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A Space “Full of Something I Can’t Do”

Published onJul 30, 2023
A Space “Full of Something I Can’t Do”

Approximately 20% of students in Washington State have a language-based learning difference. How can libraries support the one-in-five students for whom the library is a space “full of something I can’t do?”1

What is dyslexia? 

Dyslexia is a language-based learning difference (LBLD). The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as 

a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.2

Recent functional MRI imaging research allows scientists to see activity in the brain. For individuals with dyslexia, brain activity is limited in two areas of the brain essential to the task of reading. As a result, the imaging also shows that the dyslexic brain works five times as hard to decode words and make meaning.3

A bright library space with shelving on two walls and five mobile shelving units.

HRS Middle School library features fiction genres on mobile shelves.

How do students with dyslexia experience the library? 

If you don’t have an LBLD, consider the library space from the lens of someone with dyslexia. All those wonderful and enriching books on your shelves may not feel like magical portals into new worlds if previous experience with reading has been a struggle. The idea of just enjoying a book might be foreign to you. Every reading experience requires so much work!

Next, consider how your space is organized and the steps required to locate items: teeny tiny spine labels full of letters and numbers in a specific sequence, rows and rows of books in alphabetical order, signage with lots of text meant to help navigate the space. Imagine how daunting this would be and how much effort it would take just to find a book.

On top of this, it is likely you are in the library with your class peers, many of whom don't struggle in the same way. Maybe you don’t want them to know you can’t read like everyone else seems to be able to do. What coping strategies do you think you might use? Humor? Distraction through disruption? Feigning disinterest?

Five ways libraries can empower LBLD students: 

  1. Evaluate signage. Can you use pictures, visual information?

  2. Organize your library into smaller “chunks”- consider genrefication.

  3. Normalize various book formats. Graphic Novels, audiobooks, and alternative sources of information all count as reading.

  4. Weed regularly so students can search for and find high-quality books and have their efforts rewarded. 

  5. Become your building’s dyslexia/LBLD expert and advocate! Our school website is full of resources to get anyone started:

Danielle smiles at the camera in an office setting with long, brown hair that is curled at the ends.
Danielle Melilli moved to Seattle from California where she spent the first 15 years of her library career at an independent school library. Last school year, she joined the Hamlin Robinson School (HRS) faculty in their mission to "ignite the academic and creative potential of students with dyslexia."
Claire smiles at the camera in an office setting with long brown hair and a blue, V-neck top.
Claire Elam started her education career in 2006 teaching middle school humanities in the Seattle area. In 2019, she transitioned to the role of Middle School Librarian which is now her role at HRS. Her son has dyslexia and is an HRS student who is finally thriving at school.
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