#LiteracyDay: Why aren’t literacy organizations talking about Dyslexia?

Summary: If literacy organizations are sounding the alarm that there is a literacy problem in Canada, why aren’t they talking about a common cause of low literacy — dyslexia?

“DESPITE EFFORTS TO IMPROVE ADULT LITERACY RATES IN CANADA, THE SHARE OF ADULTS WITH INADEQUATE LITERACY SKILLS HAS INCREASED OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS.” (CONFERENCE BOARD OF CANADA)

In a country like Canada, that prides itself on being highly literate, literacy organizations have a tough sales job. They are constantly having to remind people that far too many Canadians have poor literacy skills (40% is the oft-cited statistic). They also have to convince governments to properly fund literacy programs. And all of this has become worse during the pandemic.

On international literacy day (ILD) 2020, UNESCO released its annual report warning that the pandemic “has had profound — and is still having — negative impacts on youth and adult literacy, posing novel challenges to education systems…”

UNESCO “makes the case for the ongoing importance of advancing youth and adult literacy, a priority that was already neglected even before the pandemic but which deserves all our attention. ILD 2020 thus seeks to trigger reimaginations of literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, with a particular focus on the role of educators.”

Yes! I agree! This is such an exciting focus for literacy day 2020, It’s time to reimagine literacy teaching and learning.

Photo by Alexas Fotos on Pexels.com

Let’s start by making the connection between dyslexia and literacy.

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, affecting 1 in 10 people around the world. Without support, people with dyslexia have lower literacy skills, higher rates of unemployment and mental health challenges.

Look no further than Canadian jails where 65 out of 100 people have less than a grade 8 education or level of literacy and where there is a higher rate of dyslexia than in the general population: Correctional Service of Canada reports that “5% to 10% of the general population have a learning disability, while the incidence of learning disabilities in the prison population fluctuates between 7% and 77%.”

That prisons are filled with people who didn’t learn to read is not a surprise. It may surprise you, however, that these people may have learned to read had they been taught.

And that is an avoidable tragedy.

If we truly want to improve literacy rates, and give every child the opportunity to succeed, we need literacy organizations to acknowledge dyslexia as a cause of low literacy.

We need them to acknowledge that people who struggle to learn to read may have an underlying neurobiological condition, called dyslexia.

We need them to identify dyslexia in their clients (children, youth and adults) and start teaching reading using effective, evidence-based instruction.

The problem is that most literacy organizations don’t talk about dyslexia. Perhaps this is why our schools don’t either?

Oh Canada, we have a literacy problem

First, let’s start with some statistics:

The Conference Board of Canada states that:

  • Canada earns a “C” grade on inadequate literacy skills in the latest international comparison study
  • 48% of Canadian adults have inadequate literacy skills—a significant increase from a decade ago
  • Despite efforts to improve adult literacy rates in Canada, the share of adults with inadequate literacy skills has increased over the past 10 years (Conference Board of Canada)

ABC Life, Literacy, Canada states that:

The Council of Ministers of Education states that:

  • more than “one in ten Canadian students do not meet the level of reading proficiency expected at the Grade 8/Secondary II level, calling this ” a “cause for concern.”

Every year, standardized testing in Canadian schools paints a similar picture. The 2018 – 2019 Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) results show that 26% of Ontario’s Grade 3 students and 53% of Grade 3 students with special education needs did not meet the Provincial Standard (Level 3 or 4) for reading.

Appalled by these statistics, and the stories of children who have been denied support, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) launched a #RightToRead into reading disabilities in Ontario in 2019. The inquiry is examining the impact of reading disabilities on literacy rates and is calling for more supports for dyslexia students (the report is expected in Fall 2020).

Dyslexia blind

Surely the mainstream literacy community is taking notice?

Sorry to disappoint. Literacy and education groups release study after study calling attention to low literacy rates in Canada … without mentioning learning disabilities as a possible cause:

You won’t find dyslexia information on their websites either (which would be a great service to their clients).

In the past year, I have noted some glimmers of hope: Frontier College mentioned learning disabilities in their 2020 report, “Literacy and Technology” and Maryanne Wolf, director of the center for dyslexia (in the US) is on the board of the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation (though I’ve yet to see them utilize her expertise). 

Overall though, I don’t see any acknowledgement about the need to adopt effective, evidence-based reading instruction for people who struggle to read due to dyslexia.

What I do see is the same old magical thinking that is rooted in the unscientific idea that learning to read is done through osmosis: give your child books and they will learn to read.

I can attest to the fact that this doesn’t work for kids with dyslexia.

Thanks to a new understanding of the reading brain, we know that dyslexia is a neurobiological condition. We know that simply exposing dyslexic children to books isn’t the answer. We know that dyslexic children can learn to read with the right instruction. Yet how we teach reading remains deeply flawed.

Given what we know about dyslexia, and the science of reading, we need to ask literacy groups:

Why aren’t you talking about how people learn to read?

Why aren’t you talking about how we teach reading?

Why aren’t you talking about reading disabilities?

how did we get here?

This isn’t just happening here in Canada; it’s an international trend. Mark Seidenburg illustrates in his book, Language at the speed of sight, that reading was replaced with “alternative” or “multiple” literacies in the 1940s. For proof, look no further than the International Literacy Association that used to be called the International Reading Association.

Multiple literacies include:

  • Life literacy
  • Health literacy
  • Physical literacy
  • Civic literacy
  • Financial literacy
  • Digital literacy

Literacy, says Seidenburg, is now an “umbrella term” that renders reading and writing, and therefore reading disabilities, invisible:

“Having distinguished Literacy (I’ll capitalize the educational term) from reading, educational theorists pushed further, decoupling Literacy from written language. Literacy has become the umbrella term for communication involving print but also other types of information (visual images, auditory, video, and combinations thereof).” -Mark SEidenberg

We see this reflected in public policy. For example, financial literacy is one of the main focuses of the Ontario government’s new curriculum despite calls by parents to do better with reading instruction.

I understand that literacy has come to mean more than reading and writing (Unesco defines literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”).

My question is this: how can you expect someone to be good at “multiple literacies” if you don’t have the main components — reading and writing — down pat?

Seidenberg says that basic literacy — reading and writing — skills are even more important in our information age:

“…AN APPROACH TO LITERACY THAT DOES NOT TREAT TRADITIONAL READING AS FUNDAMENTAL WILL MAKE IT HARDER TO GAIN THIS SKILL, WITH THE GREATEST IMPACT ON GROUPS ALREADY AT RISK FOR READING FAILURE. SINCE ADVANTAGES CONTINUE TO ACCRUE TO THOSE WHO CAN READ IN THE TRADITIONAL SENSE, IT SEEMS ESSENTIAL — A MORAL IMPERATIVE, EVEN — TO HOLD EDUCATORS TO DEVELOPING CHILDREN’S READING AND WRITING SKILLS.” -Mark Seidenberg

So what?

Rendering dyslexia invisible means that students with reading disabilities are at high risk of failure in our school system.

It means that families must fight (and don’t always succeed) to get effective reading instruction for their children.

Kids with dyslexia group up to be adults with dyslexia (as it doesn’t go away), and that means that those who don’t get the help they need struggle to succeed throughout their lives.

Statistics Canada has documented the impact of learning disabilities on education, employment and health. Because dyslexia is often inherited (meaning it runs in families), unidentified and unsupported dyslexia results in intergenerational impacts: Children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves (source).

It’s critical that we look for risk factors, get early diagnosis, and provide evidence-based reading instruction, accommodations and emotional support.

An added bonus: Better reading instruction benefits everyone learning to read, not just those with dyslexia.

This type of preventative approach might actually help to ensure that all Canadians learn to read. This is, after all, the raison d’être of literacy organizations.

I invite the literacy community to join forces with the dyslexia community.

Together, we can change the world.


Structured literacy instruction (International Dyslexia Association Ontario)

Use the term dyslexia

Supporting your child at home

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