Dyslexia Causes Struggles for Students, but They Can Still Excel

Panelists include, from left, Kyle Heys, Sally Berry, Dr. Joanne Marttila Pierson, Anne Kloth and Dr. Michael Ryan (cr. Terra Walters)

What do Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison and approximately 20 percent of students have in common? They have been forced to approach learning differently due to dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a reading difficulty that slows the development of reading skills, and as a result, impedes many other academic abilities throughout a student’s educational career and beyond.

Dr. Michael Ryan, president of the Grand Rapids organization SLD Read, says dyslexia is often stereotyped as a visual condition where students mix up letters. In reality, the disorder’s difficulties stem from aural misperceptions, he said.

Ryan is a clinical psychologist who participated in a panel discussion earlier this year at Calvin College presented by Decoding Dyslexia-Michigan, a volunteer-based organization.

“Most students get stuck with phonological awareness” of speech sound patterns, Ryan said. He noted that students with dyslexia have difficulty pulling sounds apart in a word and associating them with specific letters.

Dyslexia testing typically begins in fourth grade, but Ryan said identifying students in kindergarten and first grade can remediate problems that often surface closer to fourth grade, when most students accelerate their reading skills. When practiced at a young age, activities such as rhyming games and rhythm patterns can help prepare dyslexic students to be able to read at grade level later on.

Sally Berry, founder of Turning Pages, The Grand Rapids Reading Institute, a nonprofit tutoring agency, emphasized the need for early acknowledgement of dyslexia. Too often classroom teaching centers on the needs of the majority, she said.

“Let’s get the three to five students (per class) the help they need to succeed,” such as working in small groups to learn the correct sounds for words, Berry said. “(With proper attention) you can be dyslexic and still read at grade level.”

According to her and others, a major roadblock to early identification is that Michigan does not have a specific definition for dyslexia. Students showing its signs are often categorized as having a specific learning disability (SLD), a general definition for students with a number of difficulties that may require differing treatments.

Terra Walters is a founding member of the Michigan chapter of Decoding Dyslexia and mother of a dyslexic son. She compared having a dyslexic student diagnosed with SLD loosely to having cancer of an unknown origin, undergoing treatments and surgeries without even knowing if they will work. “You can’t get back time wasted on programs that don’t work,” she said.

The consensus from the Decoding Dyslexia panel at Calvin was that due to the size of the population struggling with dyslexia — and the specific educational needs students have — it is imperative for Michigan to join the growing number of states with a specific educational definition for dyslexia in schools.

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Compounding the Issue

A Dyslexia Primer

  • Impacts 1 out of 5 individuals
  • A neurologically based, inherited condition that varies in degrees of severity
  • A hidden disability, which affects individuals regardless of race, gender, culture or socioeconomic status
  • Dyslexics have average or above-average intelligence, but are often seen as lazy or inattentive because they are not reading at grade level
  • Can cause poor self-esteem, lack of confidence and poor self-image
  • Not a vision problem, and individuals do not see letters or words backwards

Source: Decoding Dyslexia-Michigan

Tips for Dyslexic Students Looking into College

  • Self-knowledge: Read your Individualized Education Program (IEP). Know your strengths and weaknesses
  • Self-Advocacy: Learn how to help yourself. Parents should not over-compensate for the student’s difficulties
  • Practice tools for executive function such as time management, problem solving, planning and execution
  • Do extra research on a college’s requirements, accommodations, and levels of support
  • Find the person at the school who would be responsible for helping you navigate potential challenges

Source: Kyle Heys, Calvin College disability coordinator

Ryan said approximately half of students with dyslexia also deal with attention deficit disorder. “It’s not that (students) can’t pay attention,” he said. “Rather, they pay attention to all things and can’t filter them out.” Other challenges arise such as anxiety and the feeling they can’t succeed.

Lawrence Kloth, a senior at Hope College, was diagnosed with dyslexia in fourth grade after he began failing classes. Kloth said he bounced among several Grand Rapids area schools, because it was difficult to get properly diagnosed and receive the necessary help.

“I was bullied a lot,” Kloth said. “Picked on for being different. I didn’t have a childhood because I was forced to mature, to be able to advocate for myself due to struggling (in school) and bullying.”

It took a trip with his mother, AnneKloth, co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia-Michigan, to a specialist in Colorado to determine he was dyslexic.

“Let’s get the three to five students (per class) the help they need to succeed” – Sally Berry

Marian Brady, another co-founder and mother of three dyslexic students, had similar experiences. When her children began failing tests, teachers attributed it to test anxiety. She said it was a huge relief when a specialist told her, “Your son has dyslexia. You need to get him tested.”

Once she started using multi-sensory education techniques called the Ortin-Gillingham approach, her children did better in school, she said. They also regained confidence lost from having an undiagnosed learning difficulty.

“Once they found their passion, they were able to shine,” Brady said, stressing it took the proper diagnosis for her children to get over the hump. “When students find their strengths they will be able to take off.”

Moving Forward

The key for school districts is to evaluate research-based teaching methods, and align classroom instruction with proven strategies, said Laurie VanderPloeg, Kent ISD special education director. Since dyslexia isn’t defined as a learning disability within special education, meeting the needs of dyslexic students falls into the hands of general-education instructors, she said.

“Educators should look at the individual needs of students and align their instruction accordingly,”  VanderPloeg said. However, she added, “We don’t have the level of training and tools in place to diagnose dyslexia,” and districts rely on recommendations and diagnoses from outside organizations.

“Once districts receive a diagnosis, then they can embed evidence-based instruction that will work for the individual,” VanderPloeg said.

For students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties, services are becoming more available. The Grand Rapids Reading Institute initiative Turning Pages is an area nonprofit specializing in instruction and remediation for such students.

SLD Read is another area nonprofit that provides tutoring, professional development and resources for educators. The agency has a volunteer-based training program for educators from Grand Rapids and Wyoming Public Schools, and works with parents to develop multi-sensory approaches to reading.

“It’s important to understand students may have different needs,” said Amy Barto, SLD Read community outreach director. “One accommodation that works with a particular student may not work with another with the same diagnosis.”

Kyle Heys, disability coordinator at Calvin College, said he often works with dyslexic students who are very successful in school. “Continue to encourage students to keep going through hurdles,” he urged parents and educators.

Since dyslexia isn’t something that can be cured, the most important thing is to keep students engaged and moving forward despite any difficulties, said Sally Berry of Turning Pages. “When students are engaged, they are learning.”

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Adrian Hirsch has been with SNN since its launch, starting as an intern from Grand Valley State University where he received a degree in broadcasting and business. After the internship, Adrian was brought on as staff to continue reporting, editing and publishing stories for SNN and Kent ISD. Adrian has been active with community radio station WYCE for years, served as Non-Profit Coordinator for GRTV, and currently works as the Web Producer for SNN.

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