Perspectives from a North Carolina Teen with Dyslexia

Decoding Dyslexia North Carolina was honored to have an incredible young woman, rising high school senior Grayson, reach out to us about sharing her own experiences and helping others with dyslexia. She graciously shared her personal journey and insights as a child with dyslexia, along with advice and encouragement for other children and teens who are struggling with literacy. Below are her responses to our interview questions.

What age were you when your family or teachers first suspected that you were having difficulty with reading? What signs did they see?
“My mother was the first person who suspected I was having difficulty learning to read. I was in kindergarten, and my teacher had been assigning early reader books to read at home and then to her in class. When I sat down with my teacher, I would ask her to read the book to me again, and then I would “read” it back to her. She would award a gold star for each book that I read to her. My class was in a race to see who would get all their required gold stars first on the chart she had tacked on the wall. Plus, our teacher told us that in order to get promoted to the first grade we would each need to earn all of the required stars. I was earning my gold stars quickly. But I was not able to fool my mother as easily. She would read a book to me and then ask me to read it to her. She noticed that I was not reading word for word what was on the page, and if she pointed to a word, I could not read it or even sound out the letters (even if the word was as simple as “the”). I was memorizing the story and used the illustrations on a page as prompts. At first, I thought that all the other kids in my class were reading the same way. But I soon realized that they were learning how to read random words pointed out or written on the board and I could not.” 

What do you recall about your early experience with learning to read, prior to receiving intervention support? Did you experience any negative emotions or frustrating situations?
“I had loved children’s books and the idea of reading up until that point. I have great memories of being so happy when my mother brought me and my sister to Barnes & Noble. I loved being read to during story hours, and I loved sitting at the small tables and going through books, looking at the fun illustrations imagining what the words must be saying. Before the learning to read stage of kindergarten, I was very curious, confident, and social. I loved to learn and try anything. This all changed when I realized I did not have the same reading skills that my classmates and my older sister had. I remember thinking that I must not be as smart as them. It was soul-crushing and made me feel different and not as good as everyone else. My dyslexia-induced issues were made even more difficult because I also had ADHD. I had always been a very “high-energy” kid, affecting my ability to sit still. Staying focused and engaged when trying to learn how to learn to read seemed impossible.” 

When did you begin receiving reading intervention? What was your experience like?
“I was fortunate to have been able to get diagnosed when I was 6 years old – years earlier than most people with dyslexia. Despite glowing end-year comments by my kindergarten teacher, my mother was concerned by my fake reading and found a specialized psychologist to test and evaluate my reading and writing skills. The test results revealed that my reading and phonic awareness abilities were in the 10th percentile for my age, while my intelligence was in the 98th percentile. My parents knew I was going to need help to catch up to my peers’ reading abilities. I struggled with reading in general and specifically with word and letter recognition. My primary diagnosis was phonological dyslexia, meaning I had difficulty processing sounds of letters which significantly impacted my ability to read and spell.

I was again fortunate because there was a school specializing in learning challenges right across the street from my own school. I was enrolled in The Hill Center from first grade until the 4th grade, spending every morning there in a small class of just 4 students and receiving specialized instruction in reading, writing, and math. I also had a speech therapist and a tutor I met with regularly after school until middle school. I knew I needed the help, but I was frustrated and even angry that I needed it. I was not the only child who took the van every day before lunchtime back to my school, but it was stressful to walk into my class when they were in the middle of a lesson and miss out on whatever activity they did in the morning. I had homework from both The Hill Center and my school, which also made me frustrated, though I would have struggled more with my homework if my English class had not been at The Hill Center.

I don’t remember my teachers or parents using the term dyslexia until I was almost out of lower school. It was just explained to me that some kids learn to read differently. Despite everyone avoiding the label of dyslexia and not describing my difficulty with learning to read as negative, I felt a perceived stigma that made me feel embarrassed, especially around other students in my grade. My challenges with reading and writing made me less confident in all my abilities, and I became shy and terrified of being called on in class and having to speak or read aloud. I was always afraid I would not be able to read a word or mispronounce it and would be laughed at by other students. Even though I can’t recall that ever happening, the fear was always there throughout all my years of school and is something I still sometimes feel.”

As a high school student, what is your experience like now with reading, writing, and spelling? Are there any challenges that you are experiencing?
“Despite always getting good grades in school, I only recently feel confident in my writing and ability to speak in front of a class. Until this past year as a junior in high school, the very thought of speaking in class would give me a panic attack. My biggest fear was that the teacher would call on me without me raising my hand and I would mess up a word or a sentence. I worried I would look not as smart as my classmates. I can still experience the panic and lack of confidence I did when I was younger.

Honestly, I am not sure if those deep-seated feelings will ever completely go away. My challenges with dyslexia have made it difficult to enjoy reading, so I have read far fewer books in my life than most of my friends without dyslexia. I could never understand people like my sister who read books on their own that aren’t mandatory school reading. But, I realize that you can learn to love reading just like you can learn to read. It takes practice and commitment. And I realize now that reading of any kind -whether it is books, magazines, newspapers, or even blogs – helps build your vocabulary, improve your spelling and writing style, and broadens your perspectives and ideas. But even knowing this, it can still be very difficult for me to get motivated and stay focused long enough to read as much and as often as I should.”

How has your experience with dyslexia impacted you, both as a young child and now? 
“I am one of the estimated 20% of the population who is living with dyslexia. I say “living with” because though my experiences with dyslexia have most certainly shaped who I am, it does not define who I am. Dyslexia affects everyone differently and it affects so much more in your life than just school.  Having dyslexia can be very frustrating to deal with, and it was especially difficult when I was in lower school and was struggling to learn to read and write and wanted to be like my classmates who didn’t have the same challenges. Feeling behind in reading and writing can be a very lonely struggle – especially when you are surrounded by kids your age who seem to learn to read and write with a lot less effort. I have worked hard to improve my writing and reading skills, but I still am not at a point where I can say I love to read or read books for pleasure. It takes effort and I push myself to read more so I can improve my vocabulary and writing skills. I focus on topics that really interest me and get books related to those areas. I know that my reading and writing skills are still evolving. I have also had to learn how to adjust my expectations of myself. 

I took pride in my advanced math skills when I was in lower school. Math was much easier than reading and writing and I was sure math was going to be my special talent –  until I began taking more advanced math in high school. Dyslexia impacts my ability to work well with graphs and symbols, and math has become the subject that I now struggle with to get top grades. I have also always wanted to learn another language but found Spanish and then Latin to be extremely difficult because of my challenges with phonics and grammar. But I switched to taking Chinese last year and to my surprise, my memorization skills have made me a great Chinese language student. 

I believe that it would have helped my younger self so much if I could have met someone a few years older who also experienced challenges with reading and became a successful student who overcame so many of the obstacles dyslexia can create. I look back on my struggles with dyslexia and see them as life experiences that make me better and stronger for having had them. My experiences have given me empathy for others facing adversity and the negative effects of stigmatizing labels and common misconceptions. They have given me the voice to advocate for others (and myself) and the goal to create change – particularly with education policy and how our society values investing in students of all income levels who have learning differences.” 

What advice would you give to a child who is struggling to learn to read?

  1. First and most importantly, know that dyslexia has nothing to do with your intelligence, ability, or potential. This can be hard to internalize and believe. 

  2. More and more schools are implementing neurodiversity programs and offer accommodations. Take advantage of every accommodation and extra support/tutoring that is available to you. Accommodations not only help young students struggling to learn to read and write. They are invaluable as you become a more senior student and classes and exams become more reading/ reading comprehension/ writing heavy.  There were times when I tried not to utilize my accommodations because I wanted to prove to myself I didn’t need them or because I was embarrassed to leave the classroom to take my exam in the separate room with extra time. I regret almost every time I did that. Accommodations help you perform your best and excel.  Accommodations at school are very common and students at every age accept their classmates who need and take advantage of them. 

  3. Stand out! Seek out older student and adult mentors, particularly those who also have dyslexia. Dyslexia can be very lonely – but it does not have to be. You will be surprised by how many kids and adults you know who also have dyslexia. They will empower you. And become a mentor to younger students with dyslexia. Being a mentor at camps and at school to younger kids with dyslexia made me feel more confident and capable and shaped my interests in public policy and educational justice for college and my future career.

  4. Lastly, be kind to yourself. Accept that some things are not going to come as easy for you as they seem to for other students and your siblings. That is frustrating and seems very unfair. For so long I wished I did not have dyslexia and it made me angry. As I have gotten older, I have realized that for all the difficulty that dyslexia causes, it also gives me unique perspectives and approaches. People with dyslexia are known to be great problem solvers.  We have a lot of experience figuring out unique ways to approach everyday and unique challenges. Many colleges and employers view dyslexia and neurodiversity as a positive attribute that would improve the diversity of their community.