By Nora Heston Tarte
As parents, we want the best for our kids. So, when Kim—a mom from Goodyear—noticed her daughter struggling in school, she was adamant about finding help.
“I had to take her outside of the school for both a diagnosis and tutoring,” Kim explains of her situation. Her daughter, 10, is now thriving in school after being handed a dyslexia diagnosis. “I was fortunate that, even though dyslexia was not recognized as a learning disorder at my child’s school, they were very willing to make basic classroom accommodations for her.”
Those accommodations include extra time to complete writing assignments, classroom notes provided to her and a front row seat near the teacher. The accommodations are small, but they go a long way in alleviating some of he extra stress Kim’s daughter feels in school.
The interventions and additional study time make school manageable for Kim’s daughter, and having an answer for her struggles helps her overcome. But getting there wasn’t easy; at the time Kim’s daughter was diagnosed, Arizona did not recognize dyslexia as a learning disorder.
In April 2017, however, the state published a helpful handbook that addressed the neurological learning disorder that most commonly results in difficulties with reading skills.
“Dyslexia was not allowed to be discussed in schools until October 2015 when the federal government sent letters to the states to allow the conversation,” explains Representative Jill Norgaard. After a visit to area classrooms, Norgaard got behind the cause and reached out to a group of parents, experts, and members from Read On Arizona, First Things First and other education advocacy groups, to craft a handbook for Arizona to assist teachers, parents and students in diagnosing and dealing with dyslexia.
According to the handbook, dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. “Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge,” the handbook states.
In the past, children who struggled to read by the third grade would be held back. When dyslexia was first recognized in schools, the standard changed so that children with language processing disorders like dyslexia could move past third grade even if their reading skills weren’t up to par, an approach that is still used today.
“Teachers often see students struggling in their class with reading (but because) they are not special education teachers, their focus isn’t necessarily on dyslexia,” says Kim Rice, reading specialist with the Arizona Department of Education.
That means teachers could be missing the diagnosis. The handbook, which lays out some of the characteristics commonly associated with dyslexia, may help teachers to identify children suffering from the language processing disorder. Even more, it could help the child get the help they truly need to become good readers and successful students. As with any learning disorder, early intervention is key.
“At Expect More Arizona, we believe all students should have the support they need to read at grade level by the end of third grade,” says Erin Hart, Chief Operating Officer at Expect More Arizona. “Improving awareness of the resources and services available to help children with dyslexia is critical to the goal of improving literacy.”
“The difficulty with dyslexia is it lies across a continuum of language processing,” Rice explains, adding that 15 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some symptoms of dyslexia. Dyslexia is not a cookie-cutter disorder.
“Studying for spelling words and math fact tests are especially difficult for my daughter,” Kim shares. “Studying takes time, repetition and patience. The rewarding part is to see her succeeding in school and becoming a more confident learner.”
While the handbook is certainly a step in the right direction, there is more work to do to ensure children with dyslexia are not slipping through the cracks in Arizona.
“The state has allocated $40 million, called, ‘Move on when reading’ funds, for early literacy, which is also now available to students with dyslexia,” Norgaard says. “We will be continuing to work to develop reading specialists (and) professional development classes with the universities and community colleges. I am very optimistic that this focused intervention will yield improved results from this handbook.”
The handbook not only helps teachers and parents identify dyslexia, it also tiptoes into the topic of intervention and directs adults to resources for specific decoding.
Within the classroom, children in grades K-3 are given screeners, or diagnostic tests that give teachers and parents insights into a child’s specific learning challenges. Through this system, as well as everyday observation, teachers may identify dyslexia. Then, the teacher can employ a multi-tier approach to handling dyslexia in the classroom.
Rice explains that specific interventions are left to the means of the instructor (dyslexia alone does not qualify for an IEP), and revolve around increasing the time, intensity or duration of support that is offered. That could be as simple as pulling a struggling child aside to reiterate a lesson before sending them off with the rest of the class, or it could translate to the accommodations Kim described her daughter receiving in the classroom.
Outside of the classroom, resources are still scarce. Kim had to rely on expensive tutoring to help her daughter work through her diagnosis. Everyone, however, appears to be on the same page: that the handbook is simply the first step to helping children with dyslexia thrive in the classroom.
“I’m hopeful that the Dyslexia Handbook is just a starting point to getting
these kids the help that they need,” Kim says.
Does Your Child Have Dyslexia?
Common Characteristics of Dyslexia
- Difficulty learning to rhyme words.
- Confusion of letters and words with similar visual appearance.
- Difficulty pronouncing some multisyllabic words correctly.
- Slow word perception that affects reading rate and fluency.
*From the Dyslexia Handbook