Courtesy of Gabriella Barbosa
Advocates for students with dyslexia at the Los Angeles school board office. From left, Martin Valasquez, Mara Wiesen, Gabriella Barbosa, Pamela Cohen, Wendy Feinberg, student Jocelyn, Sherry Rubalcava and Maria Daisy Ortiz.

The Los Angeles Unified school board jumped ahead of a new state law last week and instructed the school district to immediately create a plan to train teachers on the leading learning disability in California: a reading impairment known as dyslexia.

The demand by the board of the second-largest school district in the U.S. was hailed by parent advocates as a signal that districts across the state, and potentially the nation, might finally provide interventions that help students with dyslexia learn to read. Effective interventions are available, but most school districts nationwide do not provide them widely, citing the cost of training, according to advocates for students with disabilities.

“We know what works,” said Pamela Cohen, a teacher in the district and a member of Decoding Dyslexia California, a parent advocacy group that has led state and national efforts to improve services. “It’s time to put the pedal to the metal.” She described her child’s anguish at not being able to learn to read and her own frustration at not being able to get help from teachers or school specialists.

Instead, her son received private tutoring for dyslexia starting in 2nd grade — $90 an hour, twice a week, for four years — because Los Angeles Unified did not provide assistance, she said. Few families can afford to hire an outside specialist. “This is a civil rights issue to me,” Cohen said. “We know that thousands of families in LAUSD cannot and should not have to pay out of their pockets so their children can learn to read.”

Dyslexia is estimated to affect roughly 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to the International Dyslexia Association — which would mean about 1 million children in California schools. Once known as “word blindness,” dyslexia is a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to “sound out” words by matching letters with sounds. Brain imagery has shown that people with dyslexia process word identification differently. The disability is unrelated to intelligence.

The board gave Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King 90 days to return with an action plan to provide staff and teacher training on the warning signs of dyslexia, interventions proven by research to be effective and appropriate assessments for identifying dyslexia. School board member Scott Schmerelson, who co-sponsored the resolution with board member Ref Rodriguez, said that increasing early identification and effective intervention will be “life-changing” for students with dyslexia and their families.

Pressure on school districts in California to do more to help students with dyslexia increased with the passage of a 2015 law, Assembly Bill 1369, authored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley. The law called for the California Department of Education to release new guidance for dyslexia services before the start of the 2017-18 school year — and the department has urged districts not to wait for the guidance to get started. In a traveling presentation to special education administrators around the state, the department said it is letting them know that both general education and special education departments need to make changes in how reading is taught.

“It needs to be about effective literacy instruction for all students, modified instruction for some and specifically targeted instruction for students with intensive reading needs, such as dyslexia,” the department said in a summary of its presentations to county offices of education.

And school districts are watching a class action lawsuit filed in May that charges the Berkeley Unified School District with not providing adequate diagnoses or interventions for students with dyslexia. Deborah Jacobson of Jacobson Education Law, who filed the lawsuit with the Disability Rights Defense & Education Fund and the Goodwin law firm, said, “This is potentially an entire population of children who will struggle needlessly and possibly enter society functionally illiterate, no matter how intelligent, driven and capable they are.”

“I think what happens in L.A. Unified could be a model for other parts of the state and what happens in California could be a model for other states,” said Richard Wagner, associate director of the National Institute of Health’s Florida Center for Reading Research and a member of the California Department of Education’s Dyslexia Work Group, which was created to help form the new program guidelines.

L.A. Unified’s plan is being developed by Beth Kauffman, associate superintendent for the division of special education, and Alison Towery, director of instructional operations. Asked how broadly the training will be spread, Kauffman said, “We certainly are going to train our resource teachers. We are probably going to have do some training of our general education teachers so they at least have awareness of what some of the signs are.”

Warning signs include “reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letters on the page – will say ‘puppy’ instead of the written word ‘dog’ on an illustrated page with a dog shown,” according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

Kauffman pointed to the district’s Intensive Diagnostic Education Centers as a resource. Those centers house teachers trained in research-backed dyslexia interventions, most of them stemming from what’s known as the Orton-Gillingham approach, that explicitly teach students to identify and manipulate the sound of a letter or a group of letters, among other techniques.

“We’d like to take the skills they have and see how we can expand those out to our general education classrooms and our special education program,” Kauffman said. Members of Decoding Dyslexia California praised the centers, but said there were far too few of them and that interventions should be happening with students in kindergarten and 1st grade, not in middle school and high school. Center staff teach in 23 classrooms located in 10 elementary schools, 12 middle schools and 1 high school — out of more than 900 schools and 187 public charter schools in the district.

“It really is about the money,” Sherry Rubalcava, who retired after 37 years of work in Los Angeles Unified as a teacher and administrator, said about the lack of training in dyslexia interventions that work.

She tutors a 6th-grade student who is reading at a 2nd-grade level despite spending three years receiving special education services in the district, she said. “They are already offering an intervention, but that intervention is worthless,” she said.

“What they don’t realize is that you spend money to save money,” she said of the district. “They’re spending all this money on worthless interventions. If you gave children the right intervention, you wouldn’t have to do it as long.”

She ticked off other benefits for the district for helping students with dyslexia, including an increase in school reading test scores, a jump in the number of English learners who are able to move out of English learner status, and improvement in behavior and attendance. “When kids can’t read, who wants to be in school?” she asked.

Mara Wiesen, president of the Los Angeles branch of the International Dyslexia Association, said of the teacher training, “I would argue it is ultimately cost effective to do so.”

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  1. Cheryl lyles 3 months ago3 months ago

    We owe it to our children with learning disabilities to do everything we can to help them overcome their challenges. When children win so does our society

  2. Nigel Dupree 6 months ago6 months ago

    30 percent plus of the United Kingdom population are also "functionally and digitally illiterate," remain systemically failed and, at high risk of dropping out of learning all together, joining the ranks of potentially young offenders and life-long socially and economically exclusion simply because, they had little or no fluent "access to text" in a modern text based work/life world of employment . Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum of "functionality" from the 20 … Read More

    30 percent plus of the United Kingdom population are also “functionally and digitally illiterate,” remain systemically failed and, at high risk of dropping out of learning all together, joining the ranks of potentially young offenders and life-long socially and economically exclusion simply because, they had little or no fluent “access to text” in a modern text based work/life world of employment .

    Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum of “functionality” from the 20 percent with the highest reading rates and comprehension to the 20 percent on the lowest end of the scale whether classified as Dyslexic or just functionally illiterate who experience a high degree of visual, cognitive and emotional stress sufficient to trigger survival response of fight and/or flight wrongly labelled disruptive and going on to suffer “approval deprivation” and “performance anxiety.”

    Omission and denial are just an expediency for rejecting the cost/benefits of having an “inclusive literate society” breaking down the cycle of poverty that excludes too higher a proportion of any nation’s human resources in an Hourglass Economy that continues to tolerate and even promote the inequality between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ !

    In a digital age, reducing Computer Vision Syndrome or Screen Fatigue, enabling Digital Literacy at least is achievable, by optimising or customising sub-optimal display screen interface ergonomics although, we still have a long way to go before everyone can enjoy the freedom to participate fully in a text based learning environment.

  3. Jo-Anne Gross 6 months ago6 months ago

    The reading comprehension problem is in direct connection to the decoding problem,once that bridge is lifted they start to swim.
    They need to learn to spell too – hear the phonemes – see how phonemes look (graphemes), write them, say them and spell and then read. It makes it easier for the struggling reader with weak phonemic awareness or phonological deficit. This secures orthographic mapping. The instruction should be explicit and systematic.

  4. Goldfinch 6 months ago6 months ago

    As Jen Best said, such training should occur in all colleges that have degree programs for teachers. Also, I have been told by neuropsychs that dyslexia is an “umbrella” term for a wide range of reading problems and is not limited to decoding. It also includes reading comprehension. This makes total sense.

  5. Jen Beyst 6 months ago6 months ago

    While it is truly admirable that CA teachers are getting this training from their districts, it should be happening at the teacher college level. Every college with a teaching degree program should be mandated to include this training.

  6. kim 6 months ago6 months ago

    I went on to the Decoding Dyslexia CA website and read, with interest, the organization's recommendations for teaching practices as per dyslexic students. The #1 recommendation is individualized instruction. How is a classroom teacher going to manage that when there are 26 students in the kindergarten or 1st grade classroom who would all benefit from individualized instruction? I'm sorry to say that the special education department is in the same predicament: overcrowding … Read More

    I went on to the Decoding Dyslexia CA website and read, with interest, the organization’s recommendations for teaching practices as per dyslexic students. The #1 recommendation is individualized instruction. How is a classroom teacher going to manage that when there are 26 students in the kindergarten or 1st grade classroom who would all benefit from individualized instruction?

    I’m sorry to say that the special education department is in the same predicament: overcrowding because the districts will not hire additional teachers. We also do not have the physical space for additional teachers.

  7. Cheri 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for an excellent article about what's going on in dyslexia in California these days. These two school districts show how districts can go one way or another: In Los Angeles, they have chosen to get out in front of this issue and make the required improvements, modeling a positive response for other districts--and their trustees--to follow. In Berkeley's case this class action lawsuit will also be instructive to other districts, because their failure … Read More

    Thank you for an excellent article about what’s going on in dyslexia in California these days. These two school districts show how districts can go one way or another: In Los Angeles, they have chosen to get out in front of this issue and make the required improvements, modeling a positive response for other districts–and their trustees–to follow. In Berkeley’s case this class action lawsuit will also be instructive to other districts, because their failure to provide appropriate services is the other way to go, and will put others on notice about what could happen to their districts. It won’t work anymore because parents are now becoming informed and learning how to make the cases that should have been made for generations.

    Thank you so much for shining a light on dyslexia and telling these stories that must be told. The only mystery about dyslexia is how the educational institutions have gotten away with ignoring the needs of 20 percent of the student body for so very, very long.

  8. Minna Trower 6 months ago6 months ago

    The approach to improve teacher training is an excellent idea! Problem: Who is going to train the university profs who will be responsible for training the student teachers? On the whole, the profs have not been doing a great job of it until now! How is that going to change? ? ? I am a retired special education teacher but more significantly I am … Read More

    The approach to improve teacher training is an excellent idea! Problem: Who is going to train the university profs who will be responsible for training the student teachers? On the whole, the profs have not been doing a great job of it until now! How is that going to change? ? ? I am a retired special education teacher but more significantly I am dyslexic . The silver lining here is that I used the insight acquired from my own struggles to create a remedial reading program that is proving to be highly effective. Now, you can regard my work as a means for my own personal financial gain or a means to help others. I have no true way of convincing you that I am trying to help out so the only thing I can suggest is to refer to my web site. – http://www.abcofreading.com . Incidentally, I am an elderly person in poor health and I’m trying to prevent an exciting effective program from slipping into oblivion – something that tends to happen with works from unknown authors. Whatever you decide to do, I wish you the best of luck!

  9. Tonya Murray 6 months ago6 months ago

    My child has autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. By far dyslexia was the hardest to get identified, and the easiest to treat. We know how to address this disability, it is a tragedy that the vast majority of children with dyslexia are not identified and fall through the cracks of our educational system.

  10. MBK 6 months ago6 months ago

    Both my sons, aged 12 and 14, are dyslexic. We pulled our sons out of the public school district in Belmont (outside San Francisco in San Mateo County) in second grade. The school district refused to use the word dyslexia and had zero knowledge of what we were talking about. We were told it was a medical diagnosis. Our sons were never identified, they both could not read, their spelling was bad … Read More

    Both my sons, aged 12 and 14, are dyslexic. We pulled our sons out of the public school district in Belmont (outside San Francisco in San Mateo County) in second grade. The school district refused to use the word dyslexia and had zero knowledge of what we were talking about. We were told it was a medical diagnosis.
    Our sons were never identified, they both could not read, their spelling was bad and their writing was off as well. Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability, so it affects reading, spelling and writing. In any event, they both went to a specialized private school for dyslexic learners and have been part of research studies at the UCSF Dyslexia Center in San Francisco. Many times dyslexia (1 out of 3 ) students have attention issues as well such as ADHD. Having dyslexia and ADHD is like having too mac trucks coming at you head on. These children MUST be identified early by first grade. The rubber hits the road in first grade. The brain is re-wired with early intervention. UCSF can see this on MRI brain scans.
    My sons were fortunate to get the help they needed. I am convinced if they had stayed in the public schools, they have been destroyed. My older son said the private school saved his life. He just graduated from 8th grade and is going on to a competitive private high school. Many dyslexics are gifted as well in certain areas, so it is not all negatives.
    A large number of engineers in Silicon Valley are dyslexic. They excel in visual spatial skills and are excellent problem solvers and think outside the box. Actually, it is a massive advantage if you get the right interventions early on.

  11. Christina Maehr 6 months ago6 months ago

    Finally! When you consider the number of people kept out of the workforce due to failure to educate those with dyslexia, the sheer number of dyslexics in prison, and our need for entrepreneurs (which dyslexics are more likely to be), this is clearly one of the most important civil rights issues and social economics issues of our time. My daughter has an IQ of 139 and has been refused the correct interventions because the school … Read More

    Finally! When you consider the number of people kept out of the workforce due to failure to educate those with dyslexia, the sheer number of dyslexics in prison, and our need for entrepreneurs (which dyslexics are more likely to be), this is clearly one of the most important civil rights issues and social economics issues of our time.
    My daughter has an IQ of 139 and has been refused the correct interventions because the school refuses to acknowledge dyslexia; they just keep “assessing her” as she fell further and further behind and have spent $40,000 on assessments and IEP meetings to try to avoid providing her the correct services. It would have been so much cheaper and less anxiety-inducing for everyone if they just helped her. Bravo LA Unified! Bravo Decode Dyslexia!

  12. Dana 6 months ago6 months ago

    I, too, am a parent who spent a lot of money on private tutoring to make sure my child learned to read at grade level. My child was put through RTI for years at her school with little to no progress. She is now above grade level with Orton Gillingham private intervention. This should have taken place at school!

    Good job, LAUSD. You’re a great example to the rest of the state!

  13. Erica 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for this article. We've pulled our dyslexic son from school for lack of appropriate resources. We've ended up on a path we hadn't anticipated (homeschooling) but it's the best option available. I'm just grateful we are in a position to do this for our child and feel for those families who have no other choice but to keep their kids in a system that isn't working for them. Read More

    Thank you for this article. We’ve pulled our dyslexic son from school for lack of appropriate resources. We’ve ended up on a path we hadn’t anticipated (homeschooling) but it’s the best option available. I’m just grateful we are in a position to do this for our child and feel for those families who have no other choice but to keep their kids in a system that isn’t working for them.

  14. Rachel Hurd 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for covering this important topic. It's especially encouraging to see the statement from the Department of Education in a summary of its presentations to county offices of education: "It needs to be about effective literacy instruction for all students, modified instruction for some and specifically targeted instruction for students with intensive reading needs, such as dyslexia.” As a school board member and the parent of three grown California students, two of whom … Read More

    Thank you for covering this important topic. It’s especially encouraging to see the statement from the Department of Education in a summary of its presentations to county offices of education: “It needs to be about effective literacy instruction for all students, modified instruction for some and specifically targeted instruction for students with intensive reading needs, such as dyslexia.” As a school board member and the parent of three grown California students, two of whom have severe dyslexia, I will add that the staff training required to do this right in both general education and special education will be a challenge for school districts, but it is long overdue and worth the investment. I hope you will continue to cover how school districts around the state are addressing the needs of students who show signs of dyslexia.

  15. Laura 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thanks for such a well written article on the LAUSD’s proactive decision to provide the appropriate support for these students.

  16. Jo-Anne Gross 6 months ago6 months ago

    I have been waiting for many years to overcome the obstacles to help train the teachers and their students. The first political blockade has come down.

  17. Kim 6 months ago6 months ago

    Hopefully, how dyslexia affects writing as much as reading will be addressed. It causes writing difficulties from all the processing our kids have to do since matching sounds to letters is near impossible.

  18. George Goold 6 months ago6 months ago

    68 years ago this would have helped me and would have made reading enjoyable even to today

  19. Lori 6 months ago6 months ago

    Excellent article summarizing the challenges of meeting the needs of our dyslexic students. Early identification & appropriate interventions are game changers!