A special education teacher’s personal journey of discovery

Allison Slone
Allison Slone

By Allison Slone

As a special education teacher in Kentucky, I have worked with many types of students, each with different learning needs. I thought, after 17 years, I had worked with every learning disability possible. It wasn’t until a little over a year ago, that I realized I was terribly wrong.

In the fall of 2014, my son, who at the time was in the 2nd grade, was diagnosed with profound dyslexia, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and sensory processing disorder. I knew he couldn’t read well, his attention span wasn’t great and that he had sensory processing issues. The dyslexia diagnosis, however, I was not prepared for. My world, suddenly, came full circle.

I grew up in Hindman, the home of the Hindman Settlement School. I spent hours after school each day watching kids being tutored by Lois Weinberg, the founding director of the Hindman Settlement School’s Dyslexia Program, in my dad’s office building. I also had friends who tutored kids during the Hindman summer dyslexia program. I, however, had no personal experience with this particular learning disability.

When I started teaching as a special education teacher, dyslexia was not a diagnosis we used in our evaluations or Individual Education Programs (IEPs). In 17 years of teaching, I heard the word dyslexia used only a couple of times.

Looking back, I feel I failed a tremendous amount of my students due to my lack of knowledge and understanding of dyslexia. I had no specific training in the appropriate interventions and strategies for a dyslexic child, which is much different than your every day reading instruction.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a type of learning disability, neuro-biological in origin, characterized by fluency, spelling, decoding and comprehension difficulties. This disability often seems out of character for the child, due to an average to above average intellectual ability, as well as other significant gifts and talents.

As teachers, we are prescribing the wrong medicine, the wrong strategies for improving the learning experience of so many students. According to Yale Researcher, Sally Shaywitz, 20 percent of the student population nationally is dyslexic. This particular learning difference is mentioned as one type of specific learning disability in Title 1/A/602 (30), in The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Because the research has evolved so slowly over time, there are many miscommunications and misunderstandings surrounding dyslexia.

So why is it so important that the learning disability diagnosis be specific to dyslexia?

The strategies necessary for a dyslexic person to show growth in language, reading comprehension, spelling and vocabulary are very specific and unique. With the implementation of multi-sensory strategies and interventions, a dyslexic student begins to gain momentum toward meeting grade- and age-level expectations. These strategies, specific to positively impacting a dyslexic student’s learning, are not taught to pre-service teachers and often cost districts excessive amounts of money to train teachers and purchase the necessary materials.

Though the costs for the correct interventions may be high, we must ask ourselves, what are the ramifications of not providing accurate strategies and interventions for students with dyslexia, which in statistical terms could be as high as 80 percent of those students already identified with a specific learning disability, according to The National Center for Education Statistics?

Without an appropriate education, dyslexic individuals are at a high risk of not being college and career ready. As reported by American Dyslexia Association, more than 40 million American adults are dyslexic and only 2 million know it. Furthermore, only 21 percent of dyslexic individuals receive a post-secondary education. And even more appalling, 48 percent of our nation’s prison population is dyslexic, as found during a 2000 study by the University of Texas Medical Branch in conjunction with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. By ignoring the facts, we are setting a huge portion of our students up for failure.

When I learned my son was dyslexic, I imagined and re-imagined his future. I questioned everything I had done wrong since the day he was born. The hardest part for me was acknowledging my training and experience as a teacher working with children of various needs would not and could not help my son.

He was already at the Tier II level of RTI (and soon after, moved to Tier III). Though he was officially diagnosed with dyslexia (outside the school), the discrepancy between his intellectual ability and his academic ability was not great enough to qualify for special education services.

As a special education teacher, I understood the results. As a parent, I felt it wasn’t fair. He needed so much more to be successful in the classroom. Though, my son had been very lucky to have wonderful teachers and tutors in his life, the intense interventions he received were not multi-sensory in nature and were not the best strategies for helping him progress.

There are some school districts providing multi-sensory strategies for dyslexic students and that number continues to grow. However, it’s time 100 percent of Kentucky’s school districts provide the correct interventions for our dyslexic students. My son is not the only child who needs help.

The U.S. Department of Education recently released a guidance document  telling states and districts that it is okay to say dyslexia in evaluation reports, IEPs and conference summaries. It is left up to each state and district on how they plan to follow this guidance.

In Kentucky, there is a growing dyslexia community made up of parents, educators and advocates. Miss Kentucky 2015, Clark Davis, has created the Best Me I Can Be Foundation, benefiting children with dyslexia. Decoding Dyslexia, a grass roots organization, and the International Dyslexia Association both seek more effective ways to raise dyslexia awareness, advocate for dyslexic students and support the work of teachers across the Commonwealth to hone strategies that deeply impact dyslexic students’ learning.

My experience is not mine alone; I am not an outlier. I am a parent and teacher trying to do right by my son and his peers across the state because our kids deserve a better education. If you are interested in learning more about dyslexia in our classrooms, there are ways to join the movement today.


Allison Slone is a special education teacher in Rowan County. She is a current Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow, founding member of Decoding Dyslexia Ky-East, board member of The International Kentucky Association Kentucky Branch, and dyslexia educational consultant for Miss Kentucky 2015, Clark Davis.


  1. My daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia with a side dish of executive function issues for fun, in May. Thanks for your article – which I shared on Facebook. The more I learn, the more I’m called to action to a) get parents in tune with what might be holding their kids back and b) find the right mix of accommodations, interventions and strategies to help my own kid navigate the educational world and max out her potential. The 1 in 5 statistic makes you go WOW! In my kid’s class of 20, I can only wonder…who are the other 3 that are struggling, frustrated, hate school, feel less-than because they are floating out there?

  2. Thank You Allison! As a mother of a dyslexic 3rd grader, we need our voices to be heard! There must be changes in our Kentucky schools. If we could take small steps today, we will see huge strides in the future for many! Please let us know what our next steps should be.

  3. Great article! I went into special education to help children like my own son, who is dyslexic. I have found it very difficult to give these children what they need in an environment that does not understand them. I will continue to fight right along with you for these bright individuals!

  4. Thank you Allison! I’m grateful that my son is in a district that is working to identify students who are struggling with dyslexia as they have implemented the multi-sensory programs and they are seeing great success in their elementary schools! Teachers are getting trained, and they are beginning to spot the signs sooner, providing the interventions early – making such significant changes to the student’s future, their confidence, and definitely not destroying their spirit! This must become the norm and not the exception! After elementary school my son who was receiving an OG Based program daily, with all teachers on board of his needs, we entered middle school. Our world flipped on it’s ear. Zero teachers were properly prepared and my son very rapidly changed, and I got a glimpse of what so many other families were experiencing. This isn’t a should we invest in PD and effective, proven remediation programs, this is the time to say our educational institution MUST reset – every teacher, every classroom. We cannot continue to disregard this student population – the educational neglect! The Best Case Scenario – KENTUCKY WINS! The worst case, another discarded, depressed, embarrassed, desperate child gives up, they fall into bad behavior that gets them away from a helpless situation, they drop out, many end up in detention centers, and we will not ignore those that take their lives. God Bless the families who find suicide letters where the handwriting looks far too similar to the way my son writes letters & words, the words are incorrectly spelled, just like how my son interprets the spelling. This will stop. We must make everyone aware. This is a big deal. #TrainTeachers #SayDyslexia #1in5 let’s bust the #School2PrisonPipeline EVERY kid #Needs2Read!

  5. Great article… I posted a comment earlier. We need early interventions in pubic schools as well as one on one tutoring for students with reading difficulties in public schools using a research multi-structured approach. Everyone is frustrated that they have to seek out private schools or private tutoring that no one can afford. All students should be given a Free and Appropriate Education including students who need to learn to read. Our reading scores will increase with reading intervention. Our State as a whole will benefit with higher graduation rates, higher college attendance and graduation rates and a more productive economy. Please take note and let’s all work hard to make a change in the State of KY to heighten awareness of Dyslexia.

  6. Well said Allison! Why should such a large percentage of the population struggle when Structured Literacy benefits all beginning readers!! Teach the teachers how to use Structured Literacy and teach phonics!!!!!

  7. Thank You Allison for your honesty! It is time our great nation to catch up with education research. In the late 1890’s dyslexia was identified, in the 1920’s instructional implementation research started and in 1950 dyslexia was recognized as a learning difference. Here it is 2016, over a century since dyslexia was first identified, and KY school systems across the state do not want to say dyslexia out loud. Our dyslexic students get labeled as lazy. Yet in 2015 KY was 42 on state literacy and in the top 5 states for innovated education systems. We have an entire population of illiterate high school graduates, so we can’t be impressed with ourselves on KY graduation rates. It is much cheaper to educate students than support them in the welfare system or penal system. It is refreshing to hear someone in the public education system acknowledging our state education system’s weakness. As a state, we must identify our weakness in order to address it. You are not alone as an educator, since universities also ignore teaching educators to identify and implement interventions for dyslexia. It is time KY started educating teachers for early identification and early intervention. Dennis Molfese has been able to identify children with inherited dyslexia at day one for almost 30 years! NOT one single state implements his research for early identification! We do NOT need to model after another state but set the national standard! MIT identifies college students with dyslexia that were failed by their school systems, so it’s not just a KY problem! Yale says 9 out of 10 dyslexic students struggle through school without any interventions. We are failing students nationwide. If KY would start implementing the latest education research, KY would be leading the nation, not only in basketball, but also in education. THANK YOU Allison for advocating for all KY students and starting this much needed conversation!

  8. Kudos Allison! This is an outstanding article on your experiences with Dyslexia. I am a KY special education teacher and have encountered many of the same struggles. As an advocate through my volunteer work at KY International Dyslexia Association and my private reading tutoring job, I witness families struggling on a daily basis to get much needed services such as one on one tutoring in the public and private schools in Kentucky. Most of the families that provide tutoring services for cannot afford a private school or an expensive tutoring program. They just want their child to access to reading tutoring at an affordable cost. Mostly, they wish the school their child attends would offer the phonemic tutoring such as Orton Gillingham model. You are an inspiration to us all. Your article will hopefully help make a change in the State of KY so that awareness will create changes in the schools. Thank you for all your hard work and dedication to your child, students and all children in the State of KY. You are awesome. Sincerely, Jill MacNiven, Rank I, M.Ed., Orton Gillingham Tutor

  9. Wow! I have chills. This is my fifth time reading this amazingly eye-opening article. It makes me proud and it makes me hopeful. It also makes me so very thankful for the teachers in the public and parochial school system that so kindly and lovingly gave their time and love to help my two children with dyslexia and ADHD. Sadly, our children have had to transition to a new school, out of the state of Kentucky, away from their friends and classmates, in an endeavor to get them the proper instruction they need so badly. They were young, 7 and 5, and they were already starting to compare themselves with their classmates’ performance on school. They were feeling defeated, frustrated, and they were exhausted each day after school. Trying to hold it together, to appear “smart”, or as if they, too, were understanding and deciding and able to write well and spell words correctly. They could not. The teachers always commented, “Your daughter is such an angel! We wish we had more students like her in class”. She may have been an angel in the classroom, and this is because she was already learning how to adapt, blend into the woodwork, make herself useful but also make herself. Dry quiet. At home, her safe place, she would let it all out…breaking her pencils, banging her head on the table, turning over chairs, sobbing that she wished she could just go to sleep and never wake up. She was seven. Seven years old! We got her into therapy, we asked the school system to test her for a learning disability. She did not have one, although she was in tier 3 RTI. She was also retained. Why, if not for a learning disability? This completely devastated her, and I thought at the time it was the best decision. I was wrong. It still affects her. I had her privately tested. She had dyslexia. We went back to the school system and we were so happy and relieved to know that she was granted an IEP. But it was a skinny IEP, handwritten on a piece of note paper. I signed it because I wanted my daughter to start receiving special help immediately. I was naive. My son’s story is still hard to think about. He really suffered and ultimately gave up trying in the third quarter of the school year. He also was tested and denied. He also was privately tested. Dyslexia, severe, and dysgraphia. And then more private testing with an outcome of ADHD. My husband and I spent 200.00 a week for private tutoring, much more for my daughter’s counseling. We were barely hanging on, monetarily and mentally. Our family was breaking and I blamed myself. I, too, taught school. All I ever wanted to do was greet my children as they walked home from school with a smile and warm cookies and milk and help them with their school work. They did not respond to my help. In fact, they detested it. I knew I had to advocate for them, for all students struggling like mine . They needed a champion. And I needed help and support and much guidance. I am happy to say that we found it in our new school. The tuition is 23,000 per student per school year. Luckily, we receive financial aid. I’m so happy that they are where they need to be, that they are adjusting…. That their self worth is coming back. But it’s harder for my son, and I pray every day that he will realize that he is smart, strong, and that he will read and he will write, and that he will SUCCEED! But I’m sad and confused that they cannot attend the school that I attended, my mother, and also my grandmother. Maybe one day soon children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities will be able to learn the way that they need to be taught, by these kind teachers that try so hard and really did their best to help us. Maybe one day these teachers will be offered training. I have read that the Orton Gillingham approach is not only effective with children that have learning disabilities. It is also effective for all of our bright, young, and eager students that are so willing to want to learn!

    • Oh my goodness. I’ve cried throughout your response. Your story could be my story. They are so similar! It is so unfair that you have to spend that kind of money for an education for your child!!!! Can I share your story other places, without your name? People NEED to read it!
      Please feel free to email me

  10. Great article!
    As a special education teacher it took me 7 years before I learned about dyslexia and I could look back on the students I was unable to service because I simply didn’t know about this unique reading difference and the importance of structured multi sensory intervention. I believe dyslexia should be discussed and teachers should be trained both at the college level as well as current teachers in the school systems. The 20% of the population deserve the best education we can give them!!

  11. I am so proud to call you my friend and colleague Allison. Thank you for bringing this much needed conversation out of the shadows.”…it’s time 100 percent of Kentucky’s school districts provide the correct interventions for our dyslexic students. My son is not the only child who needs help.” You are right, it is time to do better. As you and I have discussed, there are so many specific learning disabilities we as teachers need to understand -dyslexia, NVLD, etc. – but we aren’t taught about them. Imagine if we knew the signs to have students screened for the possibly of specific learning disabilities and/or knew the strategies that could make our classes more accessible to students with specific learning disabilities. Many overlap and would enable us to help so many students be more successful. I think this conversation is the catalyst to bringing that training to current and preservice teachers. Novice reduction begins by meeting students where they are and knowing how they learn is key.

  12. As parents and teachers, we have seen the autism community make such huge strides in the past ten years. Where do you see us, the dyslexia community, in comparison? Are we just beginning or on the threshold of major change?

    • Those are my exact thoughts over the past two years. We need to have a Dyslexia Center for training teachers to work with dyslexic students using the Orton Gillingham Model. We need book marks, posters and brochures in every library and mailed to all public schools. We need a license plate with the Alphabet on it or a book! We have a lot of hard work ahead of us. Together we can all make strides to increase services to all children in the State of KY who struggle with reading. One baby step at a time and we can be as fruitful as the Autism community. Jill MacNiven

  13. Finally some states are recognizing dyslexia. Two of my four children have dyslexia. One has been successful and runs a cancer facility office. My other child is struggling but making progress. I am a special educator and see it frequently but services are very much lacking for this particular group. Funding and acknowledgement of the needs for this group is greatly lacking. I am nearing retirement and hope to help push this issue. I too cried when my daughter was diagnoised at the Dyslexia Center of America in Illinois. My son was never recognized for this disability although I knew from my experiences with my daughter. It was a constant fight to get appropriate services. They wanted to put him in an EBD setting because he had behavior issues as a result of his frustrations in elementary school. A teacher pulled him back to start the next task when he wanted to finish the one he was on. He unfortunately hit her and was suspended. This taught him nothing and I see other issues like this which breaks my heart. Someday this will be recognized nationally as a problem that needs further support and attention.

    • I completely understand your frustrations. As an EBD teacher I feel that many of my students’ inappropriate behaviors a reduce to learning difficulties. I see the anxiety and meltdowns in my own son as well. No one truly understands unless they’ve had personal experience.

  14. Thank you so much for writing this article!!! As a mother of a son that is dyslexic “we” sometimes feel alone. I would really like that to change in the very near future!! The more awareness and vocalization there is about dyslexia, the better!

    • Yes we do feel alone but we shouldn’t. There’s a huge world of advocates here in Kentucky and across the nation. We need to be heard. Please follow us @DDKyEast on Twitter.
      Also, checkout the International Dyslexia Associations webpage

  15. Thank you for clarifying this important issue. I have many times wondered, as a teacher, if a particular student might be dyslexic, but I had no strategies for working with him or her.

    • You are not alone. There are many resources available for teachers but it is not often shared. Checkout the International Dyslexia Association’s website.