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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Why Is There A Dyslexia Epidemic?

Perhaps coercive schooling and increasingly unreasonable “state-approved” standards are the real problem. 

Image Credit: Michał Parzuchowski - Unsplash

The earliest documented cases of dyslexia, or a language processing disorder that makes it difficult to read, date back more than a century. For decades, it was considered a relatively rare occurrence, but today it is estimated that up to 20 percent of the US population is dyslexic. What is going on?

Advances in childhood diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia have certainly led to higher rates, but that is only part of the story. A national effort over the past two decades to push children to read at ever earlier ages—before many of them may be developmentally ready to do so—is also a likely culprit.

A study by University of Virginia professor ​​Daphna Bassok and her colleagues revealed that in 1998, 31 percent of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that number was 80 percent.

The children didn’t change. The expectations did.

Some of that was due to the passage of federal No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001 and its embrace of top-down “standards-based reform” that emphasized rigid, standardized curriculum and frequent testing, applied to ever-younger students. Kindergarten became the new first grade.

Relatedly, in 2006, the US Department of Education modified its definition of childhood learning disabilities to the following:

“The child does not achieve adequately for the child’s age or meet state-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the following areas, when provided with learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the child’s age or State-approved grade-level standards: Oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading fluency skills, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, mathematics problem-solving…”

The “state-approved” standards for childhood development and reading proficiency changed and if kids weren’t meeting those new, arbitrary benchmarks, they could be labeled with a learning disability like dyslexia. We continue to see the fall-out from these policies today.

With mounting pressure on early literacy attainment, and new concerns over alleged “pandemic learning loss,” more young children are likely to get caught in a disability dragnet that may have much more to do with coercive schooling than with them as individual learners. For instance, The Boston Globe recently reported that in Massachusetts “it wasn’t until this school year that the state began requiring all districts in the state to screen K-3 students at least twice per year using a state-approved assessment.” That has led, perhaps unsurprisingly, to about 30 percent of Massachusetts K-3 students labeled as being at “high risk of reading failure,” and about 20 percent of children labeled as having dyslexia indicators.

Let me be very clear: I am not dismissing the existence of dyslexia or related learning disabilities. They exist and diagnosed children should be properly treated. Indeed, I have spotlighted several microschools that focus specifically on the needs of dyslexic learners, such as Activate in Portland, Oregon, founded by a former public school teacher, and SOAR Academy in Augusta, Georgia. 

But the skyrocketing rise in the number of children diagnosed with dyslexia and similar reading difficulties should cause us all to pause and critically ponder this diagnostic upsurge. Forcing young children to read before they are ready may be an important, and overlooked, factor in the potential over-diagnosis of dyslexia.

If we look outside of standardized, state-run schooling, we get a clearer view of the implications of coercive educational policies on childhood learning. In 1987, Daniel Greenberg, cofounder of the noncoercive Sudbury Valley School, wrote in his book Free At Last about the school’s first two decades of operation. He explained that they never had a case of dyslexia. “The fact is, we have never seen it at the school. It just might be because we have never made anyone learn how to read,” Greenberg wrote. 

Despite not forcing kids to read, Sudbury Valley students all learn how to read—albeit on wildly disparate timetables that would likely never be permissible within a conventional classroom. Intrigued by the Sudbury Valley experience, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray and his colleague David Chanoff published research on the school’s alumni and their outcomes. Gray reported that “two of the graduates told us that they had come to the school at age 15 unable to read, with a diagnosis of dyslexia. Both told us, independently, that they learned to read within a few months of being at the school.” The researchers discovered that when top-down pressure was removed and the teens were free to direct their own learning, they quickly learned to read.

Gray went on to conduct more research on self-directed learners, such as unschoolers and those enrolled in Sudbury-model schools. In his Psychology Today column, he wrote: “I have also found, in informal surveys of unschoolers and democratic schoolers, that there is a huge range of ages at which different children learn to read (here). Most learn to read within their first 7 to 8 years of life, but a few don’t read until they are in their teens. My guess is that many of those would have been diagnosed with dyslexia if they had been in a traditional school, where everyone would have been very concerned about their reading.”

Would conventional, state-run schools ever tolerate such “late” readers? It’s unlikely, especially as 7 or 8 years old is now considered “late” for reading in many schools.

Again, dyslexia and related reading disorders are real; but when up to one in five young children are now being diagnosed with dyslexia, it should spark cultural curiosity and contemplation. Perhaps coercive schooling and increasingly unreasonable “state-approved” standards are the real problem.