Local lawmakers of both parties expressed support for a proposal to require school districts across the state to screen young students for dyslexia, an unexpected struggle with basic reading skills.
The proposal, introduced in February by Assembly member Jo Anne Simon, D-Brooklyn, would mandate all school districts in the state “conduct full and individual screening … for the purposes of early identification, support, intervention and accommodation of children with dyslexia.”
Democratic Assembly members Phil Steck, of Colonie, and Angelo Santabarbara, of Rotterdam, and Republican Sen. James Tedisco, of Glenville, in interviews this month all expressed support for the mandate.
“I believe early screening is the best way to ensure all children have access to critical resources they need to succeed in school,” Santabarbara said.
Santabarbara, who helped pass a bill dealing with early screening for autism, said it may be necessary to require early screening of other conditions as well.
Tedisco, of Glenville, said he would “absolutely” support a bill to mandate dyslexia screening, noting that he would like to see funding paired with the mandate but that he thinks screening would save districts money in the long run as support services are better targeted at students.
“It might be an unfunded mandate, it probably will be,” Tedisco said. “In the long run, I think it will save schools money.”
Tedisco, who in an earlier career worked as a special education teacher, said he often hears from families struggling with finding the right school supports for a child having a difficult time with reading. Some families say they find it difficult to convince school districts to recognize a formal dyslexia diagnosis in the special education classification process.
“It’s a bear for them,” Tedisco said of dyslexic students and the struggles they face as young students. “They are bright, intelligent kids, but they have that special need that requires special attention.”
Steck said the earlier a child’s reading struggles are identified, the better the opportunity to mitigate those challenges.
Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring, though, appeared less sanguine about a mandate that called out dyslexia specifically for screening.
Spring said the research on best practices of teaching literacy to young students is constantly evolving and he said he worried about the consequences of passing legislation with a definition that honed in on the current understanding of dyslexia.
Instead, he emphasized the use of “evidence-based” strategies for teaching literacy, suggesting a mandate that districts use the best available practices in teaching literacy would be a more effective way of boosting reading skills for younger students.
Simon pressed her case for the legislation at a forum on dyslexia at the Rockefeller Institute of Government earlier this month, where experts on dyslexia and literacy outlined the importance of identifying youngsters struggling with dyslexia as early as possible.
Clinical descriptions of children suffering from dyslexia — which often emphasize a child’s sharp intellect despite major problems reading — date to the late 1800s, according to Bennett Shaywitz, one half of a married couple that have researched dyslexia for decades and direct the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.
At the Rockefeller Institute event, the Shaywitzes showed brain scans of dyslexic children, explaining how dyslexia is characterized by an “inefficient functioning” between parts of the brain used in reading. Similar patterns of brain activity arise in dyslexic readers in different languages. “The finding is universal,” Bennett Shaywitz said. “Dyslexia is universal and it occurs in every language.”
Students suffering from dyslexia will start to diverge in literacy skills from classmates as early as first grade, gaps that persist for years to come. Those students also suffer from self-esteem problems and frequently turn off entirely from school because of the frustration and embarrassment of their reading difficulties, the experts said.
The Shaywitzes, who have developed a screening tool that measures whether students indicate a possible presence of dyslexia, urged attendees of the forum to push for more awareness around dyslexia and to “say the word” — the word being dyslexia.
“We have the knowledge, we always want more, but we have enough knowledge, but we aren’t acting on it,” Sally Shaywitz said of identifying and supporting students with dyslexia. “I won’t say criminal, but it’s not good.”