Words, words, words: October is Dyslexia Awareness Month

Columnist Jennifer Bardsley shares her thoughts on teaching dyslexic children how to read and write.

October is dear to my heart because it is National Dyslexia Awareness Month and my daughter has dyslexia.

Gov. Jay Inslee and President Donald Trump both issued positive statements endorsing Dyslexia Awareness Month. It’s a time to think about how much harder it is for dyslexic people to read and write, and to be more understanding of their challenges.

Inslee: “Research conducted at the National Institute of Health indicates that as many as 1 in 5 individuals struggle with dyslexia and related learning disabilities, which equates to approximately 217,790 public school students in Washington, but teachers (including general education, reading specialist and special education) often receive no training in dyslexia and the appropriate educational interventions.”

Trump: “Failure to identify dyslexia early on can begin to create an achievement gap between dyslexic readers and their peers as early as the first grade. Too many young Americans with dyslexia do not receive the resources they need, resulting in lower rates of literacy and higher rates of dropping out of school.”

All of this is true, but without action, these statements by our governor and president are meaningless. To quote Shakespeare: “Words, words, words.”

What I know from my and my daughter’s experience, and what I have heard from families across Washington state, is that our public schools operate on the wait-to-fail model.

Schools wait for a dyslexic child to fall two grade levels behind before offering assistance. Then, instead of delivering a proven method for dyslexia intervention, they give students whatever remedial reading services the school district already has available. For kids with dyslexia, these services are usually worthless. Dyslexic kids need multisensory, systematic, sequential phonics instruction, not “word walls,” spelling tests and sight words.

I hope there are school districts in Washington I don’t know about, with teams of trained dyslexia tutors changing kids’ lives. But after two years of networking with other parents of dyslexic children, I still haven’t found this magic place.

Local mom McArthur Kelley told me that the Mukilteo School District did nothing productive to help her son. “We had to move him to an independent school in Seattle with no funding for his education provided,” Kelley said. “I pay about $20,000 in tuition for my son.”

Stacey Salyer from Mount Vernon said that her school district discontinued its dyslexia program by the time her child was diagnosed.

“Unfortunately, they did not replace it (the program) with any evidence-based teaching programs, so we sought outside tutoring,” Salyer said. “My son spent time after school, twice a week for three years, so he could learn to spell, read and write. We’ve spent at least $13,000 on tutoring and tools.”

Maia Davis told me that Seattle Public Schools provided one to two hours a week of resource room support, but that it wasn’t much help for her daughter. “The resource room instructors had little or no training regarding dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia,” she said. The family went on to pay $850 a month for private tutoring while her daughter was in public school, and later transferred her to a private school where she is thriving. Tuition costs more than $20,000 a year.

If you’re considering private schools for dyslexia, the Hamlin Robinson School in Seattle is world-renowned. It uses the Slingerland Approach and has a proven track record for taking hard-working kids ground up by failure and teaching them not only to read at grade level but to learn to love school again. Changing lives doesn’t come cheap. Tuition starts at $21,300 and only 22 percent of students receive financial aid.

For families in Snohomish County, distance is also a major factor. Heather Kulper from Mukilteo said that her daughter’s daily commute to the Hamlin Robinson school is about three hours roundtrip — their drive plus the bus she takes from the eastside in the morning and afternoon. It takes dedication, perseverance and often a stay-at-home parent to make that commute happen.

Thankfully, if you catch dyslexia early enough and offer immediate intervention, costs go way down. My own family spends about $4,000 a year on my daughter’s twice-a-week tutoring with Margaret Kuklin of Northwest K-8 Learning Support in Edmonds.

My daughter is a trooper: Late nights, early mornings — my 8-year-old shows up to tutoring with a smile on her face. My husband and I (not the Edmonds School District) noticed red flags for our daughter’s dyslexia in kindergarten. In first grade we paid almost $3,000 to have her privately assessed. She’s been in tutoring ever since. As a result, she’s on grade level and an excellent reader. Her elementary school teachers are wonderful, but the reading instruction they provide is not designed to mitigate dyslexia.

But what about students whose parents don’t have the means to pay for extra help? How can we ignore the learning needs of up to 217,790 students in Washington with dyslexia? Not only is it heartless, it doesn’t make sense in a society so focused on standardized tests. If we want to raise test scores, we should focus on the 20 percent of kids who aren’t receiving the right type of instruction their brains need to learn to read.

Pretending that we don’t know how to help kids with dyslexia is not OK. Local school districts need to take action. They should gather a team of educators, pay for them to be trained in a proven dyslexia-intervention method and disperse them to help kids with identified or suspected dyslexia.

One-on-one tutoring is best, but small groups of two or three students on the same level would also work. General education teachers need training, too. I am a certificated teacher and my credentialing program taught me nothing about dyslexia. If it was up to me to provide dyslexia intervention to my daughter, I wouldn’t be able to do it because I don’t know how, even though I taught kindergarten, first, third and fourth grades.

We need to catch dyslexia early, give kids the right instruction they need to succeed and stop letting them fall behind.

Finally, I’d like to dispel the myth that dyslexia denotes lesser intelligence. Consider the contributions of dyslexics like Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Alexander Graham Bell, Anderson Cooper, John Irving, Charles Schwab, Henry Winkler, Greg Louganis, Jennifer Aniston, Gavin Newsome, David Rockefeller, Tim Tebow, Jaime Oliver, Pablo Picasso and more.

Some of the brightest minds of every era come from brains that learn differently. Neurodiversity is the norm, and it’s time for all of us to be aware of and speak up for the 1 in 5 kids in Washington who need a different approach to learning to read.

Jennifer Bardsley is author of the books “Genesis Girl” and “Damaged Goods.” Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal.

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