Dyslexia, Innovation and Personalized Learning

When I want to quit and feel that changing the way we teach kids is a futile endeavor, I remember how many children need change. I remember how many people care and will do better when they know better and better understand 20% of the learners in their classrooms. ~Kim Beard

Have you been impacted by someone with dyslexia? If you own an iPhone, turn on a light, drive a car to work, or enjoy watching Shark Tank in the evening, you are being impacted by someone with dyslexia. This condition hasn’t been on my radar, until now. A 4th-grade teacher, Kim Beard, sent an NPR sound bite to me awhile back and during my office hours within her building, we started discussing it. I didn’t realize the prevalence of dyslexia nor did I understand it. I was also unaware that Kim is dyslexic. In my naive mind, it was transposing letters. It is not. It is a learning difference that presents itself on a scale, from mild, to moderate, to severe, to profound.

Kim’s personal story

I remember pasghetti never spaghetti. I still struggle to say “drawer”. I remember struggling to tie my shoes. Flip-flops are still my shoe of choice!

I remember trying to memorize my math facts in the coatroom instead of getting to play math games. I still relish the look on my math teacher’s face when the principal announced that I was the only child in our grade to pass the Walnut Hills entrance exam.

I remember becoming exhausted by reading and rereading my history and science textbooks incessantly until the words would flow so I could eventually focus on the content. I still reread every important document multiple times out of sheer habit and insecurity that I will miss something.
I remember the eye doctor telling me that my eye muscles were weak and that glasses would help strengthen them. I still can feel those horrible headaches caused by glasses that distorted my perfect vision.

I remember the torture of three years of Latin and three years of French. Watching my son struggle through a year and a half of foreign language churned up those childish feelings of stupidity still lurking just under the skin of the adult who knows better.

I remember my orchestra teacher’s shock when he gave me a piece of music to “coldplay” for my senior chair, and I told him I couldn’t read it. I had always been second or third chair flute. A close friend was the first chair and would repeatedly play our selections for me until I could figure out the notes by ear. The notes on the staff just wouldn’t “stay still” for me long enough to figure them out. I am still in awe of people who can fluently read sheet music.

I remember phonics class at the college of Mt. St. Joe, sitting in the phonics lab with headphones on, not being able to repeat back or write down a single vowel or consonant blend I heard in my ears. I still use assistive technology (and my family members) to help me pronounce unfamiliar words.

I remember Dr. Richard Sparks, my phonics professor, calling me into a meeting with my college advisor and asking me if I had ever heard of “dyslexia”? Despite graduating CumLaude from college, I still beat myself up about that C in phonics class, wondering if there wasn’t something more or different I could have done. It is still hard to personally accept that your brain just won’t do a certain thing no matter how hard you try.

I remember the feeling in my stomach when the educational psychologist read my son’s testing results, and I heard the word “dyslexia”. I had never thought of or spoke the word since that afternoon in my college advisor’s office. I still work very hard to understand how my son processes the world around him, as every dyslexic experiences various input in different ways.

I remember digging through my father’s paperwork after his death and finding his GED! A GED? My father was a mechanical engineer at Cincinnati Milacron and yet began his journey as a high school dropout at the age of 16. I still tear-up when I think of how hard he was on me about my grades and understand now that he was just afraid of his past infecting his daughter’s academics.

I remember an administrator telling me that I was like a person who drives a yellow VW bug and only sees other yellow VW bugs driving on the road. I still laugh when I think about the look on his face when I asked him if he thought I was hallucinating the VW bugs! He clearly and very seriously stated that he did not believe that I was hallucinating them, just that no one else was ready to see so many yellow VW bugs.

When I want to quit and feel that changing the way we teach kids is a futile endeavor, I remember how many children need change. I remember how many people care and will do better when they know better and better understand 20% of the learners in their classrooms. I still get up and come to work in an elementary school believing that we should honor the unique contributions that every individual was born to share and that our world so desperately needs. Little learners are immersed too frequently in their struggles instead of their strengths, and as educators, we have the power to make the needed change, together.

What is dyslexia?

The definition by Christian Nordqvist: It is a learning disability that alters the way the brain processes written material and is typically characterized by difficulties in word recognition, spelling, and decoding. People with dyslexia have problems with reading comprehension. The National Center for Learning Disabilities says that dyslexia is a neurological and often genetic condition, and not the result of poor teaching, instruction, or upbringing.

What is the neuroscience behind it?

gray matter imageOur brain is composed of white and gray matter. White matter manages information transfer within the brain and gray matter processes information. According to Booth and Burman, dyslexic individuals have less gray matter in the left part of their brain which causes problems with sound structure and language.

Read more about differences in the dyslexic brain.

Notable statistics:

  • 70-80% of people with reading difficulties are likely to have dyslexia.
  • Dyslexia impacts 1 out of 5 people – 20% according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia.
  • Students are often categorized as lazy.
  • Students often perform poorly on written tests.
  • Students frequently sent to optometrist assuming the difficulty is eyesight.
  • Many students and even adults aren’t aware they have dyslexia.
  • Dyslexia impacts every aspect of a learner’s academic experience. While many dyslexics are excellent mathematicians, it is estimated that up to 56% of dyslexics also experience dyscalculia and or dysgraphia (difficulty with written expression)
  • Many dyslexics experience significant anxiety, especially in school settings. International Dyslexia Association article on the dyslexia-anxiety connection.

Since we are in the education business, the statistics above scream at me. If one in 5 students have dyslexia, 4 to 5 students within one classroom may have this condition. In fact, as Kim and I were talking, personalized learning kept surfacing in my mind. As we change our practice of one-size-fits-all, students with a wide range of gifts and disabilities benefit. When looking at personalization, the arduous task of wondering how to teach the student and assess their understanding is driven by the learner. Getting to know students, their goals, interests, and preferred method for consuming information and creating innovative experiences can transform a seemingly poor performer into a superstar.

How personalization can help a dyslexic child:

  • Allow students to learn content in a way that works for them. As students take control of their learning, they understand how they learn most efficiently, and that’s the avenue they use to achieve mastery of content.
  • Projects are a great way that all learners can excel. Richard Branson, philanthropist, and owner of Virgin Group, stated that he knew how to surround himself with teammates that excelled where he felt he struggled. Dyslexia impacts reading comprehension, not intelligence. Many dyslexics are extremely creative and intelligent.
  • Provide other methods besides a written assessment to show mastery of content. For a student struggling to comprehend written text, he/she will likely consistently perform poorly. For instance, in the 6th grade English Language Arts classroom, Meghan Treglia, and Stacey Reeder allow students to respond to reading using a variety of methods. Click here to view the Responding to Reading Chart.
  • When teaching students to read, phonics are a struggle for these students. The Davis Theory emphasizes a creative, meaning-based strategy for acquisition of basic reading skills.

Tier 1 strategies for assisting students with dyslexia:

How having dyslexia inspires innovation

According to Tiffany Sunday, dyslexics are hardwired for business ownership and innovative endeavors. Many individuals including Will Smith, Richard Branson, and Kevin O’Leary see dyslexia as a gift. They have used their unique view of the world to persevere throughout their life. Early in life, individuals with dyslexia fail often giving them incredible resiliency. In fact, Brock L. Eide coined the phrase The Dyslexic Advantage. Dyslexic minds view the world very differently to make sense of it. This view provides an opportunity for innovative thinking and often these individuals can distill information to make it more understandable, something Richard Branson says benefits Virgin Group’s advertising success.

Famous dyslexics

  • Richard Branson
  • Steve Jobs
  • Will Smith
  • Henry Ford
  • Albert Einstein
  • Thomas Edison
  • Jennifer Aniston
  • Whoopi Goldberg
  • Mohammed Ali
  • Erin Brokovich
  • Kevin O’Leary
  • Daymond John
  • Ted Turner
  • Gary Cohn
  • Cher
  • Agatha Christie
  • Salma Hayek

Quotes from famous dyslexics:

Erin Brokovich (Legal Investigator and Environmental Activist):

I had a learning disability, and this teacher changed my life. She very carefully said, ‘Every time we have a test, you fail it. But every time in class we discuss it, you know it.’ She said, ‘So you know what I’m going to do? See this test? You got an F.” She ripped it up and threw it in the trash. She said, ‘I’m going to give you the test right now, and I’m going to ask you the same questions.’ I knew every answer. She got out a new test:  A+.  She didn’t degrade me. She saw something was wrong. But she opened herself up to another way to present something to me that she knew I knew. What that did for my self-esteem was unbelievable.

Kevin O’Leary (Investor & Shark Tank Star):

They were very tough times. I was really wondering if I was ever going to make it. I was failing. There was a lot of panic in my own family. My teachers weren’t sure.

Gary Cohn (President and Chief Operating Officer of Goldman Sachs)

The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we got out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed. And so we look at most situations and see much more of the upside than the downside. It doesn’t faze us. I’ve thought about it many times, I really have, because it defined who I am. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dyslexia. I never would have taken that first chance.

Sir Richard Branson:

I need things to be simple for myself. Therefore at Virgin, when we launch a financial service company or a bank, we do not use jargon. Everything is very clear-cut, very simple. I think people have an affinity to the Virgin brand because we don’t talk above them or talk down to them…

If you have a learning disability, you become a very good delegator. Because you know what your weaknesses are and you know what your strengths are, and you make sure that you find great people to step in and deal with your weaknesses.

And actually, whether you are dyslexic or not, I think delegation is such an important thing for a good leader to be good at doing. Too many leaders want to cling onto everything themselves and do everything themselves and never let go. Therefore, they never grow a group of companies like Virgin.

My reflection

In school, I struggled as a reader and remember the stigma I felt about being different and being pulled out of class. No one diagnosed me as being dyslexic but I found many parallels between these stories and my past. Even today, if I’m handed an article to read in a meeting, a surge of panic runs through me as I worry everyone will finish before me or that I won’t understand what I’ve read. We all have gifts to offer and view the world differently. Fortunately, with technology, there are many ways to learn information and personalized learning offers a student-driven experience which allows everyone to shine in a way that works for every individual student.