The Beautifully Different Brain

Originally published in the Greater Park Hill News, June 1st, 2021

Identifying Dyslexia Should Be The Norm, Not The Outlier

By Erin Pier

For the GPHN

Erin Pier

My daughter’s brain operates in a beautifully different way from mine.

She has an episodic memory that allows her to recall what dress I wore to a birthday party three years ago, or what artwork hangs on the wall of a restaurant she visited only once. She has an interesting way of associating names with imagery; for example, my mother’s name, Kathryn, always makes her think of a sponge.

Her ability to think in images and visualize what could be inspires incredible creativity. She has repurposed a dozen shipping boxes into detailed doll spas, Japanese grocery stores, and hotels with rooftop gardens. For Christmas last year, she gifted her dad an old jewelry box filled with Legos, along with her own hand drawn blueprint for how to assemble a ship of her own design.

Meltdowns at the table

Lucy’s ability to think outside the box is a gift, but in kindergarten she started to show signs that her differently-wired brain struggled with certain academic tasks. Writing her four-letter name caused meltdowns at the kitchen table.

She loved being read to, but rarely read alone, and had a very low frustration tolerance for sounding out words. She struggled to identify letters of the alphabet. She was performing below grade level in reading, but I wasn’t worried. She was one of the youngest in her class, and I was sure she would catch up.

In first grade, the gaps between Lucy and her peers were growing. Fortunately, her amazing first grade teacher had recently attended a training on dyslexia, and recognized the signs in Lucy right away. She immediately set Lucy up with in-school interventions, and within a few months, she qualified for special education.

Despite an undergraduate degree in special education, and a four-year masters degree in school psychology, none of my training had prepared me to recognize the signs and symptoms of dyslexia in my daughter. I had misunderstood dyslexia  to be a disorder that causes letter reversals, which is a common, prevailing myth.

According to the International Dyslexia Association dyslexia is actually “…a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.”

Like me, many educators are taught little if anything about dyslexia. As a result, signs and symptoms are often missed in the classroom until students fail their first standardized reading assessment in third grade. By then, students with dyslexia are often several grades behind their peers in reading and writing. As their peers begin reading to learn, students with dyslexia are still learning to read.

Without aggressive, early intervention, children with dyslexia may be unable to overcome significant and persistent achievement gaps, leading to anxiety, low self-esteem and disconnection from school. Ultimately, students with unidentified dyslexia have lower high school graduation rates, higher levels of unemployment, and lower post-secondary attainment.

Worse yet, while dyslexia presents in 20 percent of the general population, it’s found to exist in over 48 percent of those who are incarcerated.

The National Institutes of Health has found that dyslexia is identifiable from age 5.5 years, with 92 percent accuracy. In 2017, a study published by the Journal of Educational Psychology found that students at risk for reading disabilities who received intervention in first and second grade made gains nearly twice that of children who didn’t receive intervention until third grade.

With early identification and intervention, the long-term effects of dyslexia can be mitigated. Unfortunately, the majority of children with dyslexia aren’t  identified until fifth grade, with many students identified even later.

In DPS, public concern regarding the lack of early identification has led officials to announce plans for a dyslexia screening pilot program this fall in several schools, however details have not been finalized.

Better learning for all

Tayo McGuirk, a former DPS educator and Park Hill resident, is cofounder of DenCoKID, a grassroots organization that supports our community’s understanding of dyslexia and advocates for improved learning outcomes for all kids.

“Even though there are decades of research out there that support reading instruction based on science and the systematic, developmental way our brains (and specifically, dyslexic learners) are wired to learn to read, many DPS schools still widely employ an outdated ‘whole language’ approach, an approach that fails students with dyslexia,” McGuirk says.

The hesitancy for districts to change their approach to reading, she says, is likely due to the costs of purchasing new curricula, associated training, instructional coaching, and deep-seeded beliefs about how we’ve been teaching reading all along.

Dyslexia’s inequities 

When it comes to intervention, McGuirk says “schools with funds to purchase their own curricula and train their teachers are able to provide instruction in the general education classroom that meets the needs of all students, including those with dyslexia.”

Additionally, “Dyslexic students from families with financial means can seek out specialized private tutoring, using the Orton-Gillingham method.” At a rate of $100 an hour, two to three 2-3 times a week, however, this intervention is only available to those who can afford it.

I asked McGuirk about the “gifts” of dyslexia, like those I see in Lucy. While she acknowledged that kids with dyslexia may be able to put together a 1,000-piece Lego set without directions, and has observed them to often be super athletes, artists, and musicians, she also passed along a quote: “Dyslexia is only a gift if you are not born poor.”

Without means, not only are children less likely to be identified and effectively taught to read, but they are also less likely to have the opportunity to embrace their associated gifts.

“You might not have a 1,000-piece Lego set laying around the house, or access to private art lessons, music lessons, or theater groups. You might not have resources to play expensive organized sports,” McGuirk says. ”So what good are the ‘gifts’ of dyslexia for these kids?”

Reading should not be a privilege

My daughter’s experience with dyslexia should be the norm, not the outlier. Teachers should be equipped to identify the signs right away, schools should screen students to ensure no student is missed, and all schools should provide curricula rooted in the science of reading.

While students will recognize their neurodivergence as a challenge, they should be guaranteed access to the support and tools necessary to also embrace their gifts. Reading shouldn’t be a privilege, and it’s long past time for that to change.

For more information on dyslexia or to become more involved with local advocacy efforts, visit Don’t forget to join us at 7 p.m. on June 9 for a virtual EdEquity Corner, where we’ll discuss how you can help move the needle toward equity in all our neighborhood schools. Register here.

Erin Pier is a mother of three, a Stedman parent and school psychologist at AUL Denver. She is a member of Park Hill Neighbors For Equity In Education, which works toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in all schools in the neighborhood.