educators, I loved to be immersed in the world of stories and books.
Before my first child was born, we already had shelves full of books. Just as all the experts suggest, my husband and I began reading to our kids when they were infants, starting out with the thick, slick baby books with pictures and simple text, and moving up to more complex stories, thinner paper, and higher vocabulary.
My children also loved having stories told to them at bedtime. Audiobooks made car trips far more pleasant. We all listened together, following along to the antics of Peter and his brother Fudge in Judy Blume's books or Ramona and Beezus in Beverly Cleary's.
My older daughter, Anna, quickly picked up reading and, like me, spent much of her free time absorbed in the world of books. She eventually started writing her own stories. My younger daughter, Katie, loved being read too, but she took to reading much more slowly. She found audiobooks and quickly adopted a preference for those.
It had never occurred to me that listening to a book might be the equivalent of reading with sight, which just goes to show how skewed my perspective is. Katie's teachers noticed her intelligence and were impressed by her vocabulary, and so they were surprised by her struggles with reading and writing.
Dyslexia came up, but trying to get her formally evaluated proved a mysterious process. Nobody seemed to know how – at least, not without costing a ton of money.
I didn't know much about dyslexia, so I set about researching it. It was critical that we "overcome" this obstacle. Katie needed to read and write well if she were to succeed. I didn't want to see her lose out on opportunities, especially because she's bright and motivated. I cycled between frustration – maybe she just needed to work harder – and despair.
We worry about our kids when they don't fit the mold. We worry that they will be outcast, that they won't get the things they need, not because being different is bad or wrong, but because in our society, it's just so much more difficult.
For me, someone who'd been raised to worship at the altar of books and reading, who almost unconsciously saw reading as something that all intelligent people just did, my daughter's struggles challenged my ideas about parenting, development, learning, and intelligence. I knew my daughter was intelligent. But I still worried, with an educational system so dependent on text-based learning, that she would lose out.
According to the International Dyslexia Association, 15 to 20% of people have a language-based disability, and between 70 and 80% of students receiving special services have reading-related challenges. Dyslexia has genetic links. A child whose parent or other relatives have dyslexia is more likely to have it also.
It's not a disease, but a different way of processing that puts kids at a disadvantage for sight-reading. Many very intelligent, successful people have dyslexia, including actress Anne Bancroft, director and producer Steven Spielberg, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson.
Entrepreneur Ben Foss talks about his own struggles with dyslexia and maps out alternative ways to look at it in his book The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, pointing out that many dyslexics are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. Foss encourages parents to focus on a child's strengths and to consider alternatives to learning via traditional sight-reading. In fact, he's developed technology to make audio texts more accessible to kids like Katie, who process information better auditorily.
Finally, in fourth grade, after a few meetings with teachers and specialists, Katie started working with a reading specialist. She enjoyed the attention and activities, and we saw some improvement. In fifth grade, Katie had a wonderful teacher who appreciated her strengths and encouraged her, and by the time she reached sixth grade this past fall, Katie was doing well in her reading and writing benchmarks.
She still much prefers listening to books over sight-reading, and I'm starting to accept that and realize it's okay. While I know Katie might always have to work a little harder on her sight-reading and writing skills, I also know that she's got to find her own way.
The best thing I can do as her parent is guide and support her in the ways that work best for her. I'll also cross my fingers and hope she continues getting teachers who will understand and support her, too.
Katie is learning what works for her, and while that might make things challenging for her down the road, she'll meet those challenges with our support and coaching.
Identifying that your child has a disability can be challenging, but also enlightening. You might come to realize that you or your partner may have struggled with the same issues. With more awareness and more resources for help and support, you and your child no longer have to be in the dark.
What you should do if you suspect your child has dyslexia
- The International Dyslexia Association offers preliminary assessment tests on its website for determining if you or your child might have dyslexia. The site also offers a downloadable PDF handbook that offers families guidance through the process of determining if your child has dyslexia, plus next steps.
- Stop beating yourself up. If something is deemed "wrong" with our kids, it's inevitable that we analyze everything we did or didn't do. Maybe you feel like you should have read to your kids more or limited their screen time. The fact that my older daughter took to reading quickly and easily reminded me that it wasn't necessarily anything we did wrong.
- As soon as possible, you should request a meeting with your child's teacher(s) and the school's special education services committee to determine eligibility for services. Children with dyslexia need a more explicit style of reading instruction. I believe the six months my daughter spent getting additional, explicit instruction with a reading specialist has been critical to her success.
- Advocate for your child. A teacher's methods might work for most kids, but might not be best for your child if she has dyslexia or another learning disability. Learn about your school district's process for obtaining services. Be sure to talk directly with your child's teachers and recruit any other school staff you can, such as the school psychologist and nurse. Be aware of your child's rights; check out the U.S. Dept. of Education's pages about students with disabilities as well as your state's and district's websites.
- Learn about your child's disability. Find success stories which show your child that having dyslexia or another learning difference might mean that he has to do some things differently, but it doesn't make him any less lovable or successful. You might also want to try out some of the strategies reading specialists use when reading to your child or having him read to you.
- Connect in person and online. Talk to other parents in your district, community, and around the world to share ideas, get information, and support each other.