October 30, 2020 - 9:00 pm
Sally Shaywitz is a force of nature who has forgotten more about dyslexia than most people will ever know.
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. I’ve been “aware” of the subject for two decades. I got intrigued when I dated a beautiful girl, a teacher and language therapist who helped kids with dyslexia.
Back then, my ignorance was profound. Despite two Harvard degrees, I said dumb things such as: “If someone struggles in school, it’s because they’re lazy or disobedient.” Inexplicably, the beautiful girl married me anyway. Together, we’ve explored this perplexing reading disorder.
Our chief guide has been Shaywitz. Even though we’ve never met her, we’ve heard her name for years. A developmental pediatrician and a professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, Shaywitz is co-founder and co-director — along with her husband, Bennett Shaywitz, M.D. — of the Yale Center for Dyslexia &Creativity. She wrote the book on dyslexia. Literally.
And what a book. Her 2003 masterpiece, “Overcoming Dyslexia,” became a bestseller whose reach extended far beyond academia. Parents and educators devoured more than 400,000 copies. The genius of the book is that it takes the complicated and makes it simple, and that — while propelled by evidence-based research — it focuses on science and advocacy.
Thus it avoids the snares of the Educational Industrial Complex. Many of the education schools in the United States, the places that teach teachers how to teach, don’t even believe in dyslexia. So how can they help students who have it?
The very word — “dyslexia” — carries a stigma, one that gins up prejudice and fear.
Many parents won’t admit that their children struggle because they worry their offspring’s prospects for success will be limited. Many teachers don’t want to recognize that a student has a problem with reading because then they have to deal with it. And many school administrators are afraid of the cost of providing services.
The reading disorder is more prevalent than many people realize. The best research puts the figure at as high as 20 percent. It was also once assumed that only boys had dyslexia. But the research now tells us that girls have it, too — and in roughly the same percentage as boys.
Perhaps the most popular falsehood is that, for dyslexics, the letters that form words are scrambled like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Not true. Dyslexia is a wiring of the brain that produces a weakness in recognizing words and decoding the sounds words make. Reading is a struggle. And for students, reading aloud in class is torture.
But while this may be heresy to the publishing industry, reading doesn’t equal intelligence. Someone can be whip-smart and — despite being creative, empathetic, a critical thinker, a problem solver, even a great orator — still struggle with reading.
Dyslexics have a fierce ally in Shaywitz. When she’s not speaking, teaching or diagnosing and treating patients, she’s writing. Earlier this year, the second edition of “Overcoming Dyslexia” — co-authored with her son, psychiatrist Jonathan Shaywitz — hit bookstores. It includes more than 100 pages of new research and observations.
During a recent visit she made to California, I tracked down the warrior. After visiting countless schools, Shaywitz got used to hearing school officials insist that they had few cases of dyslexia.
“We knew the prevalence was more than that,” she told me. “I had to write this book so that people know what the science tells us about dyslexia. And it’s good. It’s helpful. It’s important. Every classroom in the country has children who are struggling to read.”
After a lifetime of gathering data and information, Shaywitz insists that it’s time for society to take the next step. And what action should we take? Early testing, detection and diagnosis. Shaywitz says that the gap between those students who are proficient readers and those who struggle with reading shows up as early as first grade. After that, we’re playing catch-up.
“If you get to the children earlier, we might not be able to close the gap, but we can really minimize it greatly,” she said. “This myth that it’s too early to diagnose is harming so many children. They’re being overlooked, and it’s terrible.”
Listen to her. Shaywitz has spent her entire career studying the brain. But her advocacy on behalf of children with dyslexia — and her never-ending fight to improve how our schools treat them — comes straight from the heart.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.