Why Good Teachers Miss Dyslexia

All evidence suggests that early identification is key to overcoming dyslexia. Still, we consistently encounter students who aren’t identified or diagnosed with dyslexia for years.

Why is that?

The challenge begins with elementary teachers who, charged with recognizing and acting on early symptoms, become gatekeepers of the initial diagnosis. This is a problem because they are often (a) overwhelmed by their other responsibilities and (b) underprepared to recognize the symptoms of dyslexia. Additionally, schools actually face disincentives to identifying dyslexia–a problem explored in a previous article.

Specifically, several misguided beliefs and attitudes can prevent otherwise wonderful teachers from taking steps toward a dyslexia diagnosis.

Here are 7 Thoughts That Prevent Teachers from Identifying a Child’s Dyslexia:

teacher's desk with an apple, pencil cup holder

1. “He is trying so hard and I don’t want to discourage him!”

When teachers see a likable child who works hard and stays out of trouble, they too often hesitate to admit the depth and scope of his academic challenges. Nobody wants to tell a nice kid that he is failing, so these students are sometimes passed because of their good effort.

 2. “She just isn’t applying herself!”

When a student is really gifted in some areas, rather than identify her with a learning disability, teachers may believe she is just not putting forth appropriate effort in reading. They think if the child would simply work harder, she would “get it,” when the real culprit is dyslexia.

3. “If only he’d pay attention!”

Students with dyslexia may have behavioral challenges due to auditory processing or executive function deficits. They also may misbehave to avoid the embarrassment of failing when reading aloud. If teachers assume reading difficulties are due to attention issues, dyslexia may go undiagnosed.

4. “She doesn’t reverse letters!”

While many students with dyslexia do have difficulty with reversals (writing or reading “b” for “d,” etc.), not all students do. If teachers believe this is the primary symptom to look for, they will not identify many dyslexic students.

5. “He does fine on his spelling tests!”

Too many schools use spelling programs that consist of memorizing lists of words for a final test at the end of the week. With a great deal of effort, many students with dyslexia can memorize how to spell those words. This does not translate into becoming a good speller, however, and masks the root causes of difficulty with spelling and writing.

6. “According to our assessment, she is on grade level!”

In a previous post, I detailed how this measure fails early readers. To summarize, too many schools equate students’ ability to read early reader books–which rely on predictable text, pictures, and high-frequency words (which students can memorize)–with learning to read. A student may appear to be reading on grade level but is not actually learning to read.

 7. “We tested for special education and he didn’t qualify!”

Schools generally cannot justify using federally allocated money to help struggling students until they have fallen far behind their peers in quantifiable ways. However, some students with dyslexia will not fall this far behind for years! While schools are waiting to essentially “build a case” that a student needs additional resources, that child is failing to receive the specialized instruction needed to master reading during the critical early education period.

What Can be Done Differently

Teacher education programs (especially in elementary education) do not prepare teachers to recognize dyslexia, let alone teach students with dyslexia. Parents and educators who are aware of this problem are actively advocating to improve this situation, like our friends at Decoding Dyslexia. In the meantime, parents must be extra vigilant, assuring that their children are making adequate progress.

If you suspect that your child may be slipping through these cracks, I recommend you use this free dyslexia screener we’ve developed, then contact us to talk about additional assessment and treatment options.

5 Responses to Why Good Teachers Miss Dyslexia

  • Bonnie Schinagle commented

    Indeed, school districts remain wedded to the failure model. However, the Federal Regulations governing IDEA do not condition classification upon failure, but only upon an adverse impact in school. It’s a nuanced distinction, but a distinction nonetheless. Parents need to understand that they have the burden to establish the record. I recommend that parents keep copies of their students’ work and that they communicate with everyone within the district – including teachers – in writing. SDs need to admit that they do not have the capacity to provide 1:1 research validated instruction to dyslexics and to simply pay for the outside providers, or find the money to have qualified providers within the SDs who will work with dyslexic children on a 1:1 basis every day.

  • J Brady commented

    As a teacher and a mother of a child recently diagnosed with dyslexia I am torn to pieces realizing that I may be guilty of standing in the way of getting children the early help they need. I want to know what we need to do to get this more recognized in our school systems. I am paying for my son to receive the outside tutoring/instruction that he needs but I work in a small, rural school district where parents can not provide this for their own children. We, educators, need to do something to help! Also, as my son is dealing with this, his teachers also need more education on what dyslexia is and what to look for. As an involved parent, I am providing them with information on what my son needs and keeping a close watch. If I hadn’t sought out private assessment, he would have “slipped through the cracks” because he is “not far enough behind” and passing “grade level” reading passages via his ability to use prior knowledge, context clues, and picture clues for comprehension. How many times do we, educators do this? I vow to make a better effort but want more from our public school systems in recognizing and assisting children with dyslexia.

    • You will no doubt be able to do some good for the students and families you come in contact with, but on a national level it appears unlikely that schools will soon change the way they operate or that university training programs will change the way they train teachers. The reasons for this are complex (See Ruth Corker’s The Learning Disability Mess, for example), but I don’t think it is good counsel to tell parents to expect that the school can do this.

      We are getting about 2.7 years of reading growth in a semester. For most children, that would life-changing. Paying for a semester of structured literacy therapy is akin to paying to orthodontia. The school is not likely to provide it. Yet, “straight” reading and writing is at least as important as straight teeth.

  • Cheryl Reese commented

    Hi I’m ashley mom the school always have told me that my child wasn’t smart enough to take the deylexia test because she was unable to put the sounds together but I never believe now I have hope for my child after doing this text with her i did see learning abilities what is the next step thank you

    • Research shows that children with below average cognitive ability (generally an IQ of 70-85) can benefit from structured literacy, too. If you are being told that your child “is not smart enough” to receive help your school may still be using IQ as part of formula they use to identify children for special education services. This is an old fashioned idea, but old ideas die hard!

      We’d suggest you try 4 weeks of Lexercise Structured Literacy therapy and see if it helps!

      Sandie

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Tori Whaley

Since 2003, Tori has been a committed special educator, working as an elementary special education teacher. Her drive to improve outcomes for her students with dyslexia led her to the Neuhaus Education Center, where she was trained in Orton-Gillingham the summer after her first year of teaching. "I was so frustrated as a first year teacher, not knowing how to meet my students' needs. I spent the entire summer learning about dyslexia and was thrilled by my students' progress the next year!" Since then, she has used the method in English and Spanish with students in three states. In 2009, Tori completed her M.Ed. in Special Education at the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, where she focused on educational strategies for students with learning disabilities. Tori joined the Lexercise team full-time in early 2014 after seeing students online for over a year. When she is not working, Tori loves to read, cook, garden, and spend as much time outdoors as possible.