The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Thursday will consider a bill that aspires to change how our schools deal with children who have dyslexia.

The bill includes provisions for training teachers and improving the screening, identification and treatment of dyslexia. It also calls for the appointment of a dyslexia consultant for the Department of Education to oversee the implementation of improved systems and to train educators and administrators in each school district.

Nobody in my immediate family has dealt with dyslexia, and I didn’t know much about it until I got to know a child who is inspiring me to learn about the topic. He is in third grade, although he is reading at a first grade level. He has never been tested specifically for dyslexia, and the more I learn about it the more I wonder, “Why not?”

I have learned that children with dyslexia, although they can be extremely intelligent, get labeled in the classroom as lazy or disruptive. They often develop low self-esteem, which then affects all aspects of their lives and learning. I didn’t realize that disrupted speech, trouble learning to tie shoelaces and trouble with rhyming are all signs of dyslexia. I didn’t realize that mathematics scores also would be affected, because math instruction is all language-based now.

Dyslexia is a neurological condition that negatively affects reading, writing, organization and learning sequences. It is often inherited and affects an astounding 20 percent of our students. When it remains undiagnosed, students spiral down into a frustrating quagmire of academic failure.

I also have learned that, for some reason, the director of the special education program in my school district doesn’t “use the term ‘dyslexia’ anymore.” That is surprising, considering that 30 states besides Maine have reviewed 71 pieces of legislation regarding dyslexia since 2010. Most of these were made into laws that mandate more training for teachers and better accommodations for students. This is a huge issue nationally and internationally, because when school systems fail to screen, identify and remediate dyslexia, there are consequences that ripple out into society. These consequences are social, emotional and economic.


A United Kingdom-based foundation, KPMG, commissioned a 2006 study about the impact of dyslexia-based illiteracy on society. They found that unemployment, mental health issues, drug abuse, early pregnancy and criminal justice issues all had significant correlation to illiteracy that originated with dyslexia. The cost incurred by society to remedy these problems would be much better spent at the front end, training our teachers and equipping them with the screening tools and the proven evidence-based learning programs that have helped students for decades.

This is what is so frustrating: Dyslexia has been around for decades, and everyone has heard about it. The solution is not something that needs to be discovered or developed. We already know what works, and it’s not even expensive. When it is discovered and remediated, learning resumes a normal trajectory and these students then are able to fully expand into their intellectual potential. Many famous, successful people who have dyslexia — including Steve Jobs, Jamie Oliver, Agatha Christie, Steven Spielberg, Jay Leno, John Irving and Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist, Carol Greider — have learned how to work with their non-ordinary neurological processing in a way that unleashed their often-brilliant minds.

Fortunately, we have such a dedicated, streamlined special education system in this state. This wide gap that too many of our children have been falling into will begin to close with the passing of this bill. Beginning in 2015, all children in kindergarten through second grade can get screened, and teachers can begin to implement techniques for learning to read that benefit all beginner-readers, not just those who might have dyslexia.

As for this third-grader in my life right now, I need to go outside the school system to have him assessed and tutored. The window of opportunity to help him catch up is closing. He now has five years of messaging from his school experience that he is intellectually impaired, which is not true. Teaching him to read and write more easily might take a year or two, but repairing his confidence in himself as a learner is likely to take much longer.

I strongly urge legislators to pass this bill (L.D. 231.) This issue is much too big to ignore any longer.

Holly Noonan lives in Camden with her 10-year-old son and has worked as a holistic health counselor since 2007. She serves on the Legislative Action Committee for the Maine Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

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