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It is Saturday, and I am with my daughters at Water Street Bookstore, one of our favorite places to spend a lazy afternoon. My fourteen-year-old daughter, Kaya, is flying through the store, gathering books in her arms as she jets from young adult to fiction to classics and back again. Within minutes, she has a dozen books piled in her arms. "I know I'm going to need to narrow these down a bit, but…" she cocks her head to the side, a silent plea for me to buy her all of the books. She will read them all, and within a few weeks, we'll be back for more. Kaya saves every book she reads because, as she tells me, "Every book is a trophy". The books she has read, an ever-increasing number, fill a set of shelves high on her wall. Like an athlete who has trained for years, Kaya has put in hours upon hours of effort learning how to read, and every completed book represents a hard-fought victory.
Hayden, my sixteen-year-old daughter, stands in an aisle of the same bookstore, holding a book in each hand. One is a book of photos by dance photographer Jordan Matter, and the other is a novel for her best friend, Maria. Maria is a voracious reader, and she retells the plots of many of the books to Hayden. If one catches Hayden's attention, she might listen to it as an audiobook, but most of the time, she will just enjoy it vicariously through her friend. Hayden can read, but the effort that it takes and the time required are enormous. On top of that, she trains around twenty hours a week as a pre-professional ballet dancer, and while she is a dedicated student, reading for pleasure is not her first choice when she has a moment to relax.
Unfortunately, many schools, including ours, haven't always relied on science-based reading programs to help their struggling readers, and as a result, valuable time has been lost.
There are many reasons why each of my daughters has a different relationship with books, but ultimately, Hayden didn't start receiving services for dyslexia until she was in fourth grade, whereas Kaya was in second grade. Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, calls third grade a "pivot point". If students don't learn to read by the end of third grade, the gap will continue to grow (Hernandez, 2012). Since the brains of dyslexic readers are wired differently than their neurotypical counterparts, the earlier effective interventions are put in place, the more likely the gap will be bridged (Ray, 2020). Unfortunately, many schools, including ours, haven't always relied on science-based reading programs to help their struggling readers, and as a result, valuable time has been lost.
I suspected that Hayden was dyslexic when she was in kindergarten, and my husband, Brian, and I went to Open House. Every word Hayden wrote was backward, but that alone isn't always an indicator of dyslexia. What struck me was that when she grabbed a book and proudly began to read, she couldn't navigate a single word, and she relied on pictures to make up the story. We have a strong history of dyslexia in our family (myself included), and when I mentioned my concerns to her teacher, she said that she would "keep an eye on it".
By the end of the year, Hayden hadn't made any progress, and the school placed her in their Reading Recovery program for the following year. The woman who worked with Hayden was kind, and Hayden loved spending time with her. Every morning, they would sit down with an Ivy and Bean novel, and they would alternate page by page "reading" together. In reality, the teacher would read, and when it was Hayden's turn, she would guess and stumble. Eventually, the teacher would take over, and Hayden would relax and listen to the story.
Hayden was using pictures to guess at words, and when that didn't work, she would use other "clues" to guess some more.
Midway through first grade, Brian and I were invited to observe Hayden as she worked with her Reading Recovery teacher. We sat behind one-way glass and watched Hayden in action. What we saw was concerning. Hayden was using pictures to guess at words, and when that didn't work, she would use other "clues" to guess some more. Most of her guesses were wrong, and there was no way what she was doing could be considered reading. At the end of the session, the teacher eagerly came up to us for feedback. We tried to be supportive, but we left feeling defeated. The school seemed to be doing everything in its power to help our daughter, and yet she wasn't making any progress.
In spite of a continued lack of progress, the school kept Hayden in the Reading Recovery program until the end of second grade. At the end of the year, her teacher called me in for a meeting. "We think that given the challenges Hayden is facing with reading, it would be in her best interest to hold her back and have her repeat second grade," the teacher told me.
At that moment, something in me snapped. I saw a glimpse into the future: Hayden repeating second grade while her best friend, Maria, moved on, leaving her behind. Hayden, sitting in that same classroom for another year, still unable to read and not getting any services to help her.
Hayden had already begun to lose confidence in herself. Words like "Stupid" and "Dumb" were creeping into her vocabulary, and I knew with absolute certainty that holding her back would make those words true in Hayden's mind.
The teacher tried to argue that I was doing a disservice to Hayden by moving her on to the next grade when she was so far behind.
"No," I said again.
That first "no" represented the start of a long journey. It was the first of many "no's".
No, you may not keep my daughter in Reading Recovery; you need to find her a specialist trained in the science of reading.
No, you may not exclude my daughter from activities as "punishment" for the fact that it takes her longer to complete her work.
No, you may not tell my daughter that she can't take honors classes because you don't believe that students with learning disabilities belong in high-level courses.
No. No. No.
That first "no" led to many meetings where I was told that my instincts as a parent were wrong. I was told that Hayden would feel more confident if she were held back a year. I knew they were wrong. Later, when she started high school, I would be told that Hayden would feel more confident if she repeated algebra, a course she struggled with due to the Covid shutdown. They were wrong. Later still, I would be told that Hayden would feel more confident if she took an easier course rather than honors pre-calculus. Again, they were wrong.
I was told that my instincts as a parent were wrong. I was told that Hayden would feel more confident if she were held back a year. I knew they were wrong.
At the start of fourth grade, after a prolonged battle, the school hired a Wilson trained reading specialist to work with Hayden. The same specialist took on Kaya, as well as other students who had been identified with dyslexia. In addition to their services at school, both girls were accepted into the Seacoast Learning Center. The Center matches up trained Orton Gillingham specialists with students to work one-on-one in a strictly regimented program of structured literacy. This intensive intervention is provided free of charge to families; as such, there is a waitlist of over a year and once admitted, students can only miss two sessions in a calendar year before being removed from the program. Absolute commitment is required on the part of the families. Hayden and Kaya attended the Center twice a week, every week, year-round, for two years.
The girls never pushed back. There were nights when they were tired, but they never asked to skip tutoring. Because, unlike everything else we had tried, this was working.
A typical evening would involve me leaving work as soon as my school day ended so that I could pick up the girls from after-school care at 3:30. From there, we would drive forty-five minutes to the Center to make it on time for their 4:30 sessions with their specialists. The minute we were done, we would jump back in the car in an attempt to make it "not that late" to our next destination (we were always late). For Kaya, it was often theater rehearsal or Girl Scout meetings; for Hayden, it was usually ballet. Sometimes, it was a school event, band concert or community engagement that the girls were looking forward to. We tried to arrange it so that the girls didn't miss out on the things they wanted to do, but everyone, the girls included, knew that the time with their reading specialists was the utmost priority.
Family members told us the girls were "overscheduled". They were. But, we knew that if we made them give up the activities they loved to focus on reading, they would become resentful, so we made it work. We ate in the car; I asked the school to cut back on homework on the nights they went to the Center, and on the rare occasions when time allowed, we stopped for ice cream on the way home.
The girls never pushed back. There were nights when they were tired, but they never asked to skip tutoring. Because, unlike everything else we had tried, this was working. The girls were learning to read. They weren't learning to mask their inability to read, they were actually learning to read. One night, Kaya got into the car, excited to tell me all about the "schwa". I had no idea what a "schwa" was, but I loved the fact that she was learning the nuances of phonics and the foundations of reading.
During their time at the Center, the girls also learned about the nature of dyslexia. Once they found out that dyslexia is a neurological condition that has no correlation with intelligence, their confidence began to improve. Hayden presented several school projects on dyslexia, and both girls began to talk openly about their challenges without embarrassment.
Hayden and Kaya each made steady improvements, but because Kaya received intervention at a younger age, she made gains more quickly than her sister. Within a year, Kaya had become a strong reader, and once she discovered that, unlike some parents, I would never censor what she read, she began to devour every book she could find. A friend once asked me if I was "okay" with the content of a book Kaya was reading. I quietly nodded my head while holding back the kind of tears only the parent of a dyslexic reader can shed. My child was reading.
Because of Kaya's gains, the school suggested removing her IEP (Individualized Education Plan) when she was in 5th grade. I agreed. She didn't need reading support any more, and I was excited to close the door on that part of her journey
Unfortunately, it hasn't been quite that simple. Kaya's reading has remained strong, but as she has gotten older and the concepts of mathematics have become more complex, Kaya has begun to struggle. Now, we are faced with a new set of challenges.
Once they found out that dyslexia is a neurological condition that has no correlation with intelligence, their confidence began to improve.
The school is pushing for Kaya, as a "struggling learner", to repeat algebra because she struggles to retain some of the concepts. This is the same argument they made regarding her sister two years ago. Kaya is confident that she can be successful.
No, I tell them.
The school also wants Kaya to drop out of her honors geometry class because they think it will make her feel more confident to be in a lower-level class. Again, the same argument they made regarding her sister. Kaya feels confident where she is.
No, I say again.
As I sit in meetings listening to educators attempt to tell me what will make my girls feel more confident, I hold back most of what I am thinking because I know that for anyone who has not been in the shoes of a dyslexic learner, there is no way that they could ever fully understand. What makes our children feel confident is being supported as they take on challenges. As Kaya is quick to point out, "When you're dyslexic, everything is a challenge. So you might as well make the challenges count".
And they do.
Hayden is now an advocate for students like her. She now speaks at conferences, in front of school boards and individually with students who can use a mentor to help them understand that they are not alone.
Hayden has parlayed her challenges into advocacy. When she was in 7th grade, she wrote an essay titled "Switching Letters, Skipping Lines, Troubled and Dyslexic Minds" that won the New York Times essay writing contest. The resulting letters and emails that Hayden received from around the country spurred her to become an advocate for students like her. She now speaks at conferences, in front of school boards and individually with students who can use a mentor to help them understand that they are not alone.
When Hayden was in elementary school, she was denied admission into the National Elementary Honor Society because her grades were "too low" due to her inability to read. Last year, Hayden was one of only three sophomores in her school to be inducted into her high school's branch of the National Honor Society. She takes a full course of honors classes, and she is in the top ten in her class.
In spite of this, every year, Hayden has had to override some of her teachers' recommendations that she be placed in lower classes so that "it won't be so hard for her". Hayden spends double the time (at least) completing her homework every night, and every year, when course selection comes out, I ask her what she wants to take. Every year she looks at me with the kind of side-eye only a teenager can manage as she clicks "honors level" next to every class.
Kaya, too is fiercely determined to prove that she can succeed. Right now, she has top grades in honors English, honors history, honors biology and acting. The only class she is not succeeding in is math. In spite of completing all of her homework and attending every extra help session, she is failing geometry. She is sure that once the school begins to implement her accommodations, she will be fine. In her mind, this is one more competition that she intends to win. Kaya plans to become an attorney and work in the juvenile court system someday. She has a strong sense of justice, and she can argue a case more adeptly than most attorneys I know.
Kaya loves a challenge and she will rise to meet every obstacle put in front of her.
The reality is that much of Kaya's practice with arguing cases comes from meeting with administrators at her school. Like her older sister, Kaya is often told that she should make things easier for herself academically. But, Kaya loves a challenge and she will rise to meet every obstacle put in front of her. It isn't easy, but as Kaya points out at every turn, not much is easy for her. She believes that if she continues to put in the effort, that effort will pay off. And as a parent, it is my role to stand back and support her.
At times, the fight feels never-ending, and constantly being told by the school that they are only looking out for my children's best interests is exhausting. Like most, probably all, parents of dyslexic children, I wish the path weren't so challenging for my daughters. I know that the obstacles they face will only make them stronger and that they will take this grit and tenacity with them into all aspects of their lives. But still, my heart aches every time my honors student needs to hit "override" to take an honors class, or my younger daughter is told that she would be more successful in school if she would make things easier for herself.
- Hernandez, D. (2012). Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation.
- Miskinis, H. (2020, June 17). Switching Letters, Skipping Lines: Troubled and Dyslexic Minds. The New York Times. [nytimes.com]
- Ray, J. (2020). Texas Association for Literacy Education Yearbook, Volume 7: Leaping into Literacy: Structured Literacy Supports All Learners: Students At-Risk of Literacy Acquisition - Dyslexia and English Learners. Texas Association for Literacy Education.
English teacher, a writer and a mother of two dyslexic children
Elaine Miskinis is an English teacher, a writer and a mother of two dyslexic children. She has a dual master's degree (MA/MAT English) from Salem State University and has taught high school English for over 20 years. Elaine is a published author who has written articles for Educational Leadership, The Inspired Classroom and other publications. She is also the author of Leena and the Gerbils, an early chapter book that is the first in a series and published in Dyslexie Font, a font style designed to assist dyslexic readers. Elaine and her daughter are working together on the sequel, Leena and the Thinking Tree. Elaine's TEDx Talk, "Three Lies We Tell Children," was selected as a TED Talk of the Week by TED.com. She is the proud mother of two dyslexic daughters, and being dyslexic herself, Elaine is committed to being a voice for parents and students who struggle to navigate the complex world of finding resources to help dyslexic learners.