The Dyslexic Prom Queen

Slipping through the gender cracks in secret

by Ellen Hurst

Once upon a time there lived a beautiful prom queen. This prom queen possessed all the requisite physical characteristics that one might expect in a fantasy queen. She had golden tresses, blue eyes, porcelain skin and a perfect white smile. She gave the illusion of developed sexuality without denying the possibility of innocence. She was a combination of loner and outsider. She had the ability to mediate conflicts within her high school population because she had the genius of communication. She could be characterized as a cultural heroine in that she unified the individual and the group.

Our prom queen differs significantly in one aspect of her life. She lived with a secret that she kept hidden throughout her school years. This young woman walked into my office and set my research into motion. This vision of perfection had one veiled flaw. She was an undiagnosed dyslexic.  

The majority of teachers in today’s workforce are white, female and middle class. Teachers of color comprise about 16 percent of the teaching force in the United States. In addition, pre-service, as well as in-service teachers, have little experience with children with learning differences or from cultures and languages different from their own.

Our call as advocates is to determine the particular attributes, skills, and dispositions that are needed to increase the probability that all teachers will be able to deliver an academically appropriate pedagogy to stop the industrial mentality of turning out products, flaws and all.

With the advent of Response to Intervention (RTI), all teachers are mandated with the task of meeting the educational needs of all children. General educators are understandably uncertain regarding their level of preparation for their new role of delivering differentiated pedagogy. New research must focus on how well we are preparing teacher candidates with the theoretical understandings and pedagogical skills necessary to meet different learning needs and styles of our children.

This call to arms to change how and what we are doing to our students must be shouted from the rooftops, “Something is rotten in the state of American education.”  I can’t help but suspect that unequal treatment of cisgendered children may have something to do with a collective failure to adequately educate all of our children.

The statistics are grim. Boys are kept back in schools at twice the rate of girls. Boys get expelled from preschool nearly five times more often than girls. Boys are diagnosed with learning disorders and attention problems at nearly four times the rate of girls. They do less homework and get a greater proportion of the low grades. Boys are more likely to drop out of school, and make up only 43 percent of college students. Furthermore, boys are nearly three times as likely as girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Considering 11 percent of U.S. children –6.4 million in all – have been diagnosed with ADHD, that’s a lot of boys bouncing around U.S. classrooms.

Boys do not suffer alone. Many undiagnosed dyslexic girls enter the Literacy “closet” early in life, spending childhood years anxiously avoiding classroom participation in oral reading for fear of embarrassment and disclosure. Because girls tend to be affiliative by nature, the fear of possible peer rejection results in sustained levels of anxiety. Carried further, this fear of disclosure may curtail participation in typical literacy activities such as note writing, emailing, blogging and yearbook signing.

All of us share the common goal of providing equitable learning opportunities for every student in every classroom. This daunting task cannot ignore the elephant in the room  -  gender. A new study on gender disparities in elementary-school performance examines both the objective and subjective aspects of this deteriorating academic performance (Conwell, Mustard & Van Parys, 2012). Surprisingly, they show that:

…the grades awarded by teachers are not aligned with test scores. Girls in every racial category outperform boys on reading tests, while boys score at least as well on math and science tests as girls. However, boys in all racial categories across all subject areas are not represented in grade distributions where their test scores would predict. Boys who perform equally as well as girls on reading, math and science tests are graded less favorably by their teachers, but this less favorable treatment essentially vanishes when non-cognitive skills are taken into account. For some specifications, there is evidence of a grade ―bonus for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts. (Conwell, Mustard & Van Parys, 2012, p.1).

This seems to defy the logic of assessment. It appears to be blatant discrimination. There were some exceptions to this puzzling phenomenon.  Teachers didn’t downgrade boys who had identical test scores to girls… on one condition. Boys that shared the girls’ positive attitude toward learning received the same grade. The well-socialized boys received a higher grade for good behavior.

To summarize, boys who match girls on both test scores and behavior get better grades than girls. Boys who match girls on both test scores but have bad behavior are graded more harshly. This means that the issue of what to do with underperforming students just became much more complicated.

Gender is a significant factor at play in determining performance in reading and writing. Yet, it is not the only factor. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the differences among boys and among girls are greater than the differences between boys and girls. We must be careful not to focus on the gender differences between students, but rather to recognize that the effectiveness of certain approaches in literacy instruction may be tied to gender. If we keep this focus, we will be better able to provide appropriate and equitable opportunities for both boys and girls.

There are four distinct categories of students who don’t read:

  • The dormant reader: “I’m too busy right now!”
  • The uncommitted reader: “I might be a reader, someday.”
  • The unmotivated reader: “I’m never gonna like it!”
  • The disabled reader: “It doesn’t make sense.”

By understanding these views, we can gain greater insight into why some students choose not to read. The frightening fact is as students get older, they increasingly describe themselves as non-readers. Few have this attitude early in their schooling, but nearly 50 percent describe themselves as non-readers by the time they enter secondary school. The downward spiral continues as students in middle school reported fewer social supports, less self-efficacy, and lower intrinsic motivation—the internal desire to attain academic goals.

My study of gender and dyslexia began some years ago when the Dyslexic Prom Queen courageously walked into my office. Long before I met her, I had many years working as a reading specialist. Many days have been filled with conversations with parents in which they report they have been told that their child’s reading delay was due to nothing more than a developmental lag. They are told to give it some time and their child will eventually catch up.

When a kindergartener confuses letters, associates the wrong sound with a letter, or cannot distinguish a rhyme, it usually has nothing to do with social maturity. Please do not accept the developmental lag excuse that has been used for generations. If your intuition tells you something is not right, do not wait to seek help.

The National Institutes of Health state that ninety-five percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive appropriate early intervention. Of course, it is still possible to help an older child with reading, but children beyond third grade require much more frequent and intensive help. The longer you wait to get help for a child with reading difficulties, the harder it will be for the child to catch up.

Seventy-five percent of children receiving intervention at age nine or later continue to struggle throughout their school careers. Waiting until fourth grade, rather than taking action in kindergarten, will only make the task of remediation more complex and time intensive. It will take four times as long to obtain equivalent results.

Awareness of the red flags of reading disability is the first step to an early and accurate diagnosis. Those red flags will be the subject of my last in this series on Literacy. In the meantime, get up on your rooftop and do some shouting.

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