The Invisible Dyslexics

February 2003 / Abell Reports / Education

How public school systems in Baltimore and elsewhere discriminate against poor children in the diagnosis and treatment of early reading difficulties.

Our nation’s general failure to diagnose and treat early reading difficulties is disproportionately harmful to poor and minority students. At least 20 percent of the children in Baltimore City public schools and other large urban districts can be called “invisible dyslexics.” Though definitions of dyslexia vary, it is usually understood to mean difficulties in learning to read. “Invisible dyslexics” are children whose academic futures are doomed because their problems in learning to read are either diagnosed too late and treated too little, or not diagnosed or treated at all.

The delay in early diagnosis and treatment has disastrous academic consequences. Many students with mild or severe reading difficulties will require supplemental instruction throughout their K-12 schooling. Yet research shows that for almost all of them reading by first grade (or “reading by seven”) is a make-or-break turning point. Children who fall behind early rarely catch up.

This report recommends specific steps to uproot and remedy this hidden discrimination against poor and minority children. First and foremost, the right to early diagnosis and treatment of reading difficulties must be recognized and pursued with the urgency and moral clarity of civil rights causes of the past. The struggle must assure, as early as pre-kindergarten, that children do not fall behind in achieving developmentally appropriate reading milestones. Students at risk or experiencing difficulties must be screened, taught using research-proven reading programs, assessed frequently, and provided with intensive supplemental instruction as needed. There must be “zero tolerance” for early reading deficits. And the Baltimore City Public School System has an opportunity to play a trail-blazing role.

The obstacles are formidable. But they pale in contrast to the tens of thousands of poor and minority children in Baltimore City and the millions across the country who will remain permanently left behind if their early reading difficulties are not diagnosed and treated. This invisible injustice can be overcome by concerted federal, state and local action. Only then will our nation fulfill the right of every child to a secure foothold on the ladder to academic success.