Deciphering dyslexia

For young children with dyslexia, just opening a book can cause anxiety and a drop in self-esteem. 

The letters might jumble into a code nearly impossible to decipher, making reading slower and more demanding than it is for their classmates. 

And it’s not just reading and writing.

Kids with dyslexia often struggle with spelling, penmanship and reading comprehension.

Word problems can make math a challenge, too. 

Dyslexia is surprisingly common language-based learning disorder that children don’t outgrow.

In fact, it affects as many as 1 in 5 students to some degree, according to a 2015 report from the National Center on Learning Disabilities.

It occurs in children with normal vision and intelligence and can go undiagnosed well into adulthood. 

There’s no cure for dyslexia. 

But kids who get consistent help — such as specialized tutoring and teaching, speech therapy and emotional supports — can absolutely succeed in school.

One family’s journey

Amy DeLong of Vadnais Heights learned her son, Colin, was affected by dyslexia at the end of his second-grade year.

She was at a parent-teacher conference when she was told Colin wasn’t reading at grade level.

Dyslexia has been linked to certain genes and appears to be an inherited disorder, affecting parts of the brain concerned with language. 

But for the DeLong family, there were no indicators to prepare them for the fact that Colin might be dyslexic. 

“When the teachers are saying, ‘He’s having trouble,’ you feel overwhelmed at that point, thinking, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’” DeLong said. 

Colin’s private school had no special education program and referred Colin to a dyslexia tutor, who Delong refers to as “a gift from heaven.” 

After getting an official dyslexia diagnosis, followed by years of specialized tutoring, Colin, now 15, has learned to read at grade level and is in his sophomore year of high school. 

Kids at Groves Academy receive 90 minutes of multisensory reading instruction each day. This kind of teaching — using hearing, touch, movement and sight to make language connections — helps all readers, but especially those with dyslexia. Photo courtesy of Groves Academy

Early intervention

Groves Academy in St. Louis Park is a Minnesota’s only school that exclusively caters to students with learning disabilities and attention disorders, including dyslexia. 

Students from other area schools can take advantage of Groves’ learning center services, which also includes intervention programming for kids as well as informational classes for parents.

Currently, 83 percent of Groves’ student body is diagnosed with dyslexia, including 93 percent of the institution’s Lower School students.

Signs of dyslexia can be seen as early as kindergarten, said Groves Academy Head of School John Alexander. 

But more often it goes undetected until third or fourth grade, when students are expected to know how to read in order to do their work in a variety of subjects, Alexander said.

Unfortunately, parents and teachers often mistakenly assume that their students’ reading delays are caused by a lack of maturity or a child not being ready to read yet. 

“Waiting for the light bulb to go on is the wrong approach,” Alexander said. “Students hit a proverbial brick wall when they can’t read their textbooks. But by then they’re not getting the needed services to succeed until it’s too late.” 

Alexander, citing studies funded by the National Institutes of Health, said there’s only a 25 percent chance that a student with dyslexia will catch up in reading if the disorder isn’t addressed during the third grade or earlier.

DeLong knows her family was fortunate to catch her son’s dyslexia early. She’s seen other families with later diagnoses, and often those students have to struggle even more to catch up to grade level in various subjects. 

“It made a huge difference. He’s more confident because he knows he can read now,” DeLong said. “He doesn’t have a big interest in it, but he can.” 

What is dyslexia?

Many people believe dyslexia involves swapping similar letters such as Bs and Ds or Ps and Qs or even reading words backwards. 

Dyslexia, however, is actually an inability to assign the correct sounds to the abstract concepts of letters, Alexander said. 

“[Dyslexic] kids can’t sequence and segment sounds within words,” said Alexander. “It’s a phonological issue.”

Children in the middle of kindergarten who can’t identify three distinct letter sounds — C, A and T — in the word “cat” might be dealing with dyslexia. (Swapping similar letters is a common mistake of many early readers — and not a sign of dyslexia.)

The solution is to “teach at the sound level,” said Alexander. 

That’s why speech language pathologists well versed in dyslexia and alternative reading techniques are so important in working with dyslexic kids, Alexander said.

It’s also why multisensory learning models such the phonics-based Orton-Gillingham approach — that use hearing, touch, movement and sight to make language connections — are used to help kids with dyslexia.

In her book The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Dyslexia, Abigail Marshall argues that dyslexic children may need intervention and supplementary programs regardless of the types of schools they attend. 

Some parents find their children benefit from educational philosophies based on hands-on learning such as those found at Montessori or Waldorf schools.

Others seek out private schools with smaller class sizes or work to find the right resources in public schools, which offer special reading groups and other supports.  

Groves Academy middle school teacher Kandi Retzlaff works with students on a project-based learning exercise. More than 80 percent of Groves’ students have been diagnosed with dyslexia, which can require special teaching and learning techniques. Photo courtesy of Groves Academy

Ways to adapt

For Colin, adaptive technologies have played a crucial role.

That includes audio books and iPad applications that dictate essays and take notes, DeLong said.

Though sometimes Colin is reluctant to use the tools — for fear of standing out — they’ve made his educational journey much smoother. 

“In this day and age of electronics, it’s the best time ever to have dyslexia,” DeLong said. 

Colin’s private Minnesota high school offers special accommodations, including tutoring and access to a resource room. 

Students with dyslexia may be allowed longer test-taking periods, exemptions from being called on to read out loud in class and reduced or waived foreign-language requirements.

Colin is excited that his high school offers American Sign Language, a second language he can study that won’t be impeded by his dyslexia. 

In a few years, college will bring a new set of challenges for Colin. 

“You can get accommodations in college, but you need to know what they are and go ask for them yourself,” DeLong said, adding that her son will have to be his own advocate.

Getting an evaluation

Arriving at a dyslexia diagnosis is an important step in receiving academic accommodations, regardless of grade level. 

Assessments for possible learning disabilities like dyslexia are completed by a variety of professionals such as school psychologists, clinical psychologists and/or educational specialists and teachers certified in special education.

A child’s pediatrician can rule out medical problems and typically recommend preferred sources for learning disability assessments, too.

Minnesota schools offer basic assessments that can qualify students with reading disorders for special education services, including 504 Plans or IEP Plans (Individualized Education Plans).

Schools, however, may not actually use the label dyslexia, but instead may substitute the term “specific learning disability,” a category of disability that includes dyslexia.

Parents often seek out more extensive testing from outside sources — such as a testing department at a specialty school like Groves Academy or psychologists who specialize in neuropsychological or educational assessments. 

Though school evaluations are typically offered at no cost, outside assessments are far more detailed and investigative and can cost more than $2,000. (And they’re not usually covered by insurance.)

Jennifer Bennett is a Minnetonka-based licensed psychologist who specializes in neuropsychological assessments. She’s also on the board of directors for the International Dyslexia Association’s Upper Midwest Branch

Bennett said kids typically find the assessment process engaging and enjoyable, not intimidating or scary. 

“Parents have really good intuition,” Bennett said. “They know when something is going on; they just don’t know what.” 

A student at Groves Academy in St. Louis Park selects an audio book on his laptop during reading instruction. Audiobooks help dyslexic students build comprehension skills. Photos courtesy of Groves Academy

Teacher awareness

Students who receive dyslexia diagnoses will find they’re in good company. Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Winston Churchill all had it, according to the International Dyslexia Association

Other famous dyslexic folks include:

Ann Bancroft, a Minnesotan, one of the world’s pre-eminent explorers and the first female to cross both the North and South poles;

John Irving, a best-selling American author and Academy Award-winning screenwriter;

Ted Turner, an American media mogul and philanthropist, best known as the founder of CNN.

An estimated 20 percent of the population reportedly have some symptoms of dyslexia with boys and girls affected equally.

Despite dyslexia’s prevalence, Minnesota teachers often receive no training specifically on the needs of dyslexic students. 

Alexander believes the state of Minnesota should require teachers to take dyslexia courses as part of their licensing. 

DeLong agrees. 

Colin has flourished with teachers who understand his unique needs and make adjustments, such as one who let him tell her the answers verbally instead of writing out a short-answer essay. 

“Having a teacher like that is a gift, and it’s what the students need — to know there’s nothing wrong with them,” DeLong said. “They’re very smart kids. The schools teach one size fits all, and it doesn’t.”

Her advice for other parents involves a three-step approach: “Become educated on dyslexia. Identify what your child’s needs are. Then become their advocate.”

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Abbie Burgess is a Twin Cities freelance writer and lifestyle blogger at