How Can Schools Embrace Dyslexia? [An Interview with Kelly Steinke]

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Dyslexia expert Kelly Steinke, founder of READ Learning Educational Services, talks about raising dyslexia awareness in schools and why it matters.

Recently, instead of dyslexia there is much talk about a broader term, neurodiversity. What is neurodiversity?

The term ‘neurodiversity’ is generally used in context of spectrum disorders like autism or mental health issues such as ADHD. Neurodiversity means that people don’t come with ‘one-size-fits-all’ brains. People are more complicated, and science has shown that different brains are wired in different ways. These differences are part of what gives us our unique abilities, interests, fears, strengths, and weaknesses.

How did you get involved with neurodiversity and dyslexia?

I began my career as a special education teacher and taught for almost 20 years in the Midwest, East Coast, and Pacific Northwest. During this time I became a National Board Certified Teacher in Exceptional Needs, earned a Master of Arts Degree in Education, and founded my company, READ Learning Educational Services. For the past seven years, I have served the community as a dyslexia specialist. 

Dyslexia - Letters of the alphabet.
Our differences are what gives us our unique abilities.

My interest in dyslexia was spurred out of necessity. Throughout my teaching career, the majority of my students were diagnosed as reading disabled. Though dyslexia was never directly stated on student documents or evaluations, I learned through professional reading that dyslexia was (and still is) the most common type of reading disability. In taking this knowledge back to my classroom, I realized most of my students showed the tell tale signs of dyslexia.

Needless to say, after many frustrating years of teaching without any knowledge of dyslexia, or alternate reading approaches, I experienced a ‘teaching epiphany’. I realized my students made little to no gains in reading because I was using reading interventions that were not in line with what medical research had proven about dyslexia and the brain. My instructional approach (how I was teaching and what I was teaching) was not effective for the majority of my dyslexic readers.

This was a life changing realization for my students and my family. I completely changed how and what I taught when working with students who showed the signs of dyslexia, and on a personal level I identified dyslexia in both of my daughters at only 5 years old. This answered a lot of questions for our family and is why I’ve dedicated my career to the helping families and schools with dyslexia diagnosis, intervention and academic supports.

Why do communities, and especially schools, need to raise dyslexia awareness?

Communities become stronger, more compassionate and more accepting of differences when they are educated to recognize and understand each other’s unique traits – diversity.

Can you give us some examples of awareness campaigns?

One of my favorites was always the ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ campaign. T-shirts were sold in March and worn on a specified day. Students gave a school-wide presentation that educated peers about treating everyone, despite differences, with respect and compassion. This created an overall positive ‘buzz’ within the school climate. Another positive initiative happens during the month of April when it’s common for schools to celebrate autism awareness month. This is important because it raises awareness. It reinforces acceptance, support, and builds understanding around autism.  The goal is to make life easier and happier for those who have autism. At the same time it aims to build understanding for those who don’t, so they are able to interact, work, and be friends with folks who have autism. It’s mutually beneficial. These initiatives are examples of neurodiversity awareness.

They are beneficial to our communities. As a dyslexia specialist, this makes me pause to think. Over half of our country has some kind of dyslexia legislation in place, yet I’ve never heard of a school celebrating dyslexia awareness month. Come to think of it, I’ve never worked in a school that has recognized October as being significant to dyslexia. Do schools in your area celebrate dyslexia awareness month? I’m sure there are districts that do, and I’d love to hear where they are and what kind of events are planned for dyslexia awareness. Please share!

Its safe to say the majority of schools dont participate in dyslexia awareness activities – but why? Why doesnt dyslexia get more attention? Why arent schools helping to build more understanding of this very prevalent language acquisition disorder?

Autism is generally easy to spot because of how a person interacts or doesn’t interact socially. On the contrary, dyslexia is not visible from the outside. You can’t tell someone has dyslexia by looking at their outward behavior. This makes dyslexia awareness all the more important. Dyslexia comprises 80% of all learning disabilities and is visible through FMRI imaging in neurological research. Yet, the term is still taboo in many of our schools. Neurological imaging has proven that dyslexics have different brain wiring in the language processing center of their brains and have shown different activation patterns within the brain while they are reading. This sounds like neurodiversity to me.

Dyslexia - Little girl writing.
Dyslexia is not visible from the outside.

How is your reading center able to bring students up to grade level in reading, when highly qualified teachers and specialists at the childs schools have not?

This is where neurodiversity comes into play and where more awareness and education is needed. Different approaches get different results. As a dyslexia specialist and the founder of a specialized learning center, READ Learning Educational Services, I help students, young and old, learn to read and spell when traditional approaches have failed. There are no “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching reading and many (not all, but many) in the education world are unaware of two very important principles.

  • First, there are different approaches to teaching reading. Different approaches will reap different results when working with dyslexic learners.
  • Second, neurodiversity should come into play when choosing the most appropriate reading approach for dyslexic students.

What is your approach?

Please note, the term ‘approach’ is not synonymous with the term ‘program’. There are hundreds and maybe thousands of reading programs available to educators. ‘Approach’ refers to the actual teaching method/style in which a student is taught. This includes but is not limited to the sequence of content taught, how content is presented, the type of text that is used for students to read, specific strategies that are taught to support reading and spelling skills, and strategies to support memory and generalization of concepts.

At my reading center we only use Orton Gillingham-based approaches. Orton Gillingham is a very different way of teaching reading (when compared to balanced literacy approaches) and is steeped in medical research as opposed to educational philosophy / theory. It’s intense, explicit, sequential, multisensory, rule-based and focuses on spelling just as much as it does reading. Reading and spelling are taught in tandem. Orton-based interventions focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, fluency, accuracy, and spelling. If you’d like more information on how to teach spelling systematically, check out the Silver Moon Spelling Rules program.

What are some of the characteristics of students who come to your center?

Students we work with at READ Learning generally enter our doors with five things in common.

  • First, traditional reading approaches have failed them.
  • Second, the student is anywhere from 1 year to 8 or more years behind in reading level.
  • Third, the student has nothing wrong with their intelligence.
  • Fourth, the student feels something is wrong with them and struggles with confidence and often some anxiety.
  • Fifth, the student wants to do well and they want to improve their skills but they just don’t know how.

We’d likely see less students with these five characteristics in common if there were increased awareness and education surrounding dyslexia in our schools. If you’d like to learn more about dyslexia, request our ‘Characteristics of Dyslexia’ or ‘Dyslexia Testing’ resources.

Dyslexia - Letters of the alphabet.
Orton-based interventions focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, fluency, accuracy, and spelling.

Is it possible for an ordinary teacher to diagnose dyslexia?

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Last year, I spoke with a special education teacher who shared a frustrating conversation she had while at work. She was in a meeting with her school’s psychologist discussing student literacy needs. She shared that a few of her students were showing signs of dyslexia. She went on to share that most of these students had shown little to no progress in reading even with ongoing tiered intervention and classroom instruction over the past year. The school psychologist responded by saying that it didn’t really matter if her students were dyslexic or not because it wouldn’t change the way they would teach reading to them anyway.

‘It wouldn’t change the way they would teach reading anyway.’

This statement is worth repeating because of its transparency. It shows that this professional is working in a district that’s missing some key information. In other words, ‘he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.’ This district has not trained their key players to understand the neurological / medical research surrounding dyslexia. If they had, the psychologist would know there are different courses of action (approaches), recommended when working with students who show symptoms of or are diagnosed with dyslexia. When students are not making enough progress to close the achievement gap between themselves and benchmark reading levels, it should, at the very least, spur a conversation about other possible approaches that could be used for the child’s reading instruction and why the current approach is not working.

How often do you come across similar scenarios?

I felt the need to share this story because it’s not an uncommon experience. I hear versions of this quite often, except with different players. In the other versions there have been principals, special education directors, reading specialists, literacy coordinators and other teachers as the persons who aren’t knowledgeable about dyslexia or alternate reading approaches.

Unfortunately, I can relate to this experience. When I was still teaching in the classroom, I listened to my special education director tell our department not to use the word, ‘dyslexia’ when talking to parents, but instead to refer to the cluster of symptoms as being a reading disability. Yikes! This perspective is comparable to going to the doctor with pneumonia and the doctor telling you that all you have is a cold. The prescribed solution for pneumonia is very different from that of a general cold. With a cold you would simply rest up and drink lots of fluids. With the latter, you’d be given medication with specific directions on how to take the medication and for how long. This is a relevant analogy considering dyslexics have different wiring within their brains. They acquire reading differently from the majority of readers.

Dyslexia - Happy students.
Dyslexics acquires reading differently.

Because they learn to read differently, it’s important to identify them as early as possible and have alternate, more prescriptive approaches readily available. It’s a common myth that dyslexia is rare. Dyslexia is not rare; the prevalence in the general population is 15-20%. Instead, what tends to be rare is a school’s ability to accurately identify and intervene.

So, how can a school or district embrace neurodiversity awareness for dyslexic learners?

You could sponsor events for dyslexia awareness month. Maybe you could reach out to bring in an expert that is able to speak about dyslexia. If you or someone you know would like to learn more about the science behind teaching those with dyslexia, I would suggest reading the book, Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz. A few years back, I shared this book with a reading specialist who, after reading it, came to me in tears. Had she only known sooner…were some of the feelings she shared. These are just a few ideas that will open up the lines of communication and start those important conversations.

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” – William Wilberforce

Learn about the true face of dyslexia in this eye-opening documentary by Learning Foundations.

Kelly Steinke is a mother, wife, teacher and business owner. Kelly began her career as a special education teacher and had goals of becoming a special education director. After completing her Master’s Degree in Administration and Leadership, Kelly became licensable as a director of pupil services & special education. It was about this time that she became interested in the field of dyslexia. Instead of pursuing administrative goals, Kelly pursued certifications as a dyslexia specialist and founded her company, READ Learning Educational Services, LLC. READ Learning is a full time reading center specializing in Orton Gillingham-based reading interventions (online and in person) and dyslexia diagnosis. Kelly is also a speaker, adjunct instructor and the creator of Silver Moon® Spelling Rules curriculum and professional development trainings. For more information visit www.ReadLearningServices.com 

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Savas Savides
Education born and bred. I have worked as a teacher for many private language schools, as a test centre administrator, as a teacher trainer, as an educational consultant, and as a publisher. I am an advocate for literacy and a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom. I have a BA in English and an MBA in Marketing. I mostly write about English Language Teaching. I live in sunny Athens.