Advocates pushing schools to better address dyslexia

Between 15 and 20 percent of the population exhibits some symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or in

Laurie McEvoy knew her 13-year-old son, Jeremy, was struggling with language-learning as early as preschool.

Other kids were writing their names, but Jeremy couldn’t.

“If you put his name in a dot-to-dot, he could follow those lines, but he didn’t know that it was his name,” the Glenville woman said.

Dyslexia support group meeting

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28

WHERE: Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library, 475 Moe Road, Clifton Park.

WHAT: Neuropsychologist Alison Curley will host the meeting. Anyone with questions about dyslexia is welcome to attend.

McEvoy called Jeremy smart and capable, recalling how at age 3 he removed the training wheels from his bike and rode away without them. But still, he struggled at school.

“Each teacher was saying, ‘He has to try harder; he has to apply himself more; you have to do more with him at home,’ ” McEvoy recounted. “I would punish him, and then we’d argue with the teachers, and it wasn’t a good situation.”

By third grade, Jeremy was having panic attacks in school. It was another year before a test administered by a nonprofit educational program led McEvoy to the root of the problem: Her son has dyslexia.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, between 15 and 20 percent of the population exhibits some symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing or mixing up similar words.

The neurologically based learning disability is not something children are specifically tested for in school, and the majority of teachers aren’t trained to teach those diagnosed with it, said Kathy Jensen, co-founder of A Different Way In Reading Center, a nonprofit organization in Schenectady that works with dyslexic students.

“What we have found in talking to teachers that we meet is that most teachers haven’t had one course specifically devoted to dyslexia; for most of them, not even a whole chapter,” said Jensen, a certified academic language therapist who holds a master’s degree in special education from The College of St. Rose. She said her master’s program, completed in 1979, didn’t provide her with the techniques necessary to help dyslexic students learn to read.

Frustration over the inability to assist those students prompted Jensen and three others to start the reading center six years ago. She and her colleagues use Alphabetic Phonics, a multisensory, structured language education program she said works for struggling readers, particularly those with dyslexia.

Some local school districts have implemented programs with similar teaching techniques, but more needs to be done, according to local parents and educators.

“These are students who do really well when they can see how something works, but they can’t see how the language works without direct, explicit instruction. So everything that is true and reliable in reading and spelling is taught to them one [concept] at a time,” Jensen explained. “It’s not the kind of learning where they just sit and listen. When they learn a letter, they have to see it, say it, feel it, write it in the air.”

Decks of cards that list letter sounds are put into play, and colored blocks containing different sentence parts are used, as well.

A Different Way In Reading Center accepts about 25 children a year and has a long waiting list. Fees are assessed on a sliding scale, and financially disadvantaged students participate for free.

Multisensory language education offers an alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach to reading instruction.

“It’s really just trying to get the information into them in many different forms,” explained Sharon McTygue, director of special services for the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District, which utilizes such a program to help students with dyslexia.

The need for the alternative type of instruction is great, Jensen said.

“Every class I have ever observed, there are two children — at least — who need this type of program, who require it in order to make significant progress in literacy,” she explained.

Five years ago, BH-BL implemented a professional development program to help its elementary and middle school special education teachers become more proficient at providing reading instruction to students with dyslexia, McTygue said.

“A lot of times people assume special education teachers are proficient in diagnosing and instructing students with specific reading difficulties, but sometimes you’ll have general education teachers who have more reading training or reading classes in their teacher preparation program than special education teachers,” she said.

Three years ago, a special education reading teacher was added at the middle school and high school.

McEvoy said BH-BL has been very receptive to working with Jeremy, who attends classes there, but when he was still struggling in fourth grade, she enrolled him at A Different Way In Reading Center. The additional reading instruction helped a lot, she said.

Debra Rafferty of Wilton sent her 9-year-old dyslexic son to the reading center, too, after discovering the South Glens Falls Central School District, where he attends school, didn’t have a teacher qualified to teach dyslexic students.

The multisensory learning approach employed at A Different Way In Reading Center has worked well for her son.

“I have my little boy back. He’s happy, he’s smiling. He is now at grade level or above grade level in reading,” she said.

Rafferty is a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia–NY, a grassroots movement that aims to raise awareness and improve life for those with dyslexia. The group is working to get legislation passed that would require teachers, administrators and instructors to be properly trained to work with children with dyslexia and related disorders.

According to Jensen, only nine states have laws that address dyslexia.

“We’re hopeful that someday, New York will also have a dyslexia law where kids would be evaluated when they go into kindergarten and if they have problems with the sounds of the language, that kind of thing would be dealt with right away,” she said.

In the absence of mandated programs for dyslexic students, parents need to educate themselves, Jensen said. She suggested speaking with the school district’s special education review committee about implementing such a program.

Melissa Wilson, a Clifton Park mother of two children with dyslexia, has been fighting for years to get her kids the services they need.

When her 14-year-old daughter, Hanna, was diagnosed with dyslexia in June 2010, Wilson said there were no teachers certified to instruct her in the Shenendehowa Central School District. A teacher was subsequently trained, and Hanna participated in a multisensory language education program for a year during elementary school.

When Hanna entered middle school, though, Wilson said she was told her daughter was proficient in the program, so she was removed from it.

“She still is struggling in school,” Wilson said.

Her 10-year-old son, Benjamin, is enrolled in A Different Way In Reading Center, but needs more than the three classes a week offered at the reading center, Wilson said. She has been working since July to have a program instituted for him at Shenendehowa.

Obtaining the proper services for a student can be an involved process, said Michelle Mylod, director of special education for Shenendehowa.

“It can take a long time because the state has instituted ‘Response to Intervention,’ which is a method of ensuring that students receive the appropriate instruction to address their needs,” she said.

The multi-tier, early-intervention method, employed before students are recommended for special education, helps to ensure children aren’t falsely labeled as disabled, she said. Once it is established that a child needs special education services, a personalized education plan is developed.

According to Mylod, all special education teachers in the Shenendehowa district are trained to provide specialized reading instruction, and some have received additional training in programs tailored to children with reading disabilities, including dyslexia.

Categories: News, Schenectady County


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