My mom, dyslexia and the #phonicsdebate

Summary: It’s nothing new that some reading experts blame parents for their children’s reading difficulties. But it was news to me that my 83-year-old mother has carried the weight of my academic and emotional challenges (due to my unremediated dyslexia) on her shoulders for 40 years. In this post, find out how the #phonicsdebate got personal for my mom and I, and why we need to stop the blame game.

mom & me (2)

This photo is circa 1970. My face says it all: I’m crazy about my mom. Her love has helped me through more than one rough patch. And yet, like all dyslexia moms, she struggled to help me find my way through an education system that didn’t properly identify nor support my learning disability.

She didn’t know her youngest daughter was dyslexic; she hadn’t even heard of it back then. But she did know I was struggling because:

a) the school flagged it early on, and

b) I was a sad puddle of a girl who dragged herself to school every day


Without concrete information about what was causing my difficulties, she did what came naturally to her: she loved me fiercely and unconditionally.

It was incredibly helpful to grow up knowing that no matter what happened in the outside world:

  • My mom always believed me. Mom couldn’t do much to change the fact that school was not my “happy place”, but she always had my back. I remember once, when I was 6 or 7, my French teacher spanked me in front of my classmates (my crime? Talking in line). When I came home crying, she marched over to school and told the teacher never to touch me again.
  • My mom always believed in me. My mom never got upset about a poor report card. She was always looking for ways to build my self-confidence, praising me for non-academic achievements or slipping hand-written inspirational notes in my lunch bag when I was having a bad week (or year!).
  • My mom was always there for me, even though she wasn’t always with me. When I turned 5, and started school, my mom returned to work full-time as an emergency nurse, often working night shifts and holidays. Yet, she made time to read to me, attend my school plays, sew Halloween costumes and prom dresses, bake roast beef dinners for Sunday supper and cookies for my lunches. She wasn’t always home. But it sure felt like it.

At 83, she is still the port in the storm, the provider of unconditional love and homemade cookies to her three (now adult) daughters and 7 grandchildren.

So yeah. I adore this woman.

The parental blame game

My mom and I don’t talk too much about my school days. I know how I felt about it, but I had never considered how those days affected her: she thinks she let me down when I was at school. She thinks she’s partly to blame. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

Her feelings came to the surface when I was telling her about the #phonicsdebate that unfolded at a literacy conference in Australia this summer (you can read more about it in Nancy Young’s excellent 3-part series). Several educators and reading specialists perpetrated the myth that parents can “inoculate” against dyslexia by filling their homes with books and by reading to their children every night. And conversely, those who don’t are partially to blame when their child presents with reading problems at school.

Here’s a small sample of the conversation on Twitter:

Unbeknownst to me, my mom had heard this all before — some 40 years ago when I was in grade school!!

This was a revelation to me. So I took careful note of our conversation. It went like something like this:

Me: “I saw on Twitter today that educators are blaming parents for dyslexia. They say we’re to blame because we don’t read to our kids enough.”

[Long sigh…]

My mom: “That’s what your teacher said to me when you were in school. She said you couldn’t read because I wasn’t reading to you.”

Me: “That’s crazy mom! What did you say to her?”

My mom: “I told her, ‘I do read to her. I read to her every night.’ But the teacher said, ‘Well then you’re not doing it right. You’re probably holding her in your arms, looking into her eyes, and reading passively to her…”

Me: “Weird. What happened after that?”

My mom: “We sent you to an eye doctor to check for vision problems and colour blindness.”

Me: “I think I remember that. Did they find anything wrong with my eyes?”

My mom: “No. Your eyes were fine.”

Me: “Did the school ever help me with my reading?”

My mom: “No. You never got help.”

That my mom remembers a conversation that happened some 40 years ago, shows it was clearly very painful for her then, and now.

Turning the page on magical thinking

Given that I went to school in the 1970s, I’m starting to think reading instruction is stuck in some sort of time warp. Given all we know about dyslexia, why are we still having this conversation?

Dyslexia is a brain difference that can’t be “cured” by exposure to books. I’ve heard this described as “magical thinking” — the idea that if you give a child a book they will magically be able to read it. That’s just not true if your child is dyslexic.

Yes, please do expose your children to books. Read to your child every night. But dyslexic children need more than access to books — they need evidence-based reading instruction and accommodations.

Parents can do a lot to help a dyslexic child, but they don’t cause it and they certainly can’t “cure” it.

It’s time to put this matter to rest: my mom is not to blame for my learning difficulties. That goes for your mom and every mom. No matter what side of the #phonicsdebate you sit on, I hope we can all agree on that.


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