Implementing a Robust Dyslexia Program
A next step in advancing District 742’s Reading Program
A next step in advancing District 742’s Reading Program
At the District 742 Board of Education August workshop, we spent considerable time listening to a presentation on work being done in the District to implement an evidenced based reading program to address students with dyslexia. While estimates of the number of students impacted by dyslexia vary, a reasonable estimate of the number of students who are impacted is about 9%. In our district, that would mean about 900 students. Some of these students are identified as eligible for special education. But some students are not identified, and may not qualify under current practices.
The good news is that there is overwhelming evidence that if teachers and parents are trained to recognize the symptoms, those students can make dramatic improvement in their reading proficiency, and unlock unrealized potential for the rest of their lives. One of the key concepts that Superintendent Jett and his team have advanced is that our students can do better when we use evidenced based practices in the classroom. Our current paradigm is that when a teacher implements evidenced based practices, when we provide them with the right materials, the right leadership, and when they get the time and support they need to improve their techniques, significant progress results.
Our new efforts in addressing Dyslexia is another step in an attempt to implement modern research based techniques to assure that every student achieves her reading potential. Three years ago, our district leadership asked the Board of Education to support a major new initiative to improve our reading program. The new leadership in our teaching and learning department told us that we needed to provide teachers with a completely new more modern set of textbooks and a new and more modern coordinated curriculum. They said if we wanted to realize significantly improved results for all students, we needed to change how we teach, how we prepare to teach, and we need to do a better job of intervening with students who aren’t making progress. During the last several years, the Board has supported the investment of over a million dollars in new texts and related materials. Major changes have been implemented in instructional practices, teaching methods, and the leadership of teachers. We aren’t where we need to be yet, but we have seen significant measurable results.
Here are some examples:
- In the last three years, the percentage of black non English Second Language students scoring proficiency on the MCA-III standardized test has risen by eleven percentage points, a gain of 42%.
- In the last three years, the proficiency rates of white free and reduced lunch students, white non-free and reduced lunch students, and white non-special education students has increased 5, 6, and 7 percentage points respectively.
- At Talahi, non-ELL black students reading proficiency rates have tripled.
At our last workshop, we learned that this year, the District is launching another effort that we expect will make a huge impact on a significant number of students who face leading challenges, students who have dyslexia.
What is Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that 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. When a child is dyslexic, a deficit within the language system at the level of the phonological module impairs his or her ability to segment the written word into its underlying phonological components.
This explanation of dyslexia is referred to as the phonological model, or sometimes as the phonological deficit hypothesis.
Different combinations of just 44 phonemes produce every word in the English language. The word “cat,” for example, consists of three phonemes: “kuh,” “aah,” and “tuh.” Phoneme, defined as the smallest meaningful segment of language, is the fundamental element of the linguistic system. In a student with dyslexia, a deficit in phonological processing impairs decoding, prevents word identification. But usually language processes involved in comprehension and meaning are intact, they cannot be called into play, because they can be accessed only after a word has been identified.
So, with the right approach to specialized instruction, students with dyslexia can learn to unlock the phonological codes of the written word in ways that transform them from poor readers to good readers. The payoff for this transformation is enormous, because reading is essential for all sorts of other learning, and poor reading ability can create a domino effect that impairs other aspects of learning. Resources to Learn about Dyslexia:
A great resource for finding out more about dyslexia is the website of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. The Center is headed by Dr. Sally Shawitz: their program conducts groundbreaking research and advocates for programs that address students’ needs.
Students with dyslexia often struggle mightily to read with the fluency that their intellect would suggest. That means that homework takes longer, that when they are forced to read aloud in the classroom, they may feel humiliated and may be branded as incapable, when in fact, they have the intellect to do great work. Some students suffer adverse emotional consequences as they realize that their intellectual strengths are not recognized. When students with dyslexia receive appropriate help, the payoff for the student can be tremendous.
Proper diagnosis followed by a course of appropriate instruction can turn a student regarded as “slow” into a successful student.
National Failure to Address Dyslexia: Until recently, Minnesota, like other states across the country has failed to have active research based programs to address dyslexia. There are a variety of reasons for this. The number of students who have dyslexia is large, and the efforts required to attack dyslexia require resources and training, and unfortunately, many schools of education have not provided that training. Many of the leading advocacy groups for disabled students have not focused on dyslexia. Also, there are a number of students with dyslexia who can function in the average range, despite their dyslexia, and so we tend to think that they are doing just fine, when actually they have vastly greater potential, if only they receive proper support and instruction as early as possible.
Across the country, advocates for parents and students have pushed states to recognize the importance of identifying students who have dyslexia early—in pre-school or kindergarten—and to provide evidence based instruction. (See Minnesota Decoding Dyslexia) In 2015, the Minnesota legislature passed a law which recognizes the existence of dyslexia and provides a statutory definition.
"Dyslexia" means a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent recognition of words 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 the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. Minn. Stat. § 125A.01 Subdivision 2.
In years past, educators often urged parents to ignore the symptoms of dyslexia, telling them to wait on the theory that the child would develop his her way out of the problems. Overwhelming research now urges that screening occur early and that early appropriate intervention pays big dividends. A leading authority writes: Studies with children as young as 4 years old demonstrate that there is no need to wait for students to experience years of reading failure to begin intervention. On the contrary some of the most promising results have been obtained in prevention studies. Pennington, Diagnosing Learning Disorders (Guilford Press 2008) Chapter 6.
These studies have led many schools to implement a program called Response to Intervention (RTI). However, in many instances across the country, schools have intervened, but have not implemented appropriate evidence based practices, because students were not identified as having dyslexia. Unfortunately, in some implementations, a response to intervention to reading is being coupled with significantly reduced cognitive testing by school psychologists….This reduced emphasis on testing runs the risk of not identifying children with [dyslexia] and other learning disorders…..Pennington, Supra.
In many circumstances, school psychologists feel that they cannot make the dyslexia diagnosis, because they lack the credentials to do so, or because in many districts there was an unwritten policy prohibiting identification.
Change on the Way: New Minnesota legislation removes such barriers and requires early identification followed by appropriate instruction, whether the student is eligible for special education or not. The states provides:
(a) Each school district shall identify before the end of kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2 students who are not reading at grade level before the end of the current school year. …The district also must annually report a summary of the district's efforts to screen and identify students with dyslexia or convergence insufficiency disorder to the commissioner by July 1….. A student identified under section 120B.12 must be provided with alternate instruction under section 125A.56, subdivision 1
In St. Cloud, there is a growing universe of private tutors and reading professionals using the Orton Gillingham approach with students who have dyslexia. Some of these tutors certification consists of a short course of tutor-training leading to a certification that the training has been completed, as for example the tutors trained in the Barton System.
Others are professionals with advanced degrees. The approach we call “Orton-Gillingham” has its roots in the research of Orton (1879–1948), a neuropsychologist, and Gillingham (1878-1963), an educator and psychologist, collaborating at Columbia University. One University Center for dyslexia writes:
Of the various remedial methods in use for teaching students with dyslexia, the Orton-Gillingham approach is the most effective. This structured, phonic, rule-based, multisensory approach to teaching reading, spelling and handwriting is considered one of the most valuable methods available for use with these students.
What is crystal clear is that some of the strategies customarily applied in remedial reading programs are inappropriate for students with dyslexia. For example, forcing the student to read aloud is generally counterproductive, and measuring their proficiency through timed tests of reading aloud, fundamentally flawed. Pennington’s treatise explains:
In summary, numerous strides have demonstrated that combined instruction in phoneme awareness, phonological coding, and reading connected text is effective in treating word-reading accuracy difficulties in dyslexia. ….positive results have been replicated by multiple research teams….”
What must also be crystal clear is that across the state, teachers, even teachers of reading, have not always been trained to recognize dyslexia, and many are still using methods that are neither evidence based nor appropriate for students with dyslexia. The good news is that with support from the Minnesota legislature, a new vista has opened to address the reading struggles of a significant portion of our students.
What Should We Do? In St. Cloud, a task force is developing recommendations for how the district will systematically improve its programs to address dyslexia. This will involve earlier screening, development of new strategies, efforts to provide appropriate diagnoses, and to develop the capability to use evidenced based approaches in and out of the classroom. Other school districts will be engaged in this effort as well. The hope is that our district doesn’t engage in half-measures, but rather finds ways to assure that all students impacted by dyslexia can realize their full potential. More than likely, the task force will tell us something like this:
- We will need to develop a robust policy requiring early screening and early diagnosis for students whose screening results suggest the presence of dyslexia.
- We will need to figure out how students who are screened are going to access persons qualified to make a diagnosis, or we will need to provide appropriate instruction to students who manifest the symptoms of dyslexia, without requiring a formal diagnosis
- We will need to transform current practices so that students are receiving small group or individual Orton Gillingham instruction from persons trained to deliver an OG program. We will need to provide classroom accommodations/.