By Dr. Sheila Clonan
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. It is also ADHD Awareness month and Down Syndrome Awareness month—so much awesomeness packed into 31 little days! We’ll address those later, but in this post, we want to play a little “Did you know?” game, raise awareness of issues pertaining to dyslexia, and let local readers know about some amazing upcoming events.
Did you know that at least 1 in 5 students is estimated to struggle with dyslexia, a neurological disorder characterized by difficulties with phonological processing that impair accurate and fluent decoding?
By Dr. Sheila Clonan
We’ve worked with many families lately whose schools “don’t recognize” dyslexia. They are told either that it is a “medical diagnosis” (what?!?) or that it “isn’t in the law.” We’ve had parents tell us that their school told them that their child was too young to test, or that dyslexia is just a catch-all term and there’s no test for it. None of these statements are true. Unfortunately, if your school won’t recognize dyslexia, they are unlikely to treat it effectively.
Some parents have even been told that dyslexia “doesn’t exist.” However, over 30 years of scientific evidence and research supports the existence of dyslexia, as well as effective interventions for students diagnosed with dyslexia. Dyslexia is a specific neurobiological learning disability that is characterized by difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, poor decoding skills and weak spelling. Secondary problems in vocabulary, reading comprehension and writing may also develop. These are fundamental skills that must be mastered as early as possible for student success. However, contrary to what parents are often told, dyslexia is one of the most common causes of reading difficulties in elementary school children, affecting at least 5-10% of the population, with some estimates as high as 17%. Dyslexia ranges from relatively mild to more severe symptoms, so some dyslexic students may qualify for special education as a student with a learning disability, but some may not. Regardless, all students with dyslexia (indeed, all struggling readers) require intensive and explicit systematic reading intervention to progress appropriately. Unfortunately, rare is the teacher- special education, literacy, or classroom teacher—who has been adequately trained in effective, scientifically-based reading instruction.
Written by Dr. Sheila Clonan
Response to Intervention, or RTI, is a three-tier process for providing intervention and supports to students prior to the initiation of any assessment for special education. The idea is that, by providing targeted, research-based interventions early, we can ameliorate relatively mild learning difficulties, thereby preventing the need for designation as a student with a disability. It began in response to an all-too-common problem—which became known as the “wait to fail” model. That is, in the past, students quite literally had to fail before they would be tested for special education and therein provided necessary intervention.
Tiered levels of support like RTI, in contrast, are based on prevention models. Tier one generally consists of an effective core curriculum in the classroom. Theoretically, this will address the learning needs of approximately 80% of students. The remaining 20% will be provided with what is often called “Tier 2” intervention: intervention that targets learning in a fairly generic- but efficient- way. Let’s take the case of reading. Most schools collect progress monitoring data on all students. Then they identify a “cut-off” score that indicates the child is in the lower quartile and may benefit from Tier 2 intervention. At this stage, most schools have a ready-prepared intervention to offer. Some schools used computer-based programs, such as Fast ForWord or Accelerated Reader. Others offer an additional reading group with the school’s literacy specialist. For approximately some of the children involved in Tier 2 intervention, the additional instruction—almost regardless of the form it takes—will be enough to help them get up to speed.
For children with a specific learning disability such as Dyslexia, however, such standard interventions will rarely be enough to close the gap between them and their peers. Instead, these students require systematic, intensive, phonologically-based reading instruction targeted specifically to their individual needs and administered by a highly trained instructor. Students with Dyslexia are generally missing some of the important building blocks of reading—the cognitive components that underlie accurate and fluent reading. However, they often “progress”—ie, memorize enough words—just enough to make it look like they are benefitting from the generic intervention. This makes school staff reluctant to test the child for a learning disability. But unfortunately, memorization is a very inefficient strategy- and the progress will not be enough to close the gap between the student and her peers, nor to repair the foundational skills on which on which reading is built.
We often see students who have inched along in this way- progressing just enough to avoid failure, but not enough to catch up- or, more importantly, learn the skills they need to ultimately become accurate and fluent readers. These students tend to be bright, creative and hard-working. They work hard enough— and usually have enough support from their parents—that they earn passing grades despite falling farther and farther behind in their reading. They often spend hours upon frustrating hours completing homework. They tend to do poorly on tests- but excel in oral participation- or other aspects of the school day. Sometimes teachers wonder if they are making “careless” mistakes—maybe they need to slow down, “try harder”- or, my all-time favorite- “look harder.” They may be reading well enough to get the “gist” of the information—so they can maintain the appearance of being able to read enough to “keep up,” but gist reading is notoriously unreliable in decontextualized reading such as in textbooks- or worse, multiple choice tests.
Often, the parents of these children have repeatedly shared concerns with school staff that “something is wrong” but been (falsely) reassured that “he’s young yet” or “she’s progressing at her own rate.” Your child is not failing, they may add, and so does not have an educational disability. While we’ve no doubt that these staff members mean well, the end result is that the student suffers for years, believing that she is stupid or slow, working hard but never managing to keep up. Finally, frustrated, parents turn to a private evaluator, seeking an understanding. They know their child is smart, they see how hard he is working, and they want to what can be done to help him.
When implemented as intended, Response to Intervention can enhance student learning. The intention of the prevention process is to shift educational resources away from classification of disabilities and toward the provision and evaluation of effective instruction. Through early screening, schools can identify and provide support more quickly to struggling learners. In practice, however, the process all too often delays the provision of appropriate evaluations and services (as noted in this 2011 Memo to all State Directors of Special Education, the U.S. Department of Education). If you have concerns about your child’s educational progress and feel that school staff are delaying evaluation and support, you have the right to request an evaluation in all areas of suspected disability. Put your request in writing. See more about how to get your child evaluated in our ebook, A Parent’s Guide to Educational Assessment in New York.
Sometimes, a child is doing just well enough for teachers to not recommend him for testing. Other times, the child is tested but the weaknesses are not considered "significant enough" to warrant a label and special education supports. Finally, school staff are sometimes constrained by limited resources (i.e., time, tests, expertise) in the depth and breadth of the testing they provide in the process of making a diagnosis.
Parents are the best judge, initially, on whether or not a child needs help. As a parent, you are the first to see struggles with homework, behavior changes, and attitude changes. If you suspect that your child is having difficulty socially, behaviorally or academically, your first resource is your child's school. Before contacting your school, however, make a list of what you have noticed at home. For example, consider the following:
1. My Child Does Not Want To Go To School
2. Homework Takes Hours To Accomplish
3. My child does not seem to understand what is expected on homework and I have to re-teach concepts to help her.
4. Difficulty following directions (spoken or written).
5. My child strongly dislikes reading.
6. My child has difficulty expressing himself or mispronounces words.
7. My child has a short attention span or is easily frustrated.
While the above list is fairly broad, generally as a parent, you know when something is "off." The first thing to do when you suspect your child is struggling is to contact your school's Department of Special Education and request that your child be evaluated. Schools are required to take your concerns seriously and in almost all cases, they will be very accommodating. Still, the process of special education evaluations, policies and procedures can be very overwhelming to parents. That is why, after having consulted with many parents and school districts, I have put together a Parent's Guide to Assessments and Testing in NY. To read this comprehensive free guide, just click below.
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