Parents frequently tell me that their school districts refuse to recognize their child’s diagnosis of dyslexia. One school psychologist defines dyslexia as “simply a fancy word for a disorder that involves reading.” Other parents are told by their districts that dyslexia is merely an umbrella term for a reading difficulty or a medical diagnosis that is not relevant to specific planning for the child in his or her IEP. These parents are often frustrated and confused when schools won’t even insert the term “dyslexia” anywhere within the IEP. But guidance from the Department of Education makes it explicitly clear that dyslexia is recognized by the IDEA. An October 2015 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Department of Education states: “there is nothing in the IDEA that would prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in IDEA evaluation, eligibility determinations, or IEP documents.” Why is this letter so important for students with dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia? Because calling a duck a duck may be needed not only to ensure that students with dyslexia are deemed eligible for special education services but also that they receive appropriate remediation for their dyslexia.
According to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), “dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological 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.” Phonology, or phonemes, refers to the sounds of speech. Students need to master the individual sounds of speech before they can link them to letters, or phonics. These difficulties can be identified by a good school district evaluation.
Although school districts may say that they don’t “test” for dyslexia, the subtests of many of the assessments performed by districts can identify these students. In particular, a child who is struggling with reading should routinely be assessed for phonemic awareness (recognizing the sounds of speech), phonological awareness (can the child decode nonsense words), oral reading, silent reading, spelling, and cognitive ability. When assessing for dyslexia, the devil is in the details; namely, the subtest scores. Be sure to look beyond the composite scores, which can be artificially high due to higher-level language skills that many of these students possess. You need to see the subtest scores to ensure that higher scores are not masking lower scores. If you are not satisfied with your district’s testing, you may need to get your own outside testing from a professional with expertise in dyslexia. You may or may not be able to get this testing at district expense.
Schools may insist that children with dyslexia are eligible for IEPs under the IDEA category of Specific Learning Disability. The IDEA explicitly recognizes that dyslexia, along with dysgraphia and dyscalculia, falls under the umbrella eligibility of specific learning disability. The hitch with labelling these children as LD is that children with dyslexia need a different type of instruction from other students with reading disabilities. It’s not a one-size fits all intervention, which is where disputes with school districts often begin.
Students with dyslexia need an individualized, systematic, cumulative, and structured reading program. The newly identified child with dyslexia can’t just be plopped into a pre-existing reading group in the resource or LD classroom. He or she will continue to flail. Such reading programs as Guided Reading or Balanced Literacy, which may be very successful for typical students, fail to teach children with dyslexia how to decode words. What the child needs, according to the IDA, is a research-based Structured Literacy program, which utilizes an Orton-Gillingham approach. Programs that adhere to these principals teach phonology, which is the ability to segment words into their spoken sounds (phonemes); sound symbol association, which involves associating phonemes of spoken language to letters (phonics); syllable instruction; morphology; syntax; and semantics. There are several such multi-sensory programs, such as Slant or Wilson, and they must be delivered by teachers trained in the program with fidelity.
What does delivering the program with fidelity mean? Most reading teachers in this country simply haven’t been trained in these programs. Dr. Sandman-Hurley, an expert on dyslexia, claims that teachers are even afraid to utter the word dyslexia! Too often districts will say that they offer “Wilson-type” programs, but do not offer it as proscribed by the researchers, setting the child up for continued failure. Parents need to do some research to find out what program the district is offering and then confirm with the program’s publisher that it is Orton-Gillingham based. Parents also must find out from the publisher how frequently their child should be receiving the intervention (many such programs are five days a week) and ask about what training is needed for the teacher who is to provide it. Then the parent needs to confirm that their child’s instructor is qualified to deliver the program. If parents don’t like what they are hearing from their child’s school district, it may be time to discuss getting the district to pay for outside reading tutoring or even a different placement, depending on the severity of the child’s needs.
Dyslexia is a continuum in its severity ranging from mild to severe. Its incidence in the population is estimated to range from 5 to 17%, so clearly not every child who is affected will qualify for or even need special education services. However, it is vital that parents don’t wait too long when their child is struggling to read and assume that their child will be one of the “late bloomers.” What if he or she is not? As parents, you don’t want your child to experience the “Matthew Effect,” which suggests that since struggling readers read less than their peers, they will fail to acquire the vocabulary and knowledge needed to progress academically and thus continue to fall even further behind. Children with dyslexia not only need an accurate diagnosis and effective curriculum, they need parents and attorneys who are able to advocate on their behalf.