Dyslexia in Focus—From Diagnosis to Student Success

By Katie McKay Phillips

Dyslexia Laws in the United States Map

Recent grassroots efforts, led mainly by parents across the country meeting in coffee shops and libraries, has led to a wide-spread push by legislatures to regulate what schools are required to do to identify and then support dyslexic students. These initiatives across the country are growing and becoming more inclusive. If momentum continues, the goal is to assure all students, including dyslexic students, have every opportunity to succeed and the tools to do so.

Defining Dyslexia

High School students working on a tablet

When you think of dyslexia, what comes to mind? There is no universally accepted definition of dyslexia and even the one used most often is hotly debated.

The current International Dyslexia Association’s definition is:

“Dyslexia is 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. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

This definition is viewed as both too broad and too narrow of a scope. It can encompass students with brain trauma or educational deprivation but also leave out students with more subtle reading difficulties. A meaningful definition allows for effective and efficient communication. This definitions by IDA are the ground floor where reading research can start to build upon.


Now that time has passed and the research is complete, the need for consensus on the definition of Dyslexia persists. In the above article, Emmerson Dickman says clearly, “ The term dyslexia means many things to many people. It is used by some as an excuse to explain perceived failure and by others as a characteristic to support superiority.” and we see this disconnect in classrooms and schools across the country.

Diagnosing Dyslexia

Infographic showing that 1 in 5 people are thought to be affected by dyslexia

Getting to a dyslexia diagnosis can be the first and sometimes the biggest hurdle a student or parents of a struggling student will encounter. However, even a diagnosis doesn’t mandate eligibility for special education services. These students may not receive accommodations to help them achieve and succeed in an academic environment.


For educators, understanding dyslexia can be a difficult task. Historically, schools have been hesitant to even label a child as dyslexic, let alone provide that student the assistance they need to be successful. Schools became so disinclined to even use the word “dyslexic” that in 2015 the U.S government issued a statement— the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not prohibit educational institutions from using the term “dyslexic”. Read the full statement.

Student Growth and Success

Students in the classroom

Learning with dyslexia can be incredibly difficult in this text-heavy educational system. But new technologies and assessment methods are helping to identify the best ways to help dyslexic students. As dyslexia is not linked to intelligence, implementing accommodations that best fit how that student learns can go a long way to helping struggling learners.


Even students who are struggling the most can be incredibly successful. Pthara Jeppe is a lawyer who is extremely dyslexic and was once told she would probably never graduate high school.

“By the 3rd grade it was clear that I wasn’t able to read like the other kids. It was almost like looking at a blank piece of paper and I just cried. I remember that year I would come home and every single day, I just cried. Because I knew I was smart, and I knew… the material.”

Ptahra Jeppe a law student sits in a park using her laptop.

Finally, after the intervention of a teacher, she was able to get the multi-tiered supports that were critical to her success. She uses assistive technology to bridge the gap between her primary writing levels and her incredible capabilities. These accommodations help her navigate text and write using the sophisticated language needed in the legal profession.

Read Pthara’s Story

Here are 5 Tips for supporting dyslexic students:

  1. Close the knowledge gap: It hasn’t even been a decade since the broader educational community didn’t even believe there was such a thing as dyslexia. Stay up-to-date on what your state is doing and in the developments in the dyslexia community.
  2. Listen: This seems like a no-brainer. But validating a child’s feelings, listening to when they get upset, frustrated, or angry helps them feel seen and understood.
  3. Provide and allow the right accommodations: Providing materials and instruction geared to the specific way students with dyslexia learn best can support your students and set them up for success. Additional or differentiated material in addition to assistive technology can mean the difference between struggle and success.
  4. Evaluate and assess: Accessing the progress of dyslexic students will help when making decisions about future recommendations and accommodations. Using an assessment tool, which allows you to do this efficiently is key.
  5. Use Dyslexia friendly fonts: Dyslexic students struggle to recognize letters, so fonts with varying spacing and serifs can make it more difficult for them to read. Using fonts with equal spacing and san serif fonts will make it easier for dyslexics to follow.


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