Into my office walked Charles—a 6’2” sculpted football player from Mississippi with a cherubic face and infectious smile. After some small talk, I asked Charles what he wanted to do. He said, “All I want to do is learn and find a way to give back to my family and community.” Charles was reading at a second grade level, and was asked to take a certificate of attendance from his high school because he didn’t meet the requirements for graduation. We tested Charles, we knew we could teach him, and we gave him a scholarship to Landmark School, a learning community for students with language-based learning disabilities.
Charles was the gentlest powerhouse of a young person I had ever met. He immediately reached out to other students who were sitting alone in the dining room, helped a faculty member to move into an apartment, and did anything and everything asked of him. Charles took total advantage of our 1:1 tutorial, small classes, and case management system, and was proud of his steady growth as a learner. On graduation day, Charles walked across the stage to thunderous applause. He took his diploma, enveloped me in a bear hug, and proceeded across the stage with arms raised high above his head. Now a college graduate and businessman, Charles shares his same gifts with his broader community and has found many ways to give back.
Dyslexic students like Charles are truly gifted. I have found that maintaining a "whole to part" perspective helps to create an understanding of students with dyslexia. They are intelligent, creative, and capable of thinking out of the box and seeing the big picture. What they struggle with are the parts or the details. Many of these students have incredible thoughts trapped in their heads, but are unable to share their knowledge—or finished schoolwork— with teachers. Most often, they are highly motivated, yet very frustrated—understanding that this characteristic exists for so many learners is critical for teachers.
Students with dyslexia tend to have relative weaknesses in processing speed and working memory; they generally struggle in traditional classrooms because their skills do not match their cognitive potential. Frustrated by challenges with expressive language and executive function, these students begin to lose hope – hope for succeeding in school, hope for graduating with their class, hope for continuing their education beyond high school. Many describe themselves as feeling dumb or stupid because they cannot keep up with their classmates.
At Landmark, we use a diagnostic/prescriptive approach to teaching. Based on testing and practice, teachers work to understand individual cognitive and learning strengths and weaknesses, and identify specific methods and strategies. Through this process, we teach students who they are as learners, and capitalize on students’ cognitive abilities to abstract and generalize by teaching them to be scientists of their own learning. This meta-cognitive process engages students in understanding how to learn, to think about thinking, and to learn about learning. As one student aptly stated, “The light bulbs began to flash in my brain as I realized that I was actually understanding the content and why I could get it, when I couldn’t before. Now I know what to do to succeed!”
I am so fortunate to be have been part of Landmark since 1971—I have done virtually every job except cook!—and my passion for helping students with dyslexia goes beyond our campus. Though Landmark’s school model can’t be easily duplicated, I believe that our teaching methods and use of language and learning skills are transportable to any classroom anywhere. Landmark has consulted with hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers to help them better integrate these students into a regular classroom.
In the United States, 15 to 20 percent of our school-aged children struggle with reading and language processing challenges. The Learning Disabilities Association of America cites that 38.7 percent of students with learning disabilities drop out of high school, which is twice the rate of their non-LD peers, and only 51 percent of students with learning disabilities graduate from high school. As dramatic as these statistics are, it is equally clear and powerful to me that these same students can and do learn in the appropriate environment.
So how does one diagnose if a student has dyslexia or a language-based disability? While a comprehensive evaluation is, without question, the most effective tool for diagnosis and appropriate intervention decisions, it may not be readily available or practical for every student. I believe that parents know their children best, and that diagnostic/prescriptive measures help teachers know when there is a discrepancy between a child’s potential and performance. Your student may have dyslexia if he has high levels of disorganization; difficulties remembering information from one day to the next, maintaining letter-sound relationships, or coherently expressing ideas; or difficulties following multi-step directions due to short-term memory issues. A real-life example would be parents who ask their child to retrieve a specific thing from a bedroom, only to have the child come back without anything. When asked, the child says, “I forgot what I was supposed to get.”
In reality, most students diagnosed with language-based learning disabilities are not disabled; rather, they are "dis-enabled" by school systems that do not see these learners for who they are, nor teach them according to their needs. General education teachers work hard at their craft; however, due either to a lack of skills or the need to respond to too many mandates, most teachers do not take full responsibility to understand and teach to the diverse range of learners in their classrooms.
Nonetheless, many—but not enough—public and private school teachers have developed assessments to determine what their students can and cannot, what they are good at, and what skills they lack to complete assignments and tasks. And then, they teach the skills that their students need to be successful.
This approach helps every student in the classroom, especially students who struggle most and are frequently labeled as learning disabled. A paradigm shift can take place where teachers more regularly focus on the functional skills that their students need in order to learn the content curriculum. Teaching students how to take notes and keep notebooks, how to read a chapter, or how to understand cause and effect relationships are examples of skills that help students learn content. It takes no additional materials or funds to teach skills within the classroom, and when teachers begin to teach how as opposed to what, a higher percentage of students are able to learn the content because they develop skills applicable to all classes and assignments.
If students in the United States are guaranteed a free and appropriate education, it is our civil responsibility to acknowledge the diversity of learners in our classrooms—and acknowledge that they not only can learn, but also that it is our mandate to teach them who they are as learners and how to learn. It is our civic responsibility to create a stronger and broader base of independent, self-confident, self-advocating citizens who contribute to the workforce, give back to our society, and help empower our own democracy.
Charles and I had a long-time standing joke that we should arm wrestle before he graduated form Landmark—a joke because I am not a big man. The day before graduation, we passed each other in the dining room and knowingly stopped, nodded our heads, and sat down at a table for our much-anticipated match. Charles grimaced for half a nanosecond before bringing my arm down in relatively gentle fashion. His mammoth smile broke out and we hugged.
At the end of each school year, I can’t help but think of Charles and what that arm wrestling match meant for him—for all students with dyslexia. It really was a metaphor for Charles no longer having to wrestle with school. Through his determination and a focused and caring learning environment, he could now champion himself on with magnificent confidence and a bright, wide smile.
Do not ever give up, do not let anyone tell you that your students with dyslexia cannot learn, and most of all, work to understand the amazing gifts that these students bring to your classroom.
Landmark School Resources:
VISIT: Official website
EXPLORE: Resources & professional development opportunities on dyslexia
READ: Landmark 360 blog: Thoughts on the art and science of learning
Bob Broudo wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Bob is the president and headmaster of Landmark School, a school for students with language-based learning disabilities, in Prides Crossing, MA. Bob and his wife, Maida, have a blended family consisting of seven children, ages 35 to 17, three dogs and a cat. Bob is often inspired by his father, who, at the age of 91, still paints every day.