What Parents Need to Know About Dyslexia
An Interview with Dr. Jan Hasbrouck in Honor of Dyslexia Awareness Month
The following has been adapted from an interview with literacy expert Dr. Jan Hasbrouck. Find the full recorded interview with Dr. Hasbrouck here:
You have a very long history with literacy and reading. How did you originally become involved in dyslexia research? Where did that come from?
Dr. Hasbrouck: Dyslexia originally became an interest of mine less as a researcher and more as a mom. I was a reading specialist, so I worked with struggling readers and low-performing readers well before I had children. But then I became a mom, and I had two kids, a boy and a girl — both lovely, sweet, intelligent, curious, delightful children, but with very different school experiences.
My son was the firstborn, and he went to school, and he was one of those kids that we would technically call a precocious reader. We expected the same of my daughter — you know, the same gene pool, raised in the same family where reading, literacy, and books were so important. But she didn’t take to it. In first grade she wasn’t reading, in second grade she was still struggling.
In those days, there was not the focus of interest in support for dyslexia that there is now. It was just a frustrating puzzle until a friend of mine, a colleague who was a special educator, looked at a piece of my daughter’s writing in fourth grade and said, Jan, she has dyslexia. That’s what’s going on. For me, it was just — Oh, my goodness! Of course, that’s what it is! It answered so many questions.
At that point, just for my personal sense of understanding, I went on a journey to try to understand more about dyslexia, and certainly, that affected my work and the way I thought and talked about dyslexia.
But it was just a few years ago when the opportunity came to write a book on dyslexia, and that started my real deep dive into what we know, what’s most current, what’s most accurate, what are some of the misunderstandings around dyslexia, and ultimately, what we’ve learned about the best interventions to help our students who do have dyslexia. It’s been a long journey.
What social and emotional factors impact the well-being of students with dyslexia?
Dr. Hasbrouck: Being a mother of a now-grown child with dyslexia, that question alone brings a lot of reaction to me. Anybody who experiences dyslexia or raises someone with dyslexia knows the trauma — and that is not too strong a word — that most of these children go through, even if their dyslexia, like my daughter, was a relatively mild level.
What we need to be aware of is how easy it is to create a condition in classrooms where those children feel ashamed. They feel like something’s wrong with them. This level of shame and disconnect happens early, around five and six years old. We hear these stories all the time from parents. It’s almost universal that their child, like all children, gets very excited about going to school and learning. It all starts to fall apart around kindergarten, when the instruction of letters, alphabet letter names, and letter sounds, which is their real difficulty, begins. They think, “All the other kids seem to be getting this easily, and they’re even having fun doing it. And I just don’t, no matter how hard I work.”
That’s one of the myths of dyslexia — that these children just need to try harder. But in truth, they’re trying extraordinarily hard. There’s some very interesting research, I think, out of the University of Washington that concluded from brain scan research that children with dyslexia are using five times the cognitive effort to do the same kind of work as children without dyslexia. So we need to cut these kids a little bit of slack and know that their brains are working hard on things that the vast majority of us find very easy to do.
We need to acknowledge the challenge and explain to them why it’s hard for them to read. That’s one of the things that for my daughter was reassuring and started lowering her stress levels. This is not your fault, this part of your brain just works differently than other brains.
The unfortunate thing is that when you struggle with learning to read and write, that affects so much of your life, particularly while you’re in school. The social and emotional impact of dyslexia has been well documented. It is pretty universally part of the journey of our children with dyslexia, and it’s something that educators and parents should be very aware of. We should strive to make these children not feel separate or different, or in any way ashamed of the fact that they have this particular difficulty to deal with.
What advice do you have for other parents of children with dyslexia? How can they give help to their child at home and school by being an advocate?
Dr. Hasbrouck: The first thing I would say to any parent is to find your tribe. There is a group in the United States called Decoding Dyslexia. It was started by parents who just decided that it was important to gather information and resources about dyslexia to be both a support and advocacy system. It started on the east coast, and now there are branches of Decoding Dyslexia in every state.
Then, connect with the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), which has a website that is very informative and contains a whole section just for parents. If you think your child has dyslexia, look into these groups as you begin to advocate for your child at school.
As much as we’ve learned, we still know that a lot of school systems have yet to become fully informed about dyslexia. They don’t always have the most current information. They may have very limited resources for assessing or intervening with dyslexia. So those advocacy groups, IDA and Decoding Dyslexia and others, are there to help parents advocate for their children with their teachers and with their school systems because of the gap that we have in some cases.
Then, at home, what should parents do? This is a conversation I have nearly weekly with people, and I almost feel that my suggestions to parents of children with dyslexia are a little different than the advice that I would give to parents of kids who are doing well in school. We often, as parents, want to be sure that we’re doing our part. For kids like my son, who did well, but maybe needed a little push sometimes to do homework or to spend a little bit more time reading, I could be that push.
With my daughter and with other children with dyslexia, I sometimes feel that, although the need is there for more work and more practice, it’s rarely beneficial for parents to function in the role of a tutor.
My daughter would come home exhausted from the level of work that she was doing at school. She was working so hard. Her brain would just be on overload, and then to spend more time in the evening beyond her homework, which was challenging enough, to do even more work on the things that she needed to practice, but were the most difficult for her to practice, was just too much.
Specifically having a parent in that pusher or tutor role has rarely been successful from my perspective. Even though I was a teacher and I knew the kinds of things that would be helpful for her, I found more success backing off and being the person who could make sure she got to do the things that were invigorating, refreshing, and re-energizing for her. For my daughter, that was sewing — she found it engaging and relaxing. To this day, if she’s stressed out, she does crafts.
We did hire a tutor for her. We were in the position of being able to do that, and that certainly is beneficial when, as well organized and as hardworking as schools are, they may not have sufficient resources to provide the level of practice and intervention that children need. Getting a volunteer tutor may also be an option if hiring one is not feasible.
It’s also wonderful for parents to read to children, to keep the language flowing, and to help children still find joy in books.
If you could offer learners of any age who struggle with dyslexia a few words of encouragement, what would you say to them?
Dr. Hasbrouck: I would acknowledge that this brain-based challenge that they were born with is a bummer. This is not something that we should take lightly. It is a challenge, and we should acknowledge that.
But the magical, mystical wonder of our brains is the fact that they can learn, can be rewired, and can acquire skills. It’s just much easier for some brains than others — that’s the difference. You have dyslexia. It’s going to be harder. I get it, and that just that’s just unfortunate and unfair. But it’s never too late to learn! Our brains are amazing, and that neuroplasticity, which is at an optimal level when you’re young, doesn’t go away. The more we use our brains, the more our brains are capable of learning information.
One of the reasons that we learn to read and write is to give us access to communication and learning. Even if those things are barriers to you, there are other ways to access that information — like audiobooks, for example. Books on tape and other mediums are not lesser ways of acquiring that information. Go after what you’re interested in, and access it in whatever way brings you joy and pleasure. There is a world of wonder out there — it’s more easily accessed if you can read and write easily, but don’t let challenges with those things get in your way. Go for it. Keep learning and keep exploring.