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The Dyslexia Tax

Some huge things can remain hidden, even when you are stood right beside them. They are like camouflaged elephants in the room. And sometimes those elephants do damage.

Most of us are unaware that one in every five people passing us on the street is unable to read simple text. And most of us are unaware just what an enormous impact that has on their lives. It is easy to say “she is dyslexic” without really knowing what that means for someone’s life, if reading is still hard for that person.

There are three important myths to dismiss with this:

  1. Learning to read works out okay for most struggling 7 year-olds
  2. A dyslexia diagnosis means you cannot learn to read well and spell accurately
  3. Being unable to read well is normal and okay for dyslexics

Busting Myth 1

First, if you have a seven year-old who is struggling to read, lots of people will tell you not to worry.They will tell you that it will work out and different children learn to read at different times. That is actually a myth.

If you look at the data, around one in five children are really struggling to read at the age of 7, on average. And around 20% of children leave school unable to read too. You can ask your local schools to check what I am saying. Now those two figures are the same!

Almost all children who struggle to read at primary school never do learn to read properly. It’s a life sentence if they don’t get the right help. Check the OECD data for adult reading ability.

Busting Myth 2

Many parents get a dyslexia diagnosis for their child and accept the suggestion that their child will never learn to read well, because they are dyslexic.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Experts who say dyslexics cannot learn to read are experts who do not know how to help a dyslexic learn to read. We have taught thousands of dyslexics to read with our Easyread System without a problem. Usually it just takes a few weeks, sometimes a bit longer. But we expect every dyslexic to become a good reader and speller with the right help. We guarantee good reading progress for every child.

Busting Myth 3

Finally, what does it mean to the life of a dyslexic if they don’t master reading and writing accurately? People often seem to think that it is okay to accept that situation. We disagree:

First, it is not a good situation at elementary school. Not good at all.

All little children want to make their teacher and their parents happy. They also want to be seen to be okay by their friends. And reading is central to their day. They are learning to read at school and doing reading practice at home.

If they are struggling to read those adults are going to be frustrated. It is unusual for primary teachers and parents to be experts at reading difficulty. They have little understanding of why a child would struggle to read, because they have never been taught why a bright child might struggle. So they tend to get frustrated. The struggling child knows that. It makes them feel bad.

Then their friends start to notice that they are still on the “baby” reading books. Some of their friends soon become free readers, while they are struggling with these very basic books. So now they are embarrassed by it with their peer group.  That makes them feel bad too.

Often these children start not wanting to go to school. That makes their parents even more frustrated. That makes these children feel even more bad.

But then it gets worse.

Then the nightmare really starts

At elementary school you are learning lots of practical things. Reading is important, but there are many ways that you can do well, without being able to read. But now these children go to senior school.

That is a very different environment. Now you need to read for every subject. And the subjects are taught by people with no training in literacy. When you have not read the required chapter in the book, all they know is that you have not followed their reasonable request. Teachers are under pressure to get results and sometimes that pressure will transmit through to the struggling children.

So now school has become a daily agony of failure and public humiliation. Now your child is failing on every front. Maybe you have spent the money and got a diagnosis of dyslexia, but that just gives a label to your shared struggles. It does not stop them.

The dyslexia tax is really starting to bite now and deep psychological damage is being done to your child. If you want to read a great portrayal of how that is, read ‘Pour Me A Life’ by AA Gill.

At this point, most children go down three possible paths for survival:

  1. Become the class joker. Some of the famous dyslexics in the media have followed this path and learned to entertain at school.
  2. Choose to win in your own system, by becoming delinquent. Then every punishment is a win, according to your distorted view of life. Half of our prison inmates cannot read.
  3. Go internal, lie low and hope to escape when you have done your time.

Whichever path you take, your teenage years at school are going to be tough. You will either fail most of the tests put before you, or manage a few passes, but at a massive personal cost compared to your peers. These last years at school represent a daily routine of struggle and regular humiliation for your failure to achieve.

But then it gets worse.

The massive lifetime impact

The reality is that the adult world runs on text. Almost every interesting job needs you to read and write. Yes, maybe you can become a footballer or dancer or an artist or a photographer, but thousands of career paths are eliminated if you cannot read and write. What if you really want to be a doctor, or a nurse, or a researcher? Maybe you want to go into the law or local government. Maybe you want to become a police officer. The list is endless. They are all impossible without literacy.

A surprising number of poor readers go into business and can do very well there. If they can sell, for instance, they will potentially succeed with limited literacy. But it takes considerable bravado to step into that environment knowing that you can be found to be lacking even a basic formal education.

The brutal reality is that many non-readers just accept that they can only do low-paid, largely manual work, often despite being very bright.

In almost every case these people will continue to live in fear of being seen to be functionally illiterate. They develop lots of little tricks to hide it, consistently “leaving their glasses behind” for instance. And this is now a life sentence for most of them.

But there is more to this than emotional pain and career frustration.

The million dollar tax your child could pay

It is worth doing a quick calculation for what this is likely to cost them over the next 50 years.

According to recent US government figures, the median salary for someone who does not graduate from high school in the US is $8,000 per annum less than someone who does (without going on to any further education).

Many of these non-readers could do a university degree with the right qualifications, because many are very bright. Then their income would be over $35,000 per annum higher, on average.

So the lifetime cost of not learning to read is likely to be at least $400,000 and $1,600,000 or more. So this is truly a million dollar question for each child.

But it could be a lot worse than just a low income.

The even grimmer end of the line for some…

I originally got involved in literacy education in the prison system, helping to grow the Shannon Trust. I am very glad I was only a day visitor, because life in prison for the inmates and the staff is exceptionally tough. If you have ideas of life in prison being a soft option, you need to visit one.

Half our prison inmates cannot read. Our project was to get the literate inmates to start teaching their illiterate peers to read. You can see more at What was interesting to me was how many of them learned to read in just a few months.

Then the next surprise was to find our greatest supporters would turn out to be the officers on the prison wings. The reason is that they were quick to see the change in the inmates.

Often the inmates go from deeply depressed and very hard to deal with before learning to read, to optimists who are happy to cooperate with the wing officers. I have seen hardened inmates and wing officers choking up about it. It seems that inside many of these career criminals there is still the little child aged 7, who just wanted to pass their reading test.

How to avoid the dyslexia tax

You can see from the above analysis why we are passionate about getting every child reading and spelling confidently. As the adults supporting these children, it is our duty really.

So the thing that worries me most about a child getting a dyslexia diagnosis is that the adults around them think it means they cannot learn to read. That is a total myth. We routinely see every dyslexic learn to read when they get the right help. Many of the dyslexics who have finished our Easyread System process, end up in the top quarter of their class for reading.

The key is to understand what has been holding them back. You can see more about the three main causes of dyslexia here, along with how to help a child overcome each issue. Once you understand why a child has been struggling, then the solution is often simple.

David Morgan has an honours degree in mechanical engineering and a masters degree in education. David was a founding trustee of The Shannon Trust, started David Morgan Education, launched Helping Children to Read and invented trainertext visual phonics (TVP). In his spare time he likes to ski, sail and walk the hills.

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