Dealing with dyslexia

Parents push for more screening, support for students with dyslexia

PHOTO: Provided by Lori Smith
Fourth-grader Ryann Smith meets Education Commissioner Candice McQueen at a statewide literacy event, where she also hand-delivered a letter about dyslexia (below) to Gov. Bill Haslam.
Lori Smith wonders what life would be like for her daughter if she’d been screened for dyslexia in kindergarten instead of in the third grade.

Now a fourth-grader at Moore Magnet STEM Elementary School in Clarksville, Ryann is bright and creative. She loves drawing and musical theater. But she’s also reading below grade level. Her mom believes that, if Ryann had been diagnosed sooner with dyslexia, a learning disability that affects how a person processes written words, she could have received the supports she needed right away.

“We would have a totally different experience,” Smith said. “She wouldn’t be behind right now.”

Smith and a coalition for parents across the state are pushing for a bill that would require early screening for dyslexia, which affects up to one in five children.

The bill is scheduled to considered in House and Senate education committees on Tuesday and Wednesday after passing unanimously earlier this month in a House subcommittee — unusual for a bill with a fiscal note of more than $1 million.

Students with dyslexia have difficulty recognizing words and sounds and spelling, but can learn how to read with a specific multisensory approach that combines touch, sound and sight.

But because there’s no screening process in Tennessee public schools, the disability often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Even when it is diagnosed, schools often don’t have the proper training or tools to address the disorder, resulting in kids getting inappropriate interventions that do more harm than good.

According to the Yale Dyslexia Center, the earlier dyslexia is identified, the better. Dyslexia can be identified before a student even enters school, preventing children from getting far behind, discouraged and disengaged. Dyslexia also has been linked with higher rates of high school dropouts and even imprisonment and suicide.

Such concerns inspired Smith to get in touch with Rep. Joe Pitts, her local representative.

“I told Rep. Pitts, ‘I can make sure my child can get the help she needs. But when you’re talking about one in five students are struggling with this — who is advocating for other kids, whose parents can’t read or can’t recognize that their child is struggling?’”

With the help of Professional Educators of Tennessee and other parents involved in Tennessee’s chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, Pitts drafted the proposal to help more Tennessee students with the disability get the help they need.

Despite the prevalence of dyslexia in schools, the Tennessee Department of Education didn’t recognize it as a learning disability until 2014, when the legislature passed the “Dyslexia is Real” bill, mandating that dyslexia be covered in teacher training each year.

The federal Office of Special Education Programs then specified to states that dyslexia can, and should, be accounted for in students’ Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, which dictate what kind of supports they receive in class and during testing.

But that only helps if your student has been identified with dyslexia in the first place.

Ryann's letter to Gov. Bill Haslam. Because of her dyslexia, many 'b and d' reversals, and that she doesn't hear sounds on multi-syllable words.
PHOTO: Provided by Lori Smith
Ryann’s letter to Gov. Bill Haslam includes many b and d reversals because of her dyslexia.

Lori Smith and her husband Shane struggled to have Ryann screened because, although she was below grade level in reading, she typically performed average on the state’s “Response to Intervention,” or RTI screeners, which are meant to single out struggling students in order to provide them with help. They knew Ryann couldn’t recognize that words like “hat” and “cat” rhymed and that she mixed up sounds, but teachers waved off concerns. The Smiths were repeatedly told not to compare Ryann to her older brother, a gifted reader. Finally, they had Ryann privately tested, and found what they had suspected all along: she has a learning disability.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, the Thorsen family was having an almost identical experience. Like Ryann, Clara Thorsen is a gifted student who loves books and art. But she was beginning to hate school because of her struggle to read. School officials told Clara’s parents that they couldn’t screen Clara for dyslexia until she had failed RTI screeners several weeks in a row.

Fortunately, both of Clara’s parents are attorneys familiar with federal law. And Clara’s mom, Anna, also has dyslexia. They provided a letter from the U.S. Department of Education prohibiting states from using RTI to delay screening for a disability.

"If you have a parent who doesn’t know they have a right to do any of this, you’re completely screwed."Anna Thorsen, parent

“We were in some ways uniquely prepared for the battle that was about to ensue,” said Anna Thorsen. “If you have a parent who doesn’t know they have a right to do any of this, you’re completely screwed.”

Even once a student is diagnosed, schools might not have the resources, such as audio books or multisensory curriculums, that can help kids learn to read. Julya Johnson, co-founder of Tennessee’s Decoding Dyslexia, remembers feeling at a loss when her son David was diagnosed with dyslexia, but his school didn’t have a program aimed toward learners like him, rendering his intervention time unproductive.

“I finally got him identified, he’s being pulled out of class, and it’s for something that can’t help him,” she recalls.

Johnson had to research and advocate for change at the district level before her son was finally placed in a dyslexia-specific program.  Parents of students with dyslexia say teachers need training about dyslexia, kids need better screeners, and schools need to provide a multisensory curriculum.

“It’s more than my child’s school,” Smith said. “It’s truly a statewide issue.”

Ryann and Clara have written to Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to ask for more support for students like them. Ryann also testified to a House subcommittee, urging them to pass Pitts’ bill, which requires the proper interventions for dyslexia and creates an advisory council, as well as mandates screening for kindergarten through second-graders.

“I did not know why reading was so hard,” Ryann told lawmakers. “I did not think I was smart. … I would come home crying and ask my mom, ‘Why is reading so hard? I love books!’”

Ryann told the panel that things are looking up for her now that she has a diagnosis, but she wants to help more kids.

“This bill is important because most kids don’t have the money to be tested,” she said.

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.