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Christine Staley: fighting for every child’s right to read

By Daina Astwood-George • June 27, 2022Recommended Reading

Follow The Reader is our series featuring unconventional leaders and trailblazers.

Every child deserves to learn to read. Christine Staley, executive director of Dyslexia Canada, has made this her North Star and it’s hard to disagree with such a compelling mission.

Professionally, Christine is leading a national charity committed to ensuring that every child in Canada gets an equitable education. Personally, she’s raising a teenage daughter who is facing this challenge firsthand.

“People don’t realize how prevalent dyslexia actually is,” Christine notes. “It’s estimated that somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of the general population is on the dyslexia spectrum. We like to say in any average Canadian classroom, you’re going to have two or three children who have it.”

By partnering with organizations, experts and advocates, Dyslexia Canada strives to drive systemic change by engaging and educating the public, and by establishing legislation specific to recognizing and remediating dyslexia. It’s important work that’s making good progress – thanks, in large part, to a growing group of champions who have gotten very loud about the right to read.

Chances are that you are someone, or that you know someone, who has dyslexia. Hopefully you want to learn more. Here’s what you should know:

Kobo: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about people with dyslexia?

Christine Staley: Dyslexia is a hereditary learning disability. When we talk about misconceptions or myths, the biggest one is that dyslexia is reversing letters, or jumbling letters or reversing words. Certainly that’s an impact that some people face, but not all. Some will never face that, so it’s not the defining characteristic. It’s a difficulty processing information – sounds to symbols and symbols to sounds; your ability to tell time or to understand the concept of time, whether it’s minutes, years, seasons…

I always give the example of how my daughter, Kate, used to confuse lunch and dinner. When I’d say, “Did you eat lunch?” she’d say, “Which one is that again?” because of the way she processes information. It also impacts the ability to determine direction, so left and right are very confusing.

The biggest myth we want to try to fight is that someone with dyslexia can’t learn how to read. If they’re identified early and provided the proper support, they will learn.

Kobo: And if they’re not supported early?

CS: Their chances of reading, writing and spelling decreases significantly. We know that if a child is identified and provided the proper supports in kindergarten, they have more than a 90 per cent chance of reading with their peers. If it isn’t caught until grade three, it drops to less than 50 per cent. By grade five it goes down to less than 20 per cent.

Kobo: That’s a pretty aggressive decline.

CS: It is, and there are actually lots of reasons for it. One is just the way our education system is set up. From kindergarten to grade three, you’re actually learning to read. After grade three, you’re reading to learn; you’re not given that instruction anymore. You have to just jump in and try to consume the content, so it’s very difficult. After that point, there’s no direct instruction; there’s no setting up time to help kids learn.

The other thing is, if you think about learning a different language, we know that the younger a child starts with a second, third or fourth language, the easier it’s going to be for them.

Kobo: Knowing the level of support that’s required, especially at such a young age, how has the pandemic affected children with this learning disability?

CS: We know right across the board that it widens the learning gap. Not just for kids with dyslexia, but for all struggling readers and students. For those children with dyslexia, if they happened to be in a school environment that was knowledgeable about it and were provided the proper supports, they lost that opportunity. For those who may not have been in the most ideal environment anyway, there was still the issue of online learning being mostly text based. Kids didn’t have the same opportunity to be face to face with a teacher and say, “Can you please read this to me?” or “Can you please help me with this word?”, so they're falling behind even further in just the content itself.

Kobo: What are some of the systemic barriers to success in the classroom?

CS: First and foremost, it’s awareness. Teachers are doing the best with what they’ve got, but aren’t being provided with the tools, resources and knowledge they need. They can go through teacher’s college and come out at the end never having heard the word “dyslexia”, not learning about learning disabilities and not learning how to teach a child how to read (in 2022?!). Then even those who specialize in special education will probably never hear the word “dyslexia”. They may spend a little time learning about learning disabilities in general, but they won’t be given the specific instruction for how to teach that child to read.

CS: The second issue that we have is in the curriculum itself, right across Canada. Some of the provincial curriculums are better than others, but most are focused more on the enjoyment of reading and this belief that if a child is just immersed in quality literature that excites them, they will learn. For a significant number of children, that’s true, but for the 20 per cent who have dyslexia, they will never learn that way. So the curriculum needs to match how children need to be taught to read.

Some kids need very specific learning goals, and it doesn't just help those kids with dyslexia. We now know – and the science is very clear – that if you teach a child phonics, for instance, that would be a really great start. Every child would benefit if that was brought back.

Kobo: Why do you think we stopped teaching phonics? (Who else remembers those “hooked on phonics” campaigns??)

CS: There was a body of knowledge – and it’s still out there and it’s still very popular – that believes immersion is the best way to teach a child to read. And phonics isn’t fun, it’s boring! So you have disengaged kids if you don’t put in the extra effort to make phonics fun, but it can be done. The majority of research now points to the fact that kids need very explicit and systematic teaching of their sounds, vowels, consonants, how to blend them together, and how to sound out words.

Kobo: What is significant about the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read report?

CS: We’ve been told that it’s the most thorough investigation into the right to read in Canada. The sheer number of recommendations they’ve made span from the roles and responsibilities of teachers colleges to the ministry to school boards to teachers…they made sure they tackled the entire system.

The other significant thing about it is that they came right out and said that learning to read is a fundamental human right, and I think we needed that because it’s being denied to a large section of our population.

Kobo: Why did it take so long to get here?

CS: It’s really the lack of awareness. I think a lot of people just thought they’re struggling readers, there’s not much you can do. It was acceptable to have 20 per cent of children not reaching benchmark levels – actually, the Ontario report says it’s one in three kids not reading at benchmark – and that was acceptable because Canada is still one of the better countries when it comes to literacy rates. So instead of saying one in three kids are failing, we were saying two in three are passing. Let’s change that conversation. It is unacceptable in this day and age that we have that many kids who aren’t learning to read or who aren’t reading to their potential.

The other thing is that we now have a groundswell of parents who are fed up. There have been a lot of very loud moms, dads and teachers who saw that these kids could do better and that there was a better way. We just got loud enough, so now we’re starting to see change.

Kobo: How are you helping people to understand what living with dyslexia is like and why is that important?

CS: We run a few general awareness campaigns and two of them specifically have been targeted to the general public. Last year we partnered with an international advertising company to launch the world’s hardest-to-read website. We’re not trying to pretend that this is what dyslexia looks like for everybody, but it gives you a sense of how frustrating and how laborious reading can be.

This year we launched our second campaign, a play on Wordle. We basically said, “Ok, you like a word challenge? Well if you have dyslexia, it’s a word challenge every day.” So it’s starting to make the rounds and it’s geared towards the general public.

In addition to that, we launched Dyslexia Awareness Month five years ago. Internationally it’s recognized in October, and in most other countries, the word”dyslexia” is used and there’s legislation to support kids who have it. In Canada we don’t have that, unfortunately. We use the umbrella term “learning disability”, which encompasses several different conditions and is why teachers don’t really learn about it. So we launched our awareness campaign, Mark It Read, where we light up monuments and buildings in red for one day in October, and we also have a photo contest where kids will dress in red or take pictures of something red, and we do a lot of programming, a lot of webinars and some live events.

It’s not just about bringing general public awareness, it’s about bringing the community together. That’s actually a more powerful aspect of the campaign – kids across the country who thought they were alone and thought they were the only ones with dyslexia are now finding out that they’re not; there are thousands.

Kobo: How would you like to see audiobooks integrated into or better leveraged in classrooms?

CS: There are a couple of ways that audiobooks can be used. They’re not the cure for dyslexia, but they’re definitely a tool that can be used to support a child who’s struggling to read or who’s just learning how to read.

Everyone loves to be told a story. It’s engaging to listen and to let your imagination run wild, but for a younger child who’s just learning to read, being able to listen while following along with the words has actually been proven to increase their capacity to learn how to read, to sound out certain letters, or to put those letters together to form a word. It’s pretty useful to combine them.

I would love to see audiobooks brought into the classroom as a way to make stories and reading more inclusive and accessible for all. If we could just normalize the use of audiobooks, someone like Kate – who’s in grade eight, who would love to read the big novels that other 13-year-olds are reading, but would never be able to keep up – can now actually read the same books and talk about them with her friends. Audiobooks allow her to be part of the conversation and part of a community of readers, and that’s the only way she would be able to participate.

Kobo: What are some of Kate’s favourite stories?

CS: Right now she’s into a lot of graphic novels, but prior to that she loved science fiction and fantasy. One thing about those genres, though, is that they can be very difficult for someone with dyslexia because there are a lot of made-up words. One word that stumps you might just derail that whole paragraph, so being able to listen provides a bit of a gateway.

Right now she’s reading Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly. She has the book, and is attempting to eye read it, but we have the audio in case it gets too tiring. Also, a friend of hers is reading Divergent by Veronica Roth and she would like to try it. It’s big, though, so she has her name on the waitlist to get the audiobook from the library.

(In a follow-up email, Christine shared a list of all of the titles that Kate would like to audio read this summer…looks like it’s going to be a busy couple of months filled with tons of adventure! I love to see it. Find them all below):

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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