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.