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Dyslexia Demystified



For most of us, learning to read is a gradual process, and with good instruction, we get the hang of it by first grade. For an estimated 15 percent of the population, some type of learning disability makes mastering reading, writing, spelling or even math a major challenge. School can be a struggle on good days, a nightmare on bad ones.

If your child falls into that category, it can be heart-breaking to watch her self-esteem erode, his natural delight in learning fade. The hardest part often is simply figuring out what the problem is.

This was true for Margaret Graybill, whose son, Nico, struggled for years with undiagnosed dyslexia. A bright, athletic, well-liked kid, he consistently struggled with reading – reversing his d's and b's, p's and q's. Initially his teachers at Adams Elementary, a public school in Ballard, told Graybill that Nico's difficulties were developmentally normal.

But by first grade, he had trouble recognizing words and worked individually with a reading tutor. "He could read a word in one sentence, and in the next sentence he wouldn't recognize it – it was as if he'd never seen the word before," Graybill says.

By second grade, Nico's frustration level was building. "He tried so hard," says Graybill, "but after a while he began to say, ‘I will never be able to read like other kids – I'm not good enough.'" He began coming home in tears, and watching him plod into school every morning broke his mom's heart.

The idea that Nico was dyslexic had crossed Graybill's mind – her older sister had been diagnosed with dyslexia and ended up dropping out of high school. Graybill, herself, had undiagnosed symptoms, but Nico's teachers continually discounted dyslexia as a possible cause of his struggles. It wasn't until Graybill went back to school herself, four years ago, that she became convinced. The tremendous effort it took to make herself focus and work efficiently and her difficulties in processing and retaining information paralleled some of her son's struggles.

At Adams, Nico's teachers were perplexed; he was obviously smart, a good kid and not disruptive, but he wasn't retaining basic information, and motivating him was difficult. "Teachers thought if they just pushed him he'd get it, but his brain didn't work that way – he'd just panic," says Graybill. While Adams acknowledged there was a problem, the school offered Graybill no alternative but to wait and hope that things improved.

Even after a student intervention team comprised of Adam's school psychologist, teacher, principal, and speech therapist evaluated him at his mother's urging – showing huge gaps between Nico's IQ scores and his performance, plus reading fluency and decoding scores at the bottom of the charts – Nico did not qualify for any additional services, and dyslexia was again discounted.

Still convinced Nico was dyslexic, Graybill looked elsewhere for help. The University of Washington's College of Education has a student practicum for graduating school psychologists who evaluate children with learning disabilities, combining both the standard testing used in public schools and additional testing methods. After the UW's evaluation, Nico – by that time a third-grader – was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.

Adams agreed to develop an individual education plan for Nico, but the school's teaching approach didn't change, and he continued to slide. In November 2007, Graybill pulled Nico out of Adams and enrolled him at Hamlin Robinson School, a private elementary and middle school in South Seattle that specializes in teaching kids with dyslexia. He is now thriving. He sprints from the car into school each day, excited to learn and be in a place that understands him.

Hamlin Robinson

Hamlin Robinson School was established in 1983 by the Slingerland Institute for Literacy, a nonprofit now based in Bellevue that trains teachers to work with students struggling with reading, writing and spelling skills. It's named after Beth H. Slingerland, a former Renton school teacher, who developed a classroom application of the Orton-Gillingham reading instruction method back in 1960. Thousands of teachers have used it with high rates of success since then.

The Slingerland approach is structured, sequential and incorporates sight, sound and muscle memory reinforcement by breaking down the symbols and components of language to their simplest elements. Dyslexia affects the linkage of the auditory, visual and kinesthetic processes in the brain, so simultaneously combining all three processes allows a student's strongest channel of learning to reinforce weaker pathways. It helps entrench the information a student is learning into his working memory. It's a simple teaching method that can be applied to any curriculum, including math. It also can be used just as successfully for students without dyslexia, providing them with extra learning reinforcement.

Hamlin Robinson eventually broke off from the Slingerland Institute and became a private, nonprofit school, but its teachings are still rooted in the Orton-Gillingham and Slingerland methods.

With fewer than 120 students from first through eighth grades, classes have just 13 to 14 students each. Everywhere you look, there are color, movement, space and tactile learning tools. Because transitions can be difficult for dyslexic children, there's a large Lego table at the back of each classroom to give kids a break between lesson plans to process what they've learned with their fingers, giving their minds a chance to rest and re-boot for the next lesson. The school's stated mission is to instill, and in many cases, recapture, the joy of learning for dyslexic children. Annual tuition is $14,000 to $15,000 depending on the grade. It also offers a summer camp program.

How Do You Know if Your Child Has Dyslexia?

Many factors can affect a child's ability to learn. However, if a normally developing, healthy child is struggling to read, in spite of good classroom instruction, that's a giant red flag for a learning disability such as dyslexia. According to the International Dyslexia Association, about half of all children who qualify for special education have some type of learning disability, and about 85 percent of those have some degree of dyslexia.

Washington's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction ranks dyslexia as the most common learning disability in children, affecting roughly 5 percent of all school-age children. The International Dyslexia Association's estimate is much higher: 8 to 15 percent.

Dyslexia can be tricky to diagnose, as it affects everyone differently. Many of the early signs are developmentally normal, such as reversing letters and symbols. A child may learn to read but not acquire good fluency. Perhaps spelling or math is an issue. She may develop test anxiety because she can't retrieve information quickly. Many dyslexics become experts at compensating for their problems using various strategies. Many learn to memorize words, or whole sentences, and can get through relatively undetected even up to third grade or higher. Most kids are not flagged until they are performing at least two grades below grade level.

"There are many faces of dyslexia," says Guinevere Eden, an associate professor of pediatrics and director for the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University and president of the International Dyslexia Association. "A borderline dyslexic can skate under the radar but at some point they will hit a wall." Signs of dyslexia can also mimic ADD/ADHD – in fact many dyslexics also have ADD/ADHD, making it even harder to properly diagnose.

As with Nico, one of the major indicators of dyslexia is an unexpected gap between a child's potential and his performance in any number of areas – reading, writing, spelling, speaking, or math. "An intelligent child should be able to manage the information they're given in kindergarten through second grade," says Jeannie Turner, head of Hamlin Robinson School. "If a kid is struggling in the early grades, the pressure's only going to get more intense as they get to the higher grades – it's not something they'll outgrow."

Compounding the difficulty of diagnosing dyslexia is that most teachers in Washington are not specifically trained in recognizing it. Some education policy makers question whether it even exists.

Unlike states such as Texas and California, Washington makes no statewide attempt to screen kids early unless there are obvious problems, and even then, school evaluations are not looking specifically for dyslexia. However, all second-graders are given an oral reading assessment to determine whether they are at risk for reading failure, and dyslexia is one of the conditions considered "A kid with good reading comprehension and fluency can slip through the cracks," says Cheryl A. Young, a K-12 reading specialist for Washington's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Reinventing the Wheel

This was not always the case. For more than three decades, the Renton School District was known statewide and nationally as a leader in addressing the needs of dyslexic students, working closely with Beth Slingerland and her institute to integrate her approach into the district's classrooms.

From the 1960s through the mid-1990s, all students leaving kindergarten were screened for dyslexia at the district's expense. Children in higher grades were tested upon request if they appeared to have a problem. Through the mid-90s, the district offered summer teacher training programs for dyslexia awareness and teaching in the Slingerland approach. A dyslexic child going to public school in Renton at that time would be identified early and placed with a teacher who had Slingerland training.

But by the late 1990s, budget constraints and a federal shift toward standardized curriculum forced the Renton district to discontinue dyslexia training for teachers. As state curriculum requirements became more demanding, teachers' time and resources shifted elsewhere, and dyslexia awareness slipped off the radar. "Many teachers being trained today barely know what dyslexia is, let alone how to identify it," says Theresa Clymer, a retired school teacher and former language arts curriculum support specialist who spent 34 years in the Renton district.

"It is discouraging," Clymer says. "Every teacher wants to help their students learn, but the budget (for training) went away. Each Renton school still has a testing team, and hopefully, they'll catch these students, but if a child's dyslexia isn't severe enough, they're not likely to ever be tested."

Dyslexic kids in the Renton district still have a better chance of being detected than elsewhere, as many of the teachers trained in the Slingerland method are still teaching or working as administrators, providing a valuable resource for other teachers less familiar with dyslexia.

A Step in the Right Direction

On the bright side, in July 2005, the Legislature approved funding for the Lorraine Wojahn Dyslexia Pilot Reading Programs. Four school districts – Bremerton, Hoquiam, East Valley and Walla Walla – won two-year $120,000 grants that they're using to create specialized reading programs for students with dyslexia and to provide training for teachers to integrate multisensory teaching into their curriculum. Those grants have not been renewed, but the legislature determined that students in those progrtams "made substantial and steady economic gains."

To build on that success, the legislature passed a bill in the spring of 2009 to develop educator training materials to identify students with dyslexia and help them succeed and to create a dyslexia handbook. Although funding was cut in 2010, $75,000 was allocated for the efforts. The training modules are being created through the state's educational service districts and the handbook should be ready by July 2011, Young says.

This is all good news for dyslexic children in Washington state, and while it may seem a little like reinventing the wheel, any attempt to integrate a multisensory approach to reading instruction is a step in the right direction. The challenge for educators and parents is making sure a child's reading problems are caught early, because the longer a child struggles undiagnosed with dyslexia, the harder it will get to overcome.


Dana Thompson is a Bainbridge Island freelance writer and mother of two who learned to read using the Orton-Gillingham method.


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