Why being an advocate for dyslexia is so important for children

Melanie Brethour

By Melanie Brethour, Founder of Decoding Dyslexia Quebec, CERI Structured Literacy Teacher and associate of the Orton Gillingham Academy.

Photo (left to right): Jodi Snowdon (Nessy) and Melanie Brethour (Decoding Dyslexia Quebec)

Jodi Snowdon, Global Outreach Coordinator for Nessy Learning, interviews Melanie Brethour, Founder of Decoding Dyslexia Quebec to learn about her son's journey with dyslexia and educate herself on the Science of Reading.

This interview uncovers the importance of dyslexia advocacy for children and why parents need more awareness of the Science of Reading to help their child learn to read.

Melanie Brethour is a CERI Structured Literacy Classroom Teacher, an associate of the Orton Gillingham Academy, an elementary teacher, and the proud mother of a talented young son with dyslexia, Benjamin.

What inspired you to learn more about dyslexia and the Science of Reading?

I felt I knew enough about dyslexia, but unfortunately, I didn't. The students whom I worked with continued to struggle. I altered my instruction entirely from a balanced literacy to a structured literacy approach when my son was diagnosed with dyslexia at nine, I enrolled in a dyslexia 101 course when I first heard about Orton Gillingham, the science of reading, and evidence-based instruction and intervention.
I am committed to spreading awareness about dyslexia and the science of reading because if I, a special education teacher, did not know, then who else is not aware of this body of research? I want all children to have the right to read and receive evidence-based instruction and early intervention.

I am on a mission to share information, resources, and activities aligned with the research for parents and teachers.

When did you realize your son was having difficulties with literacy?

Benjamin is our firstborn, and as new parents, my husband and I did not recognize Benjamin's early signs of dyslexia. Once Benjamin entered kindergarten, he struggled to learn letter names and sounds and could not retain them, no matter how much we worked on them at home. In grade one, it was apparent that Ben struggled with his nightly readings and weekly spelling test.

No matter how much he studied for the spelling test, he would get one out of ten or often zero. We recognised that he was lagging behind his peers, so we had Benjamin evaluated by a speech and language pathologist. They could not give an official diagnosis of dyslexia then. Ben was nine when he was officially diagnosed with dyslexia.

Now as a certified Structured Literacy teacher and dyslexia advocate, what do you wish you had known back when your son first showed signs of having difficulties?

I have a tremendous amount of guilt because if I knew then what I know now, I could have supported him, advocated for him, and asked for evidence-based interventions.

My motto moving forward is Maya Angelou's "When you know better, you do better."

I wish I knew I did not need to wait for a diagnosis to get early intervention. The intervention needs to come from a reading specialist who is an expert in teaching reading and understands the science of reading and a structured literacy approach.

Looking back, I saw the early signs; he could not remember his phone number, months of the year, how to tie his shoe, and could not sound out simple words.

Ben was also taught ineffective reading strategies in school, and I was reinforcing those so-called strategies at home. When Ben would come to an unknown word, he would look at the picture, guess based on the first letter, and skip words.

These strategies are not aligned with the science of reading and are what struggling readers do.

Do you think having an awareness of dyslexia and Structured Literacy helps parents advocate for their child's needs better? If yes, how?

Yes, because I am that parent. Understanding dyslexia and what their children need to be successful in school is essential. Parents play a crucial role in their child's education, and we should be able to ask pertinent questions about their education. How are they being taught to read, what reading data can they provide, and are they using a structured literacy approach and evidence-based interventions?

It is crucial to understand that a structured literacy approach is based on the science of reading and is effective for all students, especially those with dyslexia.

What is something teachers may not realize about the serious mental health effects for children when they don’t receive early and intensive evidence-based support?

Imagine doing something difficult and struggling for most of your early academic life, yet others can do it quickly and effortlessly. They are struggling every day in your classroom. They are often the last ones to finish an assignment, nervous to read out loud in class, and constantly comparing themselves to their peers.

Dyslexia has a tremendous impact on their mental health. Teachers need to understand the challenges these students face daily and the impact and toll it takes on a student's mental health.

Have those anxieties affected your son's relationship with his peers? With situations outside of school? If so, how?

I have read about dyslexia and its connection with anxiety and self-esteem. My son is very anxious outside of school and needs reassurance to do activities. He has experienced years of frustration and limited success in reading and writing. He does not want to attempt new activities and possibly fail again.

Benjamin has made friends easily from early on. He is shy, but once he feels comfortable, he can be himself. Ben has been in special classes for the last four years with peers who also have dyslexia. I often wonder if it would be different if he were in a regular class since his peers would be proficient readers and writers.

How do you think an earlier awareness about dyslexia and Structured Literacy would have helped you to deal with your son's anxiety about school?

It is imperative to understand dyslexia and that the brain can be rewired with effective intervention and instruction. Every day I witness the effect it has on my son, yet he is twelve and has parents who advocate and support him. I would have advocated more for evidence-based intervention early on, and I am sure he would be a stronger reader today.

I have become more patient because I now understand that he is trying his best.

What advice would you like to share with parents who may be having a similar dyslexia journey as you had with your son?

If your child has dyslexia, it is not their fault or yours. They will learn to read, but we must advocate for them to get the intervention as soon as we see the signs. We also do not need to wait for a diagnosis for them to get the support they need. There are excellent organizations that will give you information and help you with this journey. I suggest parents tell their children of their diagnosis. When we told Ben about his diagnosis, it was like a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He finally understood why reading and writing were so hard.

I believe in empowering our children to know what dyslexia is and that it is not anyone's fault. It is vital to help them discover their strengths, something they enjoy doing, and we must celebrate every success.

What would you like to share with fellow teachers about helping students who may be experiencing literacy difficulties?

We can reach every student in our classroom with a structured literacy approach. Approximately 40% of my students will learn to read no matter what method or curriculum I teach. But what about the other 60%?

We must align our instruction based on the research, the science of reading, and how children learn to read. Everyone should have the right to read.

Being able to read provides our students access to a better life, more opportunities, and their overall well-being.