Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource

Jamie Bennetts created a spreadsheet of every child’s reading scores in the small Knightsen Elementary School District a few summers ago, identified the laggers and greeted them in the fall with state-adopted reading interventions. She was new to her job as a reading interventionist, a position she sought after the unnerving experience of teaching 7th-graders, many of whom she’d taught as 1st- or 2nd-graders, and discovering that the 6- and 7-year-olds she’d known as poor readers were still reading poorly at 12 and 13.

“I was stunned to find a lot of kids hadn’t made a lot of progress since I’d left them,” she recalled. She was stunned again by the unsuitability of the reading programs that came with her job. “They stunk,” she said. “They were too broad, too general, not diagnostic and not prescriptive.” She talked her district into paying for her to get trained in interventions for children who have dyslexia, the No. 1 reading disability in the United States.

Now, in roughly three years on the job, she’s spread her training to receptive teachers in her Contra Costa County district. Referrals to special education have dropped by about 70 percent, she said, and children with signs of dyslexia, a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to “sound out” words by matching letters with sounds, are getting the right kind of help.

The hope is for districts across the state to follow Knightsen’s example, according to legislation that last week produced its goal: the release of the California Department of Education’s California Dyslexia Guidelines, a long-awaited document meant to let schools know what exactly dyslexia is and what interventions have been proven effective. Estimates of the prevalence of dyslexia range from 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population — which would mean between 300,000 and 1.2 million children in California public schools. Brain imagery has shown that people with dyslexia process word identification differently, and children do not outgrow dyslexia. The goal is to learn how to compensate for it. The disability is unrelated to intelligence, but students have long floundered without the correct help.

“The idea that there is a document with the state seal and the word dyslexia on it — I’m exultant,” said Anjanette Pelletier of the San Mateo County Special Education Local Plan Area.

“My teachers would write, ‘She’s very bright, she just doesn’t apply herself,'” recalled Joyce Childs, a resource specialist in the Twin Rivers District, president of CARS Plus, an organization of California special educators, and a person with dyslexia. When she was a 5th-grader at Coyle Avenue Elementary in Carmichael, Childs recalled, she was asked to read aloud and mispronounced “island.” “Everybody laughed and my teacher laughed and I never read aloud again in my education career,” she said.

The 132-page guidelines, which are not mandatory, are the upshot of years of lobbying by parents who watched their children agonize over learning to read with little help from teachers or specialists, even though effective methods for teaching dyslexic students to read have existed for decades, said Tobie Meyer, state director of Decoding Dyslexia California, which led the legislative lobbying. Worse, Meyer said, is that many special education teachers maintain they are not allowed to even say the word dyslexia. Among educators, fear of the word and the associated costs of replacing reading curricula with dyslexia-specific interventions has been such that the federal government in 2015 issued a letter instructing districts to do more for dyslexic students and “say dyslexia.”

New guidelines call for early screening

The power of naming what’s happening is not to be underestimated, said Holly Synder, a parent of a son with dyslexia and a member of Decoding Dyslexia California. “You don’t want your child to have something wrong, but to have a name for it, a reason why it’s happening and a path you can take, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said.

The era of denial should be coming to an end, said Anjanette Pelletier, senior administrator for the San Mateo County Special Education Local Plan Area, a regional center for special education. “The idea that there is a document with the state seal and the word dyslexia on it — I’m exultant,” she said. The parents of Decoding Dyslexia California “took their frustration, anger, pain, sadness and desire for other people not to have to deal with this” and initiated a change with potentially far-reaching effects, she said. Most crucial is the focus on early intervention and prevention, she said.

“I’ve devoted my life to special education and it’s not the best model,” Pelletier said. “Special education is not preventative, it is reactive.” In contrast, the guidelines give schools a way to intervene with dyslexic students before their reading careers are derailed, she said. The guidelines call for kindergarten teachers or reading specialists to screen all kindergartners by spring  using an evaluation that has been proven to detect signs of dyslexia. These “universal screening tools” should continue to be used through high school, the guidelines say, and begin in the general education classroom. “Students who have dyslexia are ‘general education students’ first, can be educated in general education classrooms, and benefit from a wide variety of supports,” the guidelines say.

California students are in need of better instruction in reading, the guidelines note. In 2015, 41 percent of 4th-grade students in California scored below basic achievement levels, compared with 32 percent nationally, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among students with disabilities, 80 percent of California students scored below basic achievement levels, compared to 67 percent nationally. “One of the greatest contributing factors to lower achievement scores in reading is the lack of early and accurate identification of students with dyslexia,” the guidelines stated.

The remedy includes better teacher training. “There needs to be a commitment” from credentialing programs to teaching future teachers reading methodologies that help all students and are particularly helpful for students with some degree of dyslexia, the guideline state. Typically, these methods involve practicing how a letter or pair of letters look and how they sound. Teacher preparation program standards set by the International Dyslexia Association are a start, the guidelines suggest.

Mara Wiesen, president of the Los Angeles branch of the International Dyslexia Association, concurred, saying that school districts should not have to step in to train their teachers in proper reading instruction. “That shouldn’t be their burden,” she said. “All of our teachers should come out of teacher preparation programs knowing how to teach reading.”

She praised the guidelines. “I think they covered everything and covered it all quite beautifully,” she said

Now it’s up to districts to take the guidelines, which were produced as a result of Assembly Bill 1369, a 2015 law by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, and put them into action.

“The devil is in the details — now we need to look at how we convert this into practical and implementable practice in our public schools,” said Meyer of Decoding Dyslexia California. She acknowledged the stress of limited school funding. “Without a budget for teacher and professional training, it will be impossible to address the needs of not only our dyslexic students but all struggling readers,” she said.

Some school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, already are moving ahead. In late June, the Los Angeles Unified school board passed a resolution giving the district 90 days to come up with a plan to train teachers to work with students with dyslexia. To that end, a work group is to meet for the third time next week. “I think it’s being very carefully done,” said Virginia Kennedy, an associate professor at Cal State Northridge, a member of the state Dyslexia Working Group that drafted the guidelines and a member of the group working with LA Unified.

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  1. Eleana Childs 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you for reporting on this topic and getting accurate information about dyslexia to the public so people will be educated and moved to act on behalf of California’s dyslexic students.

  2. Manuel 3 months ago3 months ago

    About time! It’s sad when our state leads the country in other areas except education. What’s especially frustrating is that within our state reside most of the experts on this subject like Susan Barton and her Barton Reading System. With technology advanced as it is today, there are many affordable digital reading programs for schools to use which contain Orton-Gillingham teaching methods that have proven to be very successful for student’s with dyslexia.

  3. Amy Tompkins 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for bringing awareness to Dyslexia. As an adult dyslexic raising a teenage son with dyslexia, we have learned that not much has changed with attitudes regarding dyslexia, since I was in school. There is a wealth of knowledge, scientific research, programs, supports and accommodations, but little trickles down to the classroom. Thank you for being willing to say the word "dyslexia" because we still can't get that word added to … Read More

    Thank you for bringing awareness to Dyslexia. As an adult dyslexic raising a teenage son with dyslexia, we have learned that not much has changed with attitudes regarding dyslexia, since I was in school. There is a wealth of knowledge, scientific research, programs, supports and accommodations, but little trickles down to the classroom. Thank you for being willing to say the word “dyslexia” because we still can’t get that word added to my son’s IEP. So much work still needs to be done!

  4. Evrymathia 3 months ago3 months ago

    It is estimated that between 5-10 percent of the population has dyslexia, but this number can also be as high as 17 percent. Dyslexia is found all over the world, and in all socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Often dyslexics are people with high IQ – eg. Albert Einstein.

  5. Skye Sepe 3 months ago3 months ago

    I started teaching in Chula Vista in 1990, and was trained in Slingerland methodology for addressing the specific needs of dyslexic students. It included formal assessment and in those years all Kindergarten students were screened (yes ... early identification). It was a multisensory, simultaneous instruction technique with great results. I am glad to hear about the state's involvement now, but saddened that it has taken decades for this to come about. In the elementary … Read More

    I started teaching in Chula Vista in 1990, and was trained in Slingerland methodology for addressing the specific needs of dyslexic students. It included formal assessment and in those years all Kindergarten students were screened (yes … early identification). It was a multisensory, simultaneous instruction technique with great results.
    I am glad to hear about the state’s involvement now, but saddened that it has taken decades for this to come about. In the elementary setting we are truly all reading teachers, and need to be provided adequate training, particularly in the area of reading instruction, to meet the needs of our young learners. On a personal note, I entered the profession when I saw my bright and capable oldest stepson struggle with reading, and resultant self-esteem. All teachers should have early intervention techniques for reading in their toolboxes. And it’s not just good intervention teaching. It is good teaching period.

  6. Denise Hull 3 months ago3 months ago

    I’ve long been interested in this subject, which is taboo in Long Beach Unified. Is there anywhere I can find more info or training for dyslexia? The training programs I’ve come across have been cost-prohibitive.

  7. CP 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for this great article! Shared on the Dyslexia Visalia page.

  8. Linda Forrester 3 months ago3 months ago

    A giant step in the right direction! Unfortunately implementation is where many things fail. I am encouraged but know there is a long, long way to go! It will not be in time to help my daughter yet I hope that future children, perhaps her own (I am dyslexic) will not have such a hard journey.

  9. Dyslexia Inspired 3 months ago3 months ago

    We are inspired to read this article. It is very empowering to students and families to know that people with dyslexia will feel valued and part of humanity. The well-being of the child is the heartbeat of education. When children can not access school due to struggles with reading, writing or learning, they do not feel good about themselves or their school situation. This makes literacy a "health issue" in addition to an educational … Read More

    We are inspired to read this article. It is very empowering to students and families to know that people with dyslexia will feel valued and part of humanity. The well-being of the child is the heartbeat of education. When children can not access school due to struggles with reading, writing or learning, they do not feel good about themselves or their school situation. This makes literacy a “health issue” in addition to an educational issue.

    I like the previous comment where it was suggested that we seek out the advice of schools that have been fully dedicated to dyslexia education for many years (www. carrollschool.org). We could seek their input in understanding how children with dyslexia learn and how to teach to their strengths. In addition, The Landmark School has an outreach program for public school systems to learn on-line or with direct supports.

    We congratulate all the hardworking individuals in California in being leaders in realizing that literacy skills are important for the well-being of the children and their ability to learn in the future. David Boulton of http://www.learningstewards.org says that “reading problems are the consequence of learning problems.” We have to work together towards the change in learning that is the center of all other changes. We are inspired that California is taking a step forward in the change in learning that will help our entire nation.

  10. Heather Helfer 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for writing about this very important topic. Raising awareness about dyslexia is imperative for progress to be made in all areas of identification, assessment, and remediation. As a mother with two dyslexic children, I can attest to the stark difference in early vs. late identification and the vast implications on self-esteem when not addressed early in a student’s academic career.

  11. Christina Maehr 3 months ago3 months ago

    Yay that this is happening. But still sad that some districts, like mine, still refuse to say dyslexia. They’ve stopped doing Child Find and in just 4 years, our special education enrollment has dropped from 11 percent to just 8.5 percent and keeps sinking every year. The damage that just 1-2 wrong-minded people can do is awful! I’m still despairing. Hopefully this legislation will wake up their bosses at least.

  12. Darla Hatton 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for covering an often neglected but important topic. Hope it helps students get the interventions needed to succeed.

  13. Kelvin Lee 3 months ago3 months ago

    This gives many students and parents a life line to enjoying their early educational experience. This is very personal to me.

  14. Madhu Sharma 3 months ago3 months ago

    Well written. Commitment is the core and getting to detailing and implementation. A lot of compassion is required to get across to the parents and students. A definite step in the right direction.

  15. Ellen Smith 3 months ago3 months ago

    I hope you will spread the word that the nonprofit Learning Ally provides audio books and support to students with reading challenges, especially dyslexia, and to their parents and schools. Many textbooks are available; others can be requested. See https://www.learningally.org/

  16. Jonathan Raymond 3 months ago3 months ago

    Our school districts don't have to make this heavy lift alone. As this article highlights, there are a number of districts taking positive steps. The state would do well to compile a resource guide of best practices as part of their support for continuous improvement. Moreover, there are private schools, like the Carroll School in Massachusetts, that are leaders in research and practice and are eager to share their work and learning. Finally, at the … Read More

    Our school districts don’t have to make this heavy lift alone. As this article highlights, there are a number of districts taking positive steps. The state would do well to compile a resource guide of best practices as part of their support for continuous improvement.
    Moreover, there are private schools, like the Carroll School in Massachusetts, that are leaders in research and practice and are eager to share their work and learning.
    Finally, at the heart of this work is also teaching all children empathy. “Children with dyslexia see the world differently. Isn’t the world lucky!”

  17. Decoding Dyslexia CA 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you, Jane Adams, for continuing to cover dyslexia in California. Because of your reporting parents, educators, and professionals are learning more about this learning disability.

    Decoding Dyslexia CA is grateful to all those that supported this legislation and appreciates all the workgroup members that contributed to the development of the California Dyslexia Guidelines.

  18. Jennifer Biang 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you Jane Adams for this and all of the other articles you have published about dyslexia. The guidelines are a huge step and the more we talk about it the sooner everyone will understand. Children with dyslexia can learn to read and spell and the sooner we help them the better. #Saydyslexia

  19. Raoul 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thanks for an excellent article on this critical topic. My awareness was raised by the excellent book, "Overcoming Dyslexia" by Sally Shaywitz. Dr. Shaywitz is a Yale professor of medicine who has dedicated her life to understanding the neurobiology of dyslexia. Her work resulted in her Sea of Strengths conceptual model of dyslexia, recognizing not only the difficulties posed by dyslexia in affected individuals, but a sea of creativity and high level … Read More

    Thanks for an excellent article on this critical topic. My awareness was raised by the excellent book, “Overcoming Dyslexia” by Sally Shaywitz. Dr. Shaywitz is a Yale professor of medicine who has dedicated her life to understanding the neurobiology of dyslexia. Her work resulted in her Sea of Strengths conceptual model of dyslexia, recognizing not only the difficulties posed by dyslexia in affected individuals, but a sea of creativity and high level critical thinking. My experiences working with some highly successful and very intelligent adults who could not read suggest that Dr. Shaywitz’s model is appropriate.

    Educational practice has lagged far behind the sound science established by Dr. Shaywitz and others. Some parents of students struggling academically for any reason have been quick to seek application of the label as an explanation for the struggles, whether it applies scientifically or not. The usual profiteers have sprung up, promising exclusive private for-profit progress for a high price. Financially squeezed districts have been caught between and largely ignored the science and the need. The article provides hope that this is changing.

  20. Kari Cone 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for bringing this silent disability that plagues so many of our children, students and loved ones to light!

  21. Rachel Hurd 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for this excellent article about the release of the California's Dyslexia Guidelines. You covered so many perspectives about the guidelines and why they are so desperately needed. You also "nailed" the next step challenges and highlighted some of the bright spots. I hope you will continue covering dyslexia and will share the work of the school districts and individual educators that are leading the way so that others will have … Read More

    Thank you for this excellent article about the release of the California’s Dyslexia Guidelines. You covered so many perspectives about the guidelines and why they are so desperately needed. You also “nailed” the next step challenges and highlighted some of the bright spots. I hope you will continue covering dyslexia and will share the work of the school districts and individual educators that are leading the way so that others will have models to follow and people to reach out to for support.

  22. Cheri 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for an excellent presentation about these important guidelines. More than a decade ago, when I began trying to understand my son's unexpected difficulties in reading, writing and spelling, I had such a steep learning curve, and virtually no help at all with something called "Specific Learning Disability" that I'd never even heard of before. It took years before the word dyslexia was ever used! He is now 20, and so much has … Read More

    Thank you for an excellent presentation about these important guidelines. More than a decade ago, when I began trying to understand my son’s unexpected difficulties in reading, writing and spelling, I had such a steep learning curve, and virtually no help at all with something called “Specific Learning Disability” that I’d never even heard of before. It took years before the word dyslexia was ever used! He is now 20, and so much has changed! These guidelines will help so many bewildered parents (and teachers) figure out what’s going on without wasting valuable time. Information changes everything.

  23. Lori DePole 3 months ago3 months ago

    Great summary of the new California dyslexia guidelines! I like that the guidelines show that neuroscience findings support IDEA that dyslexia does NOT require a discrepancy between reading and IQ (page 7). California needs to stop utilizing outdated methods of identification for special education eligibility.