What shared characteristics have I observed among 2e kids who are both gifted and dyslexic?
1. These 2e students tend to become acutely aware of their disability at an early age. I’ve known a few who recognized it before their teachers. Even those with some degree of attention problems are astute at noticing patterns of learning and behavior in their classroom. They see that most kids are reading and writing without too much difficulty. They expect to do the same or even perform better than average (as they do in other subjects), but that doesn’t happen. Which leads us to the next point.
2. These kids usually suffer what I call “body blows” to their self-esteem. They typically conclude that they must be stupid for not reading with ease. After all, they are often curious and eager learners, perhaps excellent in math, and yet they are stymied in reading. They are likely to be a puzzle to their teachers (and parents), who may think they aren’t trying hard enough. Some of these kids will continue their struggle to master reading, while others will head off into the land of “I’d rather look silly/ mean/ cool than stupid.” When I was talking to a middle school student who was disrupting his classes, he was straightforward: no one was going to see that he couldn’t read well, so he effectively stopped all work in the room! (It is very sad that he is still struggling….) The child who continues to work hard at reading is often absorbing an ongoing sense of defeat. They lose sight of their strengths in the midst of this unexpected failure.
3. These students have strengths and weaknesses that mask one another. For instance, many dyslexic kids memorize a LOT of words. Unless they are taught phonics systematically (along with phonological skills), they rely heavily upon beginning letter sound and visual similarity to other words. Because they are bright (often in verbal reasoning), they can make good sense of a text even if they misread a high number of words. Teachers and parents may assume these kids are doing fine. Teachers will reassure parents of kindergarten and first graders that it is common for kids to memorize books they read, which is true. But the 2e kid is memorizing to the exclusion of other skills, especially if they are not being taught other skills. Eventually this student’s brain cannot accommodate the number of visually similar words, usually by third grade, depending upon the type of reading instruction provided. This masking of underlying phonological difficulties leaves the brighter students with average but not failing grades in reading. Again, the discrepancy between these kids’ abilities and performance is unexpected for both students and parents. Granted, a student may be gifted in one area and not another, but when you carefully assess the dyslexic’s reading skills, you see the typical delays with sound manipulation.
4. These kids will eventually struggle with writing, which is the flip-side of the reading coin. In fact, their writing problems may be more evident than the reading ones. If a student cannot decode effectively, they will struggle with encoding, which is the translation of those letter-sound relationships, as well as sound order, into a written form. At least in reading, these kids can make it through a book. In writing, unless they can copy something, they may end up with words which they are unable to reread themselves. It is one type of skill to recognize a word when you have context; it is altogether different to create that word without effective phonological and phonics skills. When given prompts to “stretch” out a word, these are the kids who will add numerous additional vowels and consonants as they spell. They are much better served by prompts to “tap” or segment sounds as they write. Despite the best prompts, these 2e kids do not come close to approximating their verbal fluency. In fact, they may spend a considerable amount of time trying to think of easily spelled synonyms for words or phrases. Now that takes some effort- and brains!
5. These twice exceptional kids are often anxious. They did not likely start out that way, but the world of learning has been turned on its head. School used to be easy or should be easy but something has gone wrong. Unless they are identified early, these kids will continue to bang their heads against a wall in reading. Early identification increases their chance of reading success and may decrease anxiety as they begin to understand how they learn best. For some kids, anxiety is not reduced despite early intervention. The gifted side of these kids may still rail internally against their own learning “failures.” They remember each agonizing reading session where they had to read out loud, stumbling through words. They relive each miserable writing session, where the empty paper conjured up despair at not being able to communicate their creative ideas. If they have not already wandered into that land (see point #2 above) of “I’d rather be..,” they will most likely take out their frustration in some other venue. They may develop school anxieties or even phobias or become depressed, aggressive at recess or lunch, or disrespectful to teachers.
The worst case scenario: Teachers and/or parents do not recognize the “dyslexic side” of the twice exceptional student. That leads everyone to ask: Why isn’t this kid doing what is expected? The wrong answers include: attention problems, laziness, behavior problems, and emotional disorders.
The best case scenario: Teachers and parents recognize the duality of this kid’s functioning. This leads everyone to ask: Are we teaching reading effectively for this child? How can we help this student feel better about himself or herself? How can we provide opportunities for this child to shine? How can we provide engaging and creative learning opportunities? What modifications and accommodations can we put in place to support this child?