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Dyslexia is more common than society realizes. Here’s what we can do to help children struggling in the shadows.

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Seeing your child struggle in school has to be one of the worst feelings as a parent. For us, it was heartbreaking. Our daughter could not read. It was first grade, but things were not clicking. Her self-esteem plummeted, and pretty soon she didn’t want to go to school at all. We were desperate to help her, but weren’t sure what was wrong.

After lots of research and doctor visits, we finally identified the roadblock: dyslexia. Knowing was such a relief, because it meant we could get to work on solutions. With help, we learned about dyslexia, found a specialized school, and our daughter started making progress. What had seemed like an invisible wall was now something we could overcome together.

{mosads}One thing we learned during our journey was that the traditional approach to teaching reading fails far too many children. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test is the nation’s reading report card. Despite states and local school boards spending huge amounts of money to improve reading, NAEP shows that 30 percent of all fourth graders, 20 percent of white fourth graders, and 50 percent of African American and Hispanic fourth graders read below “Basic,” the lowest reading level. For families who can afford a specialized education and tutors, helping a child overcome dyslexia is far from impossible. But what about for families who can’t?

To improve reading scores and help all children, current policies must address the science of dyslexia, which is defined as “an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader.” It’s estimated that 20 percent of American children are dyslexic and 80-90 percent of all children diagnosed with a “learning disability” are dyslexic. It is the most common reason that children struggle to read, but most are never diagnosed. Instead, they are labeled as having a “literacy issue” or the generic “specific learning disability.” The catch-all term “learning disability,” or “LD,” confuses parents and teachers and prevents a precise diagnosis of dyslexia. A specific diagnosis is critical to receiving effective education rooted in evidence-based curriculum and the latest science. Imagine diagnosing someone with cancer but not the specific type of cancer. No wonder students’ reading scores have not improved.

This has tragic consequences. Children with dyslexia who are not properly diagnosed or who do not receive an education tailored to dyslexia often drop out of school. They have lower high school and college graduation rates, and an increased risk of incarceration. There is a huge toll on self-esteem when a bright child struggles in school and cannot understand why.

Specifically screening for dyslexia in kindergarten is essential to identify at-risk children. The academic gap between dyslexics and non-dyslexics is present in first grade, and if not addressed, will widen in subsequent years. Once children are accurately diagnosed with dyslexia, it’s important they are taught with appropriate, evidenced-based curriculum.

“The good news is that the science of dyslexia has marched forward at a brisk pace. Science has differentiated the specific condition ‘dyslexia’ from the vague and heterogeneous terms ‘learning disabilities’ and ‘learning differences,’” says Dr. Sally Shaywitz of the Yale School of Medicine’s Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. “Today, we no longer have a knowledge gap in understanding dyslexia, but rather an action gap in implementing the cutting-edge scientific knowledge. We must, for the sake of the one in five children who are dyslexic, act and close this harmful action gap. Education must act and align with 21st century scientific knowledge.”

To boost reading scores and make the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on reading education more effective, we need a 21st century approach to dyslexia based on science. Parents, educators, and public officials must recognize the prevalence of dyslexia, the importance of a precise diagnosis, and the need for an effective curriculum. Without change, too many children will fall through the cracks. Early screening and evidence-based curriculum will empower children with dyslexia to achieve their God given potential. That’s not just best for them—it benefits our communities and country too.

Dr. Laura Cassidy is a retired surgeon and the cofounder and chair of Louisiana Key Academy and the Dyslexia Resource Center. Dr. Bill Cassidy is a gastroenterologist, the senior U.S. senator from Louisiana and sits on the Senate health and education committee. They live in Baton Rouge and have three children.

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