This month, the education world has been abuzz with the appointment of a new Secretary of Education. As a Certified Dyslexia Specialist, I am often asked about my views on current education topics. While my views and opinions don’t necessarily represent the company I work for or the opinions of my colleagues, I do think they represent many of us who work in this field. The question I keep asking myself is, “What exactly would I like our legislators to know about dyslexia?” The answer to this question is often so complex, it’s difficult to give even a general answer, much less a concise one. However, I will do my best.
Dyslexia Affects As Many As 1 in 5 Students
The first thing I would like our legislators to understand is just how many students are affected by dyslexia. According to Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a leader in dyslexia research, dyslexia affects as many as one in five students. Let’s do a little math on reading. This means that in a typical classroom of thirty students, as many as six students could be affected by dyslexia. And in a school with 500 students, as many as 100 students may be dyslexic. Approximately 20% of students have such difficulty learning to read from traditional classroom approaches that it can actually impair their quality of life if it’s not remediated. Imagine not being able to read your mail, your prescription labels, or from a computer. This is why it’s considered a disability.
Recently, a friend asked me if I think we should open more schools for dyslexic students. My strong response was NO! Based on the number of students affected by dyslexia, I think ALL schools should specialize in dyslexia. Charter schools and vouchers are also not a good option. Reading difficulties affect far too many students to provide and send them to special schools. In the county I live in, Oakland County, MI, there are 208,000 school age students. This means we have approximately 41,600 dyslexic students in our county alone, whether they have been diagnosed or not. There is only one school in the county that specializes in dyslexia and they currently enroll 189 students.
We would have to open hundreds of schools in our county alone to accommodate these students. Even most private and charter schools offer less services for dyslexic students, not more. We have had several students from our tutoring centers move from private to public schools after being diagnosed with dyslexia so that they could receive more services. For example, one of our students was offered speech therapy services a minimum of once a month at the private school she was attending, whereas, she would receive speech therapy a minimum of three times a month at the public school. While neither choice is ideal, the parents chose to pull her out of the private school.
Many private schools use the special education services from the local public school district. Rather than sending students to private schools that refer out for these services, the better option would be to train ALL teachers to remediate dyslexia. Currently, about 13% of students across the country receive special education services. Yet dyslexia affects approximately 20% of students which means that special educations services alone are not enough to address the problem; another reason to train all teachers.
Teacher Preparation Programs Need to be Updated
This brings me to my next point, which is there are very few universities across the country that have accredited programs to train, let alone certify, teachers in dyslexia remediation. There are no universities in the state I live in that offers dyslexia certification. Not only are a majority of universities not training our future teachers to remediate or recognize dyslexia, they are also not teaching explicit, systematic phonics instruction which is a recommendation of the National Reading Panel for all students.
As part of my job, I travel across the country training teachers how to remediate dyslexia. I always inquire how many teachers in the class have had a formal college level course on phonics instruction. Out of a group of 20-25 teachers, I will be lucky if four teachers raise their hands. Again, explicit, systematic phonics is what is recommended by the National Reading Panel for ALL students. It surprises me how very little training that teachers across the country get on how to teach reading.
But don’t think for a second that I am blaming teachers for this. They don’t get to choose the content of the coursework required for their degree. Change must take place at the university level. Until this happens, the burden falls on schools and districts to train their teachers, not only in dyslexia remediation, but in research-based strategies that are recommended for all students.
Instruction Designed for Dyslexic Students can Benefit General Education Students
While reading instruction designed for general education students does not typically work for dyslexic students, you may be surprised to find out that instruction designed for dyslexic students is beneficial to most students. According to the International Dyslexia Association, “The principles of instruction and content of a Multisensory Structured Language program are essential for effective teaching methodologies”. What does dyslexia remediation or the Multisensory Structured Language approach look like in layman’s terms? Essentially, we take the rules of our language (phonics) and break them down into small, manageable, step by step instruction and we teach skills using multisensory (visual, auditory, and hands on) activities. Then we review and practice these skills until they become automatic or second nature. This is not a quick fix. Remediation can often take up to two years or more. But if we use these methods to teach K-2 students, we would see far less reading difficulties across our nation. And because of the multisensory aspect, this type of instruction is far more engaging for students than traditional approaches.
Last year we trained all of the kindergarten teachers in the Zeeland School District in Michigan in the Phonics First® program, which is accredited by both the International Dyslexia Association and IMSLEC. The curriculum was implemented to introduce phonics skills in their general education classrooms. This year, I was speaking with one of the first-grade reading interventionists, who shared that her typical first grade caseload is sixteen students. After implementing the program last year, her caseload dropped down to six first graders and four were new to the district this year! This is an excellent example of how instruction designed for remediating dyslexia can benefit general education students and even head off reading difficulties.
If we are serious about improving our schools and ensuring that all students become good readers, then we need to make sure that all schools specialize in dyslexia remediation. We need to implement changes so that teachers are trained at the university level in researched-based reading instruction and dyslexia remediation. And finally, we need to start using techniques developed for dyslexic students which can benefit both students with or without reading difficulties. To raise a nation of good readers, we must push for real change. We need to educate legislators on what research shows, not what “sounds good” as the new trend. Please consider sharing this information with your legislators so that no child is lost to the system.
We’ll still have 99 problems, but reading instruction won’t be one.
Stephanie Cork, CALP CDP
Stephanie Cork is the Director of Program Development and a Master Instructor with Brainspring Educator Academy.