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When Your Child Has Dyslexia

For students diagnosed with dyslexia, learning to read is no simple task, and the process to get them the help they need can be equally complicated.

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In retrospect, Lindsay Drakos knew there was something different about her oldest daughter Audrey’s reading from the time she was in elementary school. Audrey, now 16, learned to read at a young age, but “it was painfully slow,” Drakos, of Littleton, remembers. Early in elementary school, she spent up to three hours a night on homework that others finished in about 20 minutes. She struggled to copy words and paragraphs in writing, and would often spell words differently when writing them a second time.

When Drakos questioned Audrey’s teachers about a possible learning disability—starting in kindergarten—they said it was because Audrey was bilingual. (The family lived in Greece until Audrey was in third grade.) After moving to the U.S., teachers suggested the same reason for her struggles. Another parent suggested dyslexia testing, and after seven months on a waitlist, at age 10, Audrey was diagnosed with severe dyslexia by Children’s Hospital Colorado.

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“When we walked out of Children’s, I said, ‘I learned something today. I learned that you have to trust your gut’,” Drakos remembers. “Audrey said—and I still can’t say this without crying—‘I learned something today too. I learned that I am not dumb.’” 

According to The International Dyslexia Association, 15 to 20 percent of the population, or about one in five school children may have symptoms of dyslexia—a learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, poor spelling, and decoding (figuring out words). Students with dyslexia have difficulties with reading and may also struggle to express themselves when speaking or when trying to comprehend what others are saying. They often end up feeling less intelligent and less capable—although this is not the case—and may become discouraged about continuing in school. 

In 2008, Colorado passed House Bill 08-1223 into law to address identification of students with literacy challenges in public schools, including dyslexia. But, “14 years since…we are still not identifying or screening kids in Colorado for dyslexia,” notes a call to action letter from Colorado Kids Identified with Dyslexia (COKID), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the needs of students with dyslexia, of which Drakos is a co-founder. 

Why? Because experts believe that in order to truly help kids with dyslexia, changes need to be made in methods used to teach reading and teacher training programs. These areas are difficult to enforce, but Colorado is making progress. 

Dyslexia Assessments

Many parents involved in COKID report getting little help with dyslexia identification through school-based testing. “So many parents are told to wait (to be tested), but that’s the worst advice,” says Bree Murphy, literacy specialist and owner of Literacy Expanded, an online tutoring program for individuals with dyslexia. Murphy is also the mom of three children, two of whom are dyslexic, and a former Denver Public Schools teacher. “Early intervention is so important because it can build literacy skills and confidence, it will change their lives.” 

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Currently, to try to identify reading problems early, all Colorado students in kindergarten through third grade are assessed in the fall and spring, as stipulated by the Colorado 2012 READ Act. “But not all (of the assessments used) have subtests that would help with identification of dyslexia,” says Melissa Colsman, Ph.D., associate commissioner for student learning at the Colorado Department of Education (CDE). “The assessments identify delays without helping to figure out where the problem is.” She explains that to identify early markers of dyslexia, typically, children would need to take a specific subtest on phonological awareness, which includes rhyming, counting words in a spoken sentence, and clapping syllables in spoken words.

To help improve assessments, Colsman collaborates with the CDE’s Dyslexia Working Group (DWG), which is in the process of reviewing the best type of school assessments to conduct, among other recommendations. “Dyslexia is not (determined) through a simple, straightforward test; it is complicated,” Colsman adds. “We are thinking about how we can maximize assessments for the dyslexia screening process.”

How Students With Dyslexia Learn To Read Best

The best assessments for dyslexia screening will only be effective when paired with proven methods to teach reading. Children’s Colorado learning specialist Erin Funera says that children with dyslexia learn to read best using a multisensory structured literacy approach. “Structured literacy explicitly teaches systematic word identification and decoding strategies,” she says. “Multisensory learning involves the use of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile pathways simultaneously to enhance memory and learning of written language. This approach not only helps students with dyslexia but is the most effective reading instruction for all students.” 

However, it’s not the approach used to teach reading in all elementary schools. “Popular reading approaches that are still being used in many schools such as Guided Reading or Balanced Literacy are not effective for students with dyslexia because these approaches do not focus on the decoding skills struggling readers need to be successful,” Funera adds. She explains that while phonics, decoding, and spelling may be taught in these programs, they typically are not emphasized. Rather, students are encouraged to use word analogies, pictures, or context to identify words.

Students who qualify for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) may receive reading intervention through school special education teachers (SPED), which often consists of tutoring using the structured literacy approach, Orton-Gillingham (OG). But in Drakos’ case, because her daughter did not rank in the bottom 20 percent of school-based assessments, she did not qualify for an IEP.  At an age over eight years, once you are below grade level, it takes four times as long to catch up, Drakos says. Fortunately, Drakos found a school near her—Littleton Preparatory Charter School—at which all guided-reading teachers are OG trained. Audrey enrolled in Littleton Prep starting in sixth grade, and after one school year, her reading proficiency score jumped from the 42nd percentile (below average) to the 80th percentile (well above average). “Up until that point, Audrey had read one chapter book,” Drakos says. “That year, she read 16 books.”

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An increasing number of Colorado schools have taken the initiative to get their teachers trained in evidence-based reading instruction, like Littleton Prep. Now, according to the 2019 READ Act, each district that receives per-pupil or early literacy grant funding must ensure that all kindergarten through third grade teachers have completed a training by the fall of 2022; teachers new to those grades in subsequent years will also need to meet this requirement. The CDE provides the training for free. At press time, Colsman says that 8,000 Colorado teachers have completed the training. “What we are hearing is that teachers realize how useful it is. It is such a desired training,” she says. Schools not in compliance may request a one-year extension from the CDE. 

Unfortunately, the training hasn’t come soon enough for some families, like Douglas County mom of three Tamara Gallucci. Her daughter Braelyn, now 11, was extremely behind by the end of kindergarten while on an IEP for speech/language impairment, so she opted to have her retained. “At the time I did not know it was dyslexia,” says Gallucci. “Nor did the school suggest that it could be dyslexia.”

Gallucci had Braelyn tested and diagnosed with dyslexia through Children’s Colorado; she now works with an independent OG tutor once or twice per week. “Her school has stepped up and (has since) trained her SPED teacher via district OG training,” Gallucci says. “There has been a considerable increase of knowledge at the school.” 

“There is no reason parents should have to spend thousands of dollars and time to have their kids tutored in OG,” Gallucci continues. “It becomes an equity issue when schools aren’t providing the right type of instruction and parents have to find expensive tutoring to fill the gap.”

 Teacher Training for Reading

Despite the training teachers are now receiving, many say their own college programs did not equip them to help children learn to read, according to 2019 Chalkbeat Colorado reporting. Gallucci experienced the results of this. “While the teachers meant well, (my daughter) was being taught in a way that wasn’t effective for her to learn.” 

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Breann Smith of Castle Rock, an educator with a master’s degree in literacy and mom of a dyslexic son, found gaps in her Arizona-based program as well. “There was nothing about identifying potential reading problems (in my program), or what to do if a student has difficulties,” Smith says. Furthermore, she adds that a required course on educational research was not helpful for teaching reading in the real world. “As a classroom teacher working on reading instruction every day, I do not need to know how to conduct professional research. I need applicable skills and strategies to help my students.”

Recently, several Colorado universities’ teacher training programs have come under scrutiny for how they are teaching reading as part of the CDE’s higher education reauthorization process. Three universities—University of Northern Colorado, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and Regis University—have since made adjustments and have demonstrated alignment to the State Board of Education teaching reading requirements, according to the CDE. (Other Colorado teacher prep programs are scheduled to be evaluated later this year, and will have about a year to make changes if needed, in order to receive full reauthorization.) 

The CDE now requires kindergarten through third grade teachers to be trained in the science of reading, and offers several options for them to do so. Additionally, Senate Bill 22-004, if passed, would require principals serving kindergarten through third grade students to complete a similar training by the 2023-2024 school year. 

In the meantime, Drakos and other members of COKID continue to advocate for students with dyslexia by focusing on even more policy changes. “There’s research that says 95 percent of kids can be taught to read proficiently, if certain things are in place,” Drakos says. “I would hope that we would get there, but there is a long way to go.” 


Your Child(ren) Might Have Dyslexia if They…

While these behaviors can be warning signs, not all students who have difficulties with these skills have dyslexia, says Erin Funera, a Children’s Hospital Colorado learning specialist. “A comprehensive evaluation is needed to confirm a diagnosis of suspected dyslexia.”

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Dyslexia Resources for Families

Check out these resources to learn more about research, legislation, testing, intervention, advocacy, and support for dyslexia.

Children’s Hospital Colorado Learning Services provides dyslexia testing and diagnosis in addition to options for therapy and reading intervention.

COKID is a volunteer-run group of Colorado parents dedicated to ensuring every child with dyslexia receives early identification and evidence-based literacy support. They advocate for legislation and provide educational resources.

eXL Learning
offers summer camps, learning evaluations, tutoring, parent support, and test prep for students with dyslexia.

Havern School
is a private school with Orton-Gillingham trained teachers, specializing in kindergarten through eighth grade education—with low student-teacher ratios—for children with learning disabilities.

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International Dyslexia Association Rocky Mountain Branch
hosts local events and supplies information for parents and educators, including a service provider referral list.

Learning Ally is a national resource through which many local school districts offer free accounts, so that kids with dyslexia can access audio books.

Literacy Expanded offers online tutoring for dyslexia based on the science of reading, Orton-Gillingham, and structured literacy approaches.

Littleton ADHD Autism Dyslexia Center offers psychoeducational evaluations specializing in dyslexia and other learning differences.

National Jewish Health Neuropsychology Services provides comprehensive neuropsychological testing and diagnosis for a host of learning disabilities, including dyslexia.

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YES! Colorado hosts events at which Youth Examples of Self-Advocacy (YES) work with younger students newly diagnosed with dyslexia, teaching them to advocate for themselves.

Vertical Skills Academy is an independent school for students with dyslexia in grades one through eight. It uses Orton-Gillingham methodology in all classes and includes an OG tutoring session every day.

Refuge Reads is a nonprofit, volunteer-based, free tutoring community for people age five and up (adults, too) who struggle with reading, writing, and spelling, that uses the Orton-Gillingham approach.

 

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